Today, guest blogging is the number one strategy that most people use to build backlinks to their sites. Guest blogging is so popular because, unlike most other natural link building strategies, it is quick, easy and virtually stress free. Finding bloggers that are willing to sell links is a very simple process, especially with sites like Fiverr.
However, with the unnatural outbound links penalty which Google released in April 2016, the guest blogging game has surely changed. If you currently use guest blogging as your main link building strategy, you need to be well aware of this penalty. Google actually released an unnatural outbound links penalty in 2013 which was also aimed at sites that sell links, but it wasn’t necessarily aimed at guest blogging.
Here’s Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s spam team discussing the penalty.
The difference between this penalty and the one released in April 2016 however, is that the latter penalty was aimed at blogs that were specifically setup to generate an income from selling links. What is really unique about this penalty is that it is practically impossible to tell if a site has been penalized because its organic visibility is not affected in any way.
In fact, you could have a penalized site with high Trust Flow, high Ahrefs rating and high Domain Authority. However the site is effectively worthless in terms of passing link juice because it’s PageRank has been reduced by Google to 0. This means if you’ve paid good money for the link, you’ll be getting no benefits whatsoever, which is exactly what Google wants.
In this article you’re going to learn more about this penalty so that you’ll know what to look out for when building organic links to your site.
The Value of High Quality Links
Links are the number one ranking factor in Google’s organic ranking algorithm. The algorithm was built on the fundamental concept that the more people that link to a site, the more socially popular, authoritative and trustworthy the site is, which in turn equates to better search engine visibility. Without question, link building is the most effective way to increase your website’s visibility on the search engine results page and drive organic traffic to your site. It is fundamental to SEO and without links, your site will fail.
Indeed, Google notes on their site that:
“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages”
The concept of link popularity has always been based on the simple premise that people link to good sites, and if a lot of people linked to a particular website, then it must be useful and deserves a high PageRank and a boost in rankings so people can find it faster and easier.
This is the fundamental concept that Google’s core algorithm has been built on. Once that becomes compromised, the entire system becomes corrupted and spammy sites with bad, low quality information become more visible to users, contributing to a bad user experience.
However, link building is also by far the most complex and challenging SEO activity, and over the years, desperate webmasters have tried everything humanly possible to manipulate Google’s ranking algorithm with one link building strategy or another primarily aimed at artificially boosting the ranking of their websites.
Spammy Guest Blogging for Links
By 2011, guest posting had become the most popular inbound marketing strategy and the number one way to build organic backlinks with the vast majority of blogs accepting money to post on their blogs.
All of this did not go unnoticed by Google, and Google’s Matt Cutts posted a a video in which he warned about the spam and abuse he was seeing in the guest blogging space.
In this video, Matt Cutts talks about how to guest blog without it looking like you paid for links:
In a subsequent blog post he wrote in 2014, an angry Matt Cutts went a lot further and outright warned webmasters to stop using guest blogging as a way to get links because in his opinion, it had become far too spammy.
In the post he even talked about a spam email he received through his blog from someone offering money for links from his blog. His warnings have fallen on deaf ears mainly because it is by far the easiest way to get dofollow links.
However, there is a problem. Google have made it extremely easy for site owners to waste money on completely useless links that do nothing for their site’s organic search ranking. We all know that whenever a link building method gets abused, Google is watching everything very carefully, and looking at how they can combat it, and SEOs have been expecting a clampdown on guest blogging for years.
Now, it would have been very easy for Google to simply penalize sites that sell links using the outbound links penalty they released in 2013. However, they have chosen to deal with guest blogging spam in a very subtle way that now makes it practically impossible to analyse the true value of a specific website’s link equity from looking at its metrics.
Google’s manual actions team quietly issued this penalty in April 2016. However, it went virtually unnoticed because of the way it penalizes sites. In fact, it is barely talked about, and the average blogger is not even aware that it exists. The outbound penalty devalues blogs by changing the site’s PageRank score to 0, making the site completely worthless for link building purposes.
Learn more about PageRank through these resources:
- Google’s Gary Illyes: Yes, PageRank Still Matters
- The Future of PageRank: 13 Experts on the Evolving PageRank Algorithm
- Wikipedia on PageRank
The penalty does not impact a site’s traffic, rankings or visibility. It only affects the PageRank of the site which is invisible to users. This means that if the site had a high Moz score, Ahrefs score, Domain authority, Page authority or Trust Flow when it was penalized, it will continue to have the same metrics even after it has been penalized.
Consequently, the site will continue to appear to the outside world to be a strong site even though the site owner would have received an unnatural outbound link penalty warning in their Search Console.
Below is a screenshot of the penalty.
However, if they’re getting a nice little earner from their site, where is the incentive for a webmaster disclose this to potential buyers? So, the big loser in this case is the person buying links from the site because it means the buyer is paying for a link that is effectively worthless despite the strong metrics it might have. Essentially, Google doesn’t want people buying links to their sites, and this is their way of punishing the seller by rendering their site worthless, and the buyer for participating in the illegal activity.
Today, PageRank is the one and only signal you can use to know for sure whether a site has been penalized, but Google stopped updating the toolbar in 2013. So, there’s really no way to tell whether the site has been penalized by analysing a site’s metrics unless you know someone inside Google or the owner is honest enough to disclose this fact to you.
So, is there a way you can tell whether a site has been penalized?
While there’s no sure way of knowing whether a site has been penalized by analyzing its metrics, there are clues you can look for that should make you think twice before posting a guest blog on a particular website. This means you need to do some due diligence before you ever consider buying guest blogging links.
Red Flags to Look Out For
Majestic flow metrics
Trust Flow (TF) is a link authority metric developed by Majestic. It is used to evaluate the trustworthiness, authority and credibility of websites and directories that are linking to a particular site. This metric is scored out of 100, and sites with high Trust Flow means that the site has a lot of highly trusted sites linking to it, and as such, is likely to rank high in the search results.
Prior to the release of the outbound link penalty, this was a very effective way of identifying sites with spammy link profiles, and this is where you may want to begin your analysis. However, even if the site has good trust ratio, due to the reasons outlined above, you need to continue your analysis.
Is the site ranking for its brand name?
Type the domain name into Google without the TLD. For example, if you were checking out leadflowexperts.com, you would type in lead flow experts or leadflowexperts. The site should be the first result.
Note however, that if the site is using a highly searched exact match domain name, the site may rank on the 2nd or 3rd page because Google isn’t sure if the searcher is looking for the company or is searching for the exact terms. For example, cheapinsurance.com ranks on the 2nd page for their domain name.
If the site is using a unique, brandable domain name and doesn’t rank for its domain name, this is a clear sign that the site has been penalized. If you’ve been buying links and are not ranking for your domain name, your link profile might very well be full of link from blogs that have been hit with this penalty.
How contextually relevant are the sites it is linking to?
Consider the site’s outbound links. Is there an excessive amount of irrelevant outbound links? What type of niches is the site linking to? Poor quality sites accept articles from most niches. Even though they might be careful enough to avoid toxic links by not linking to gambling or adult sites, if the outbound links are completely irrelevant to each other (health, DIY, food, loans, finance, etc.), you’ll want to avoid such sites because they are potentially toxic.
Usually, these types of sites will have thin content posts of around 300 words with one keyword-rich anchor text link. You don’t want your links to live with irrelevant or low quality links. These types of sites are specifically setup to sell guest blogging links, and are a prime target for the penalty.
Does the site use overoptimized anchor text?
Much like the content on your pages, your backlinks’ anchors tell Google what your page is about. Look at the anchor text distribution on the site. Does the site use keyword-rich or exact match anchor text or does it use natural language when linking out to other sites? Does it link to internal pages or just external sites? Any website needs to use natural language in their anchor text, and there should be a wide variety of seemingly random anchor text including naked URLs, zero match anchor text (such as click here and other related words), branded, LSI keywords, page titles, etc.
Are the links editorial?
Google wants the majority of links to your site to be editorial. As far as Google is concerned, the only logical way a site would link to another page is if that it is a strong editorial resource. A site that is full of keyword-rich, dofollow links to product pages, sales pages, social media pages and home pages rather than natural links to relevant, informational pages is not a site that you want to get links from. For the most part, links to product pages need to be nofollowed because there is no editorial value in linking to a product page. It is obviously a paid link.
If the site has not been penalized, it is just a matter of time before the Google algorithm penalizes it because there is no logical reason why you would want to link to a product page or home page as a resource. If you are getting a lot of links from these types of sites, it is only a matter of time before Google hits your site with a manual inbound penalty.
It is critically important to do your due diligence before shelling out your hard earned cash, or you will simply be buying links that will not only be virtually worthless, but enough of those types of links will ultimately get you into trouble. If you’re not sure if a blog has been penalized, the best thing you can do is to contact the blogger and them to nofollow the link.
Nofollow links are a key part of a natural link profile, so even if the blog may have been penalized, the link to your site will look natural, and it will not look as though you’re trying to manipulate Google’s PageRank algo by getting a dofollow link, which would be discounted altogether.
While there is no sure way to determine whether a site has been penalized by the outbound links penalty, you should avoid sites that do not appear to be complying with Google’s ultra-strict quality guidelines. This is critically important because links are the most important signal in Google’s ranking algorithm.
Note that if your site is associated with spam, Google will have no trust in your site, and it will be very difficult for you to rank organically in search.