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Authority Is The New Links: Reading Between The Lines Of Matt Cutts’ Guest Post Critique
The SEO industry has been all aflutter over the last few weeks, ever since Matt Cutts stated that guest blogging is dead.
In The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO — a headline that is a particularly strong statement from Google’s Head of Webspam — Cutts essentially said that if you are link building by guest posting thin content across the Internet, stop. It is reasonable to conclude that Cutts’ post serves as an announcement of Google’s intent to crack down on those more interested in building links than quality content.
Now, I hate to climb on the parse-Matt-Cutts’s-every-word bandwagon (“Guys, he used the word ‘the,’ not ‘and’!! That means Google + really does matter!!“), but in this instance I think there is value in taking a closer look at the progression of thinking in Cutts’s post so as to derive where we might position guest posting as a strategy.
Cutts started out with some fairly strong statements about guest posting:
Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains…
So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done…
But he added an addendum to the post (and apparently downgraded the title from an even stronger earlier statement) that seemed to acknowledge that some of the sweeping dismissals of guest posting may have been a little too… well, sweeping. (A close read of the post comments suggest that readers may have “helped” him to realize this was the case.)
Added: It seems like most people are getting the spirit of what I was trying to say, but I’ll add a bit more context. I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there. I changed the title of this post to make it more clear that I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.
We can’t climb into Matt Cutts’s head, but we’ll hypothesize about how he arrived at the addendum above:
If you are an expert in your field and post something intelligent on a blog that legitimately adds value for that community of readers — that is content that Google should be indexing, not penalizing. Clearly, a broad dismissal of guest posting does not serve the greater good.
I think the takeaway from all this is that all guest posting is not dead. Guest posting with thin/previously-distributed content is. At Conductor, we have no plans to stop accepting guest posts for our blog. But we do plan to double-down on making sure the content is original and that submitted posts meet the quality/”have you taught me something new?” standard.
Looking Beyond Links
I want to set aside the question of the utility of guest posting for links for a moment and focus on another benefit of guest posting that might not be as immediately obvious as the benefit of an inbound link: authority. Granted, this is not based on hard, empirical data, but hopefully you will agree that if we were to sit down and design an authority discovery system, it would look something like this.
I’ll warn you ahead of time that nothing I propose will involve shortcuts or easy-way-outs. If we are right in our proposed understanding of how authority works, it will take elbow grease and a consistent, quality product to reap the benefits.
Traditionally, we’ve thought about the benefits of guest blogging as thus: I post on your blog, and you link back to my site. I benefit from an inbound link, which improves my page’s authority, while you get free content, a benefit to your site.
Google, on its end, sees itself as overly dependent on using links to suss out quality pages. The more determining factors you have, after all, the harder it is to trick the system. So they’re looking for new cues, one of which is authority. Matt Cutts explicitly said as much at Pubcon Las Vegas last year:
We’ve also been looking at detecting and boosting authority. So take medical, for instance. If you’re an authority in the medical space, we want to know that and to push you up higher whenever a medical query comes along. Now this is not something that is done by hand, we don’t pick individual topic areas. It actually applies to thousands of different topic areas.
So, nothing that you have to do, but if you are a topical authority, keep writing about it, keep developing, keep deepening the amount of content that you have. You really want to be a resource, you do want to be an authority, and if you turn out to be an authority, then you’re more likely to be boosted by that particular change.
In the new “who is an authority?” era, Google is looking, via authorship clues, to discern the content it should be surfacing in the search results. It’s our job, as authors and SEOs, to help create a trail of “authority breadcrumbs” for Google to follow.
Consider the following scenario. When “John,” a Conductor employee and contributor on the Conductor blog, guest posts on Search Engine Land, an established and authoritative site in the search industry, there is some “authority” (think “link juice”) that flows from Search Engine Land through John to Conductor.
This is because an established authority (Search Engine Land) has hosted content from John — he himself must be something an authority and so his “host blog” reaps the value of hosting an authority figure.
It’s not unlike having a member of your company speak at a conference. If Brian McDowell, our Director of Search Intelligence at Conductor, gives a speech at SMX, the members of the audience will see Conductor as authoritative by virtue of the quality of McDowell’s talk and the reputation of the conference. Similarly, a guest poster (Brian McDowell in the analogy) gives credit to his home site (Conductor) by the authority of the publishing site (SMX).
Extend this line of thinking: any additional Conductor authors on an authoritative site (Search Engine Land) are likely to reinforce signals that Conductor hosts “authorities.” In our graphic above, the benefit of Sally, a Conductor employee with an established social following, also guest-posting on an authoritative site further solidifies Google’s developing view of Conductor as an authoritative site. And, extending the “cluster” of Conductor authors to author content on additional authoritative sites further helps to strengthen the algorithmic assumption that Conductor is hosting authorities and is, therefore, an authority themselves.
Borrowing the Authority of Authorities
If you parse the frustration in Cutts’s post, Google’s goal is to reduce the efficacy of techniques that shortcut the “work-hard-at-producing-quality-content-to-rank-in-the-search-results” approach they (he) so vocally advocate(s).
At the risk of sounding profoundly self-congratulatory (as I write on Search Engine Land), an approach that borrows on the authority of an established industry publication in hosting those authors who are (mini) authorities in their field makes sense. Or, at minimum, the content goes through an editing/rejection filter of an authoritative publication and therefore can be assumed to have a minimum level of quality.
Taking that further, if multiple members of an organization succeed in posting content on one or more authoritative publications, it makes sense to start to think of their host publication as being something of an authority by virtue of their association with authoritative authors. We know that no programmatic approach is going to be perfect, but leveraging the filter of authoritative sites’ reluctance to post low quality content can help identify the authorities amongst the mass of content creators.
Rebuild Our Thinking: Authority As The New Links
At the end of the day, I don’t think the benefit from a quality guest post’s link will disappear overnight. And I’m not implying that it is easy to post content from multiple authors on multiple quality sites. But I do think that Cutts’s post should serve as a stimulus to us to think about how some of our tried and true strategies are evolving and how we might evolve with them.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.