Content marketing is all the hype these days and understandably so. A well thought-out and researched, content marketing strategy is an effective way to target and reach new audiences, build brands, and increase online visibility and traffic. Like other online marketing initiatives, this approach can be as effective or as non-effective as the time we put into it.

There has been some discussion lately within the online marketing and blogging communities regarding the possibility of Google devaluing links from guest blogging efforts.  It’s no secret lower quality content is becoming increasingly prolific and a flurry of networks and websites have erupted to meet the demand. Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, addressed this issue directly in a 2012 Google Webmaster Tools Help video.  Online marketing executive and authorship expert AJ Kohn specifically asked him, “What is Google’s view on guest posting for links?” [Tweet this question!] [youtube]

Video link:

In his response, Matt encourages “high quality” posting and identifies a high quality guest post as content “coming from someone who writes really well and has something to say.” On the other end of the spectrum, he cautions, are initiatives taken to extremes, where low-quality content is produced solely to gain links. Matt tells us Google is “less likely to count those types of links.”

Panda, Penguin, & Ranking Documents Oh My!

To understand why Google would move to devalue these types of links, it’s important to understand their objectives.  Google stays in business by striving to create the “perfect search engine.” The faster they are able to understand and resolve a query, the better the user experience will be for the searcher, increasing the likelihood they will continue using Google.

Part of Google’s task, then, is to understand which signals indicate a positive user experience and deliver those results—which should be, by definition, useful and relevant.  Machine learning algorithms are getting more sophisticated at understanding and incorporating engagement signals like social, dwell time and CTR, which can be used to indicate a positive experience. It’s also important to note that Google has an existing patent called Ranking Documents. If and when the process described in the patent is rolled out, it would change the way Google responds to signals that impact relevance and authority (new links, on-page optimization). During this transition or evaluation period, the patent describes a shift in rankings that may include time-based, negative, random and delayed responses, essentially changing rankings in unexpected ways, making it much more difficult to attribute any SEO value from these efforts to a positive effect on organic search rankings.

Perceived Value vs. Real Value

For marketers focused on the perceived value that comes with low quality content marketing, the discovery and evaluation cycle a post would need to go through to achieve these benefits, would need to follow a similar path as the one below (please forgive my modest graphic creation skills):search engine evaluation cycle

While this cycle could potentially lead to more organic search visits through a small lift for optimized keywords, I believe it is better to view any organic search benefits from this cycle as a byproduct of effective research, creation, and placement. In other words, if you create a “high value” article from a user perspective, any perceived link or SEO value will follow.

Content that readers find useful is often shared and linked back to as a resource, increasing brand visibility, link equity, and chances your post will perform better in the search engine results pages (SERPs). So, well thought-out, researched, targeted content, achieves the same perceived value as thin content, but it also increases the probability that you’ll see real tangible outcomes—engagement,  referral traffic, conversions etc.—from your efforts.

open site explorer example

Our ultimate goal as authors and marketers should be to share something of value with a community. The above Open Site Explorer backlink analysis from a post I created on authorship shows me the post was linked to from multiple sources and shared socially, letting me know my article resonated with readers.

I believe a similar outcome can be achieved for any content marketing initiative with a thorough understanding of your client’s business and industry. Here are a few questions I like to ask clients at the beginning of any new project or campaign: [Tweet: Content marketing questions]

  • Who are your top competitors?
  • Who are your customers?
  • Where do both go to get industry information?
  • What industry topics do you feel your customers are concerned about?
  • What are some of the market trends and innovations within the industry?
  • What are customer FAQs and feedback?
  • Do you have customer surveys I can review?
  • What are the pain points or negative phrases that prospects are searching for?
  • What is your unique value proposition?
  • What upcoming industry conferences or events will your customers or other industry professionals follow or attend?
  • What are people searching for on your website?
  • What forms of related content (blogs, white papers, eBooks, etc.) already exist online?

And the list goes on (leave a comment at the bottom with the ones I’ve missed). Having answers to these questions will provide you with the information you need to create rich content that’s likely to answer questions and serve your target audience.

Finding Communities and Relevant Placement Opportunities

We know the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. While we can strategically optimize for relevant keywords in hopes of receiving organic impressions and clicks, we can see better results by placing our content in front of an audience that’s likely to care about what we have to say.

Guest posting on relevant websites that serve the same community as your business or brand is a great opportunity to reach new audiences with useful information and increase brand recognition, awareness and visibility. By participating in a conversation, identifying industry experts and evangelists and joining related groups and communities we can get a good idea of where your target audience goes for information.

guest posts create qualified outbound links and traffic

In the above graphic, I used an example of a post titled “Free Tools to Enhance Your Content Marketing Efforts” that I contributed as a guest author to Marketing Pilgrim. Because Marketing Pilgrim serves the search marketing community and I knew my post was relevant to the site’s readers, the article earned links and also sent referral traffic to outbound links in the post.

Content Marketing Attribution

The real value from high quality efforts will manifest through proper attribution and reporting. By focusing on tangible and not assumed value, we can gauge and improve upon the outcomes from our efforts. I like to use two key performance indicators (KPIs), social engagement and referral traffic, when evaluating the performance of my guest posts. I believe social shares and engagement (including comments) is a great indicator of how content has resonated with a community, but I’m also aware that not every industry is social.

Referral traffic is great indicator if someone has read and found your message compelling enough to visit your website. We can tie these visits directly back to revenue in Google Analytics by reporting on any desired user actions (goals) that you have a goal value assigned to.

Another fun and beneficial way to track content performance placed on 3rd party websites and blogs is to implement authorship markup on your guest posts. By associating all of your great content back to your Google+ profile,  you are able to build authority to your Google+ profile (Google+ profiles can build up PageRank similar to other web properties), have a snippet (your Google+ profile photo) appear next to your result which also typically increases your results CTR (click-through rate) in organic search.  You can also view performance metrics, like impressions, clicks, CTR, and average ranking position for all content for which you are the verified author by navigating to Author Stats in your personal

Google Author Stats

Google Webmaster Tools account.


High Quality = Long-Term Value

The overall effectiveness and long-term value from any online marketing initiative will ultimately be determined by the amount of time, effort, and strategy we put into it. By focusing on real, not perceived value and tangible metrics and KPIs, we can better serve our customers, prospects, visitors, fans and ourselves.  Then we’ll see the real value of content marketing.


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