There’s no nice way to say it: SEOs ruined guest blogging for everybody.
Immediately following the first Penguin algorithm update in April of 2012, spammy link sources like garbage directories, forums and blog comments were being devalued/penalized, and the SEO world sought a newer, “safer” source of anchor-text rich links.
Given Google’s love affair with content, it’s no wonder that content-based links are where SEOs turned next. But most SEOs were inexperienced with creating, marketing and selling their clients on the benefits of content beyond just links, rankings and traffic.
With contracts already signed off and waiting for results, guest posters started taking big, ugly shortcuts. The old-school link building mentality of “fast, cheap and scalable” came roaring into guest posting, while the focus was 100 percent on getting a backlink, then moving on to the next viable/easy source.
As the emails started flying and the quality got worse and worse, Matt Cutts slammed the door on guest posting for links, though he clarified that the practice still had practical and smart applications outside of pure link spamming.
The bigger point is this:
in their attempts to influence rankings, SEOs ignored the more meaningful connections between success in content and increased sales—exactly what the customer ultimately hired them for.
For guest posting to become a viable tactic again, it’s marketers themselves who have to change: Change the way they sell guest posting (and content), the way they measure results (and what they promise) and the way they approach this tactic.
Thankfully, as the industry matures and gets better acquainted with the nuances of content marketing, we’re seeing this change happening.
What is Guest posting even good for now?
If links aren’t the focus, why guest post at all?
Because: Guest blogging can expose you to an established, engaged audience you may never have otherwise reached. Guest posts are one of the better tools in your arsenal for expanding your audience and establishing yourself as an authority.
Whether you’re promoting directly within your niche (e.g., a digital marketing firm posting to Moz) or laterally across niches (e.g., a digital marketer posting to a business site for startups), guest posts open the doors for more people to discover, follow and buy from you.
That places a HUGE importance on audience—and where in the past, prospecting might have been done using metrics like page rank or search engine ranking, today’s prospecting should be done with a 100 percent focus on the relevance and receptiveness of the audience.
It’s one of the smartest ways to break out of the echo chamber and expand your influence to people who have never heard of you before. You’ll also be leveraging:
- Someone else’s SEO. If your site can’t rank for a phrase because you lack the link clout or authority, the next best thing is to have your name attached to the top-ranking page on someone else’s domain.
- Someone else’s promotion. Amplification is time consuming and expensive. If you can tap into an established audience on a publication that already promotes their content, you can save yourself the cost and effort of doing this all yourself from scratch.
- Someone else’s authority. If your work is good enough to get published on a prominent hub, you look great by virtue of the site who has agreed to host your work.
okay, but why not save your best content for your own website, so that you can yield all the links, traffic, social signals, email opt-ins, etc.?
Because: There’s a false dichotomy that marketers have to choose between guest posting and creating great things for their own websites. I established this in my piece about onsite versus offsite publishing but In reality, you can do both—publish amazing content on your own blog AND capitalize on guest posting opportunities.
If you’re in tune with your audience and industry, there should never come a point where you’re out of great things to write about.
Guest posting is a tool to pull out of your arsenal when you’re looking to expand your pool of prospective leads, reach people who have never heard of you and add another level of “prestige” and credibility to your offering.
What about scale?
In addition to the link-building mentality, a huge part of the reason guest blogging became a hot mess was the rampant pursuit of “scale”—more links, less time, less cost.
If you want to use guest posting to its full advantage in 2015, it’s time to rethink the concept of scale. If your goal is, as it should be, to build authority, generate traffic, establish a relationship and, yes, drive leads, there are two common ways to approach it:
1. Create several pieces and approach several sources.
Given that there’s a greater amount of outreach and pitching going on as well as a higher number of pieces to be produced on the same budget, your outreach is bound to be less personalized, as is your content. Your targets are likely to be lower-tier as well, as the big guns (industry hubs and major outlets) will have stricter editorial controls that warrant more time and effort.
2. Create ONE phenomenal piece for ONE phenomenal source.
Invest a considerable amount of time in creating one great asset, hyper-targeted at a large hub or prominent blog that is well-trafficked and has a large built-in community. In digital marketing, this would be sites like Moz, Forbes, Quick Sprout and so on. The advantage here is that even if your intended target refuses your piece, you’ve now got a highly relevant, extremely well-written piece to market at another authority.
If your goal was links, the first approach would be better without question. But for those looking to build authority and leech off of an established audience, it makes far more sense to create fewer pieces, more deliberately, for more attractive targets.
In the same way that one good link has the value of a thousand mediocre ones, one great post on a prominent site may yield exponentially higher returns than a scattershot approach.
But what if that’s not enough?
The ugly truth is that no one tactic should make up 100 percent of your content marketing. If you’re used to leaning on one tactic as a catchall for every outcome, well, unlearn that. Guest posting should be used selectively, in moderation to maximize impact—other tactics should step in to complement and help carry the weight.
Outreach will only get harder.
One of the unintended outcomes of the great “guest post rush” of 2012–2014 was that webmasters got introduced to SEO’s ugly side and got their guard up somethin’ fierce. At this point, websites can spot a “please let us place some content here for a link” request a mile away, and most are used to ignoring these types of requests.
What’s a well-meaning content marketer to do?
Way back in 2012, James Agate of Skyrocket tested out some theories on guest post outreach, coming to the following helpful conclusions:
- Women rule. Outreach from women received a higher average response rate.
- Job title matters. When you can, represent yourself as someone in-house to the company contacting as opposed to a freelancer or agency (but be truthful).
- Be persistent. More than 30 percent of the tested outreach got a response on the second or third try.
- Personalize. While it takes more time and effort, bespoke outreach emails receive a higher response rate.
What’s important to realize is that behind every successful guest post is at least some form of cordial relationship. The old, “I stumbled across your site!” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If you’re serious about reaching a prospect, it pays to do a bit of stalking/friendly conversation/community participation before making your ask.
How SHould I Measure guest posting ROI?
Rather than a “we got five links from five guest posts” approach, measuring and reporting on the ROI from guest posting takes a more complete approach. I’d hugely recommend you watch this video from Brian Dean:
- Referring traffic – How many people are compelled enough by your content to check out your site? This reflects a direct interest in who you are and what you’re speaking about.
- Conversions – Tie this into referring traffic to make it even more informative. How many of the people who came over from a referring source completed a conversion—whether that’s a sale, an e-mail sign up, etc.?
- Host traffic – How much traffic did your post generate for the host? You may not be able to get this information, but if you can, it’ll help you understand how relevant your post was, as well as give you a nice number you can cite when pitching future guest posting opportunities.
- Branded traffic – Head into webmaster tools and measure how many impressions/clicks you’re generating for your branded queries. Has it gone up since your guest post went live? This may be an indication of interest, especially if you weren’t able to secure a link with your post.
- Social shares – How well did your piece perform in social? Gathering these metrics can be invaluable for determining what topics hit home while also giving you stats to cite in your pitches. You can ALSO hop in and start conversations with those who shared your piece or made a comment on it on social in order to grow your following.
- Social following – Whether it’s Twitter, Pinterest or whatever network applies, how did your social following change relative to putting the post live?
All of these things are metrics that can be reported internally or back to clients, each with relevant business applications and tie-backs to goals.
Should I still Accept Guest Posts?
We’ve talked about placing posts, but what about accepting them? Is it still a safe, smart thing to do?
There are some positives to inviting guest posts:
- Added traffic (both from the initial push and from organic search across time)
- Reduced time creating content
- Opportunity to reach a new audience (if the author promotes it)
If the writer is genuinely a good fit for your audience, you also stand to make a great connection and build a relationship that could pay off in a myriad of ways.
Of course, there are also some serious drawbacks:
- You will likely be inundated with requests.
Keep in mind that the way most SEOs go about finding opportunities is a simple Google search for sites in their niche that include a phrase like “guest post” or “guest author,” and adding yourself to that list means getting more emails to wade through.
- You will need to play editor.
Reviewing content to make sure it’s unique, interesting and not full of spammy links takes time and energy. That’s OK if you get enough benefit back, but otherwise, it could be a wasted effort.
- You may need to tweak your site a bit.
In order to attribute the article or give a limited login to an author, you may need a bit of dev work to get everything looking sharp.
What about penalties?
For awhile, there was a grand hullabaloo of speculation that sites that accepted guest posts would be penalized. This is simply not true. Some of the best blogs in the business are built almost entirely from guest posting—the difference is the way they manage it.
If you plan to accept guest posts, you’ll need some strict editorial controls on the way you delve out links. There are also concerns with voice, tone and trust. Your audience reads with expectation; if you’ve worked hard to build a brand, you should be VERY selective about who gets airtime on your owned media channels.
Evaluate authors carefully (and be picky!):
- Are they giving you their real name and company, or hiding that until you agree to take the piece? (Sketchy, mass guest-post schemes hide the company they’re representing to avoid potential fallout. Beware!)
- Do they have a track record of producing interesting, deep and unique pieces? (Google authors/business names, read their blogs and any other guest posts you come across.)
- Are they insistent on particular anchor text/links within the content? (Their motivations are likely in the wrong place.)
- Do they regularly promote the content they publish on other peoples’ sites? (Do they have a built-in audience and work hard to get their content seen, or is this a drive-by blogging?)
While it’s almost inevitable that you won’t be the only site they’ve contacted, you want to feel like guest authors have invested time and effort into their piece, their outreach and their approach to guest posting on the whole.
Guest Posting Will Never Die
The industry has been through a rocky patch with guest posting, largely driven by a poor mentality on what it should be used for and an even worse approach to making it work.
For businesses who want to stay safe from Google’s ire, gone are the days of mass-producing content, spewing it onto no-editorial-process blogs and counting the links as they roll in.
Content marketing on the whole is getting more personal, professional and intentional, and that’s a wonderful thing. Those who win with guest posting now will be those who spend time creating something targeted and worthwhile, invest in building relationships BEFORE they try to cash in on them and use guest posting the way it’s intended: To expand audiences and grow reach.
As long as that remains your motivation, you’ll never have a problem—not this year, next year or a hundred years from now.