Update: We've updated the post with some additional comments from Fishkin he gave us via email. See end of article.
Google has been on a warpath against what it thinks are unnatural links, but many think it's off the mark with some of them. Meanwhile, the search giant scares people away from using even natural links in some cases, whether it intends to or not.
Have Google's warnings to webmasters had an impact on your linking practices? Let us know in the comments.
When one thinks about reputable companies and websites in the SEO industry, Moz (formerly SEOmoz) is likely to be somewhere near the top of the list. YouMoz is a section of the site that gives voices to other people in the industry who don't work for the company. It's essentially a place for guest blog posts.
YouMoz, while described as a "user generated search industry blog" isn't exactly user-generated content the same way something like Google's YouTube is. YouMoz content must be accepted by the Moz staff, which aims only to post the highest quality submissions it receives. This is the way a site is supposed to publish guest blog posts. In fact, Google's Matt Cutts seems to agree.
If you'll recall, Google started cracking down on guest blogging earlier this year. Google made big waves in the SEO industry when it penalized network MyBlogGuest.
Today we took action on a large guest blog network. A reminder about the spam risks of guest blogging: http://t.co/rc9O82fjfn
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) March 19, 2014
A lot of people thought Google went too far with that one, and many, who either hosted guest blog posts or contributed them to other sites were put on edge. Reputable sites became afraid to link naturally, when the whole point is for links to be natural (isn't it?).
Understandably concerned about Google's view of guest blogging, Moz reached out to Cutts to get a feel of whether its own content was in any danger, despite its clear quality standards. In a nutshell, the verdict was no. It was not in danger. Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin shares what Cutts told them back then:
Hey, the short answer is that if a site A links to spammy sites, that can affect site A's reputation. That shouldn't be a shock--I think we've talked about the hazards of linking to bad neighborhoods for a decade or so.
That said, with the specific instance of Moz.com, for the most part it's an example of a site that does good due diligence, so on average Moz.com is linking to non-problematic sites. If Moz were to lower its quality standards then that could eventually affect Moz's reputation.
The factors that make things safer are the commonsense things you'd expect, e.g. adding a nofollow will eliminate the linking issue completely. Short of that, keyword rich anchortext is higher risk than navigational anchortext like a person or site's name, and so on."
It sounded like YouMoz was pretty safe. Until now. Contributor Scott Wyden got a warning from Google about links violating guideolines, which included his YouMoz article as well as a scraper post (that's a whole other issue Google should work out).
"Please correct or remove all inorganic links, not limited to the samples provided above," Google's message said. "This may involve contacting webmasters of the sites with the inorganic links on them. If there are links to your site that cannot be removed, you can use the disavow links tool..."
The problem is that, at least according to Moz, the links were not inorganic.
"As founder, board member, and majority shareholder of Moz, which owns Moz.com (of which YouMoz is a part), I'm here to tell Google that Scott's link from the YouMoz post was absolutely editorial," says Fishkin in a blog post. "Our content team reviews every YouMoz submission. We reject the vast majority of them. We publish only those that are of value and interest to our community. And we check every frickin' link."
"Scott's link, ironically, came from this post about Building Relationships, Not Links," he continues. "It's a good post with helpful information, good examples, and a message which I strongly support. I also, absolutely, support Scott's earning of a link back to his Photography SEO community and to his page listing business books for photographers (this link was recently removed from the post at Scott's request). Note that "Photography SEO community" isn't just a descriptive name, it's also the official brand name of the site Scott built. Scott linked the way I believe content creators should on the web: with descriptive anchor text that helps inform a reader what they're going to find on that page. In this case, it may overlap with keywords Scott's targeting for SEO, but I find it ridiculous to hurt usability in the name of tiptoeing around Google's potential overenforcement. That's a one-way ticket to a truly inorganic, Google-shaped web "
"If Google doesn't want to count those links, that's their business (though I'd argue they're losing out on a helpful link that improves the link graph and the web overall). What's not OK is Google's misrepresentation of Moz's link as 'inorganic' and 'in violation of our quality guidelines' in their Webmaster Tools. I really wish YouMoz was an outlier. Sadly, I've been seeing more and more of these frustratingly misleading warnings from Google Webmaster Tools."
Has Moz lowered its standards in the time that has passed since Cutts' email? Fishkin certainly doesn't think so.
"I can promise that our quality standards are only going up," he writes, also pointing to an article and a conference talk from the site's director of community Jen Lopez on this very subject.
"We'd love if Google's webmaster review team used the same care when reviewing and calling out links in Webmaster Tools," Fishkin writes.
Cutts would most likely have something to say about all of this, but he happens to be on leave, and isn't getting involved with work until he comes back. He has been on Twitter talking about other things though. It will be interesting to see if he gets sucked back in.
That feeling I get when Google Webmaster Tools' tells someone a totally legit link is "inorganic": pic.twitter.com/7fd773enyG
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) July 22, 2014
@randfish That is happening to our clients a lot. They are bewildered, we are exasperated, nobody wins.
— Ruth Burr Reedy (@ruthburr) July 22, 2014
@randfish This happens to clients all the time.
— Paige Willey (@PaigeCWilley) July 22, 2014
— Brynna M Baldauf (@little_bry) July 22, 2014
— christy kunjumon (@christykunjumon) July 23, 2014
The whole ordeal should only serve to scare more people away from natural linking as Google has already been doing. If Google is penalizing a site for links from a site like Moz, what's safe?
We've reached out to Fishkin for further comment, and will update accordingly.
Update: Fishkin tells us via email that he doesn't think Google's targeting of guest blogging in general is off base, but that their reviewers "need to be more discerning in marking problematic links."
He goes on to say: "When they select editorial links to highlight as problematic ones, they're creating a serious problem for site owners on both sides. Correctly identifying non-editorial links really does help site owners improve their behavior, and I know there's plenty of folks still being manipulative out there."
"In terms of Google ruining natural linking, I suspect that's an unintended side effect of their efforts here. They're trying to do a good thing - to show which links are cuasing them not to trust websites. But when they mark editorial links as inorganic, they inadvertently scare site owners away from making positive contributions to the web with the accordingly correct citation of their work. That's how you get a Google-shaped web, rather than a web-shaped Google."
Image via Moz
Do you think Google is going overboard here? Share your thoughts in the comments.