What do bloggers and the England football team have in common? They are both afraid of penalties.

Last month, Ben Gallizzi reacted to Google’s clampdown on paid links from blogger reviews. Now, the hammer has fallen. Bloggers are trying to understand what has culled their traffic. Meanwhile, brands are deciphering how – and maybe if – blog outreach should form part of their digital marketing campaigns.

In this post, I will talk you through why Google has penalised so many bloggers. Then, I’ll offer practical advice for bloggers and brands on safe ways to build links in 2016.

A brief history of unnatural link building

In the 1990s, as the web grew in popularity, website owners yearned to grow their audience. They requested links to their site on resource pages, directories and webrings. Then, search engines came along. Website owners really wanted links from these, and all the good ones used links as a ranking factor. Link building was born.

There were plenty of legitimate means to gain inbound links. But, people are lazy. People like to cheat. People buy glossy mags with easy diets and low-effort exercises promising abs akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unnatural link building was that abs programme, but for a time it actually worked. Website owners bought links en masse and watched their rankings soar. And then plummet.

Following a few rounds of so-called Google bombs – the most famous of which saw searches for ”miserable failure“ lead to George W Bush’s profile on the White House website – search engines twigged. They updated their algorithms to counteract the misleading efforts of the digital miscreants. This benefited legitimate website owners and vulnerable web searchers alike. So far, so reasonable.

Why Google’s latest actions threaten campaigns and livelihoods

None of the above changes the fact websites need incoming links to rank well. Those links just need to be good quality and legitimate. So, how could you build natural links? A few years ago, some bright spark realised the value of the ever-expanding network of bloggers. Because blogs cover so many topics, and some are more popular than others, there was a blogger to suit every brand’s needs and budget.

So, brands and bloggers worked together. Brands provided bloggers with product samples, and the blogger linked to the brand. It’s the kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship that has been a staple of the print media industry for decades. (When I was eight years old, an advertorial promotion in The Beano prompted me to buy the concurrent edition of Woman’s Weekly. True story.)

But just lately, in its capacity as self-appointed cyber police, Google has decided these links are unnatural. It has given bloggers a firm slap across the gills – or, at least, it has applied manual penalties to their websites.

Naturally, bloggers are running scared. Those with penalties applied must now work out how to get them removed. The less tech-savvy bloggers will have to grapple with what a nofollow link attribute does. The rest will realise the answer: reduce the SEO value of their site, and increase the risk for brands that work with bloggers.

For more popular bloggers, their primary source of income is at threat.

Safe link building tips for bloggers and brands

So, how do you react? Like it or not, this is one area of digital marketing that is entirely Google-centric. If bloggers want search engines to send them traffic, it is important to play by the rules. Likewise, brands need to stay on the right side of the track. Otherwise, they risk poor marketing investments or – worse still – a penalty of their own.

Follow our advice to make sure your link building doesn’t cause more harm than good:

Link building for bloggers

  • Nofollow all links to sites who have provided money, goods or services in exchange for a review. If you use WordPress, there are plugins which will automatically add the code for you. This one seems to fit the bill. It adds the nofollow attribute to all external links by default, and lets you approve domains where you want followed links.
  • Use a clear, consistent template to disclose when you are working with a brand. It should be explicit that you have been recompensed for your time. This isn’t even a matter of SEO. It is a way to encourage your readers to trust you and your website.
  • Do not accept guest posts that do not fit your style or audience. This is especially true if the guest blogger uses rich anchor text and insists upon followed links. There is less money in propagating low-grade content than in writing posts which are worth reading.
  • If your traffic has nosedived, check Google Search Console to see if you have received a penalty. If so, follow the steps above and complete a reconsideration request.

Link building for brands

  • Be wary of working with bloggers who flout the rules. In the wake of everything above, I can foresee bloggers ignoring the call to nofollow their paid links and claiming it gives their site greater SEO value. If they’re breaking the rules for you, they’ll be breaking them for others too. Google might consider you guilty by association. Or, it could nullify links you have paid good money to create.
  • Before you work with a blogger, check if they have received a penalty, or are likely to do so. First, check if they are using nofollow links. In Google Chrome, this is as easy as right-clicking an outbound link, selecting ’Inspect Element‘, and looking for the rel=”nofollow” attribute. Then, check for signs of likely penalisation. Running their domain through SearchMetrics will show fluctuations in their visibility on search engines.
  • Don’t see this as a reason not to work with bloggers if their audience is a good fit for your brand. If you are a fashion retailer, working with trendy beauty bloggers is still a great thing to do. Sure, their links may carry less SEO value than before, but don’t get hung up on it. They still have an amazing readership that matches your target persona. As I’ve written before, referral traffic can convert just as well as organic!
  • You can still gain followed links from blogs, but you will have to be more creative than sending out a product sample in the post. How about hosting an event? You could invite bloggers to attend, and industry influencers to speak. Of course there is a cost to this, but if you were paying bloggers to write about you anyway then you’re just repurposing the funds!
  • Ask yourself: “am I working with bloggers for the right reasons?” If you have no interest in a blogger’s audience, and are only interested in building links for SEO, this whole situation should act as a wake-up call.

Remember: users are more important than search engines

I’m not sure how I feel about Google policing the web, but I respect this latest decision puts users first. The changing nature of link building could cause you a headache, or a rethink. But for search engines, bloggers and brands alike, this is a reminder that users must be at the centre of our decisions.

Are you a blogger fighting a Google penalty? Will you need to overhaul your digital marketing campaign in the wake of Google’s actions? We would love to hear your experiences via @RocketMill.