Sins of Syndication: Guest Blogging, Article Submissions & Thin Content

In quick succession, Google has called out 3 content syndication practices as being on their way out: guest blogging (for SEO), article directories and thin content. But each one has been around for ages, and aren’t likely to go away. Instead we need to reassess how we are using them and what you expect to […]

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January 30, 2014

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In quick succession, Google has called out 3 content syndication practices as being on their way out: guest blogging (for SEO), article directories and thin content. But each one has been around for ages, and aren’t likely to go away. Instead we need to reassess how we are using them and what you expect to gain from them.

The Sin of Guest Blogging

Guest blogging used to be a way for bloggers that trusted each other to broaden their audiences and provide more value to their readerships. You usually got a link back to your site; but the main value was in extending your reach. You were also strengthening your relationship with another blogger. That blogger might then share a post on your site and reap similar benefits. The only way to scale this approach was to build more real relationships and you only offered guest posts to people you knew, trusted and shared a common audience with.

At it’s core, guest blogging was a Content Marketing tactic that you used for targeted expansion of your audience. But SEOs became obsessed with the link and turned guest blogging into a Link Building tactic focused on inbound links rather than referral traffic or brand awareness.

With Matt Cutts post last week, we know that Google is unhappy with the shift of guest blogging to a link building tactic. Truthfully, we should all be unhappy: guest blogging just for the link leads to the spread of crap content & dilution of link value. That said, guest blogging doesn’t need to be abandoned, it just needs to be re-claimed as a Content Marketing tactic.

Cutts points this out:

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.

There is still value in guest blogging, but you’ll need to be strategic:

  • Look for site audiences that share affinities with yours & bloggers that you share affinities with.
  • Identify clear benefits other than links for you doing a guest post.
  • Think about your content as a way to build a relationship with the blog and it’s community.

The Sin of Article Directory Submission

I’ve lost count of how many times article directories have been left for dead…and then risen again. Google can’t seem to make up their mind about how to treat them, and they remain a very straightforward, scalable way to get links out there.

Based on Matt’s video, I think there are 2 main issues here: 1) Low-quality articles & 2) Syndicating the same piece to a large number of article directories. In his video response, Cutts describes the standard practices very well (good stuff around the 58sec mark):

I honestly don’t think article directories are worth investing much time in. But there are a couple instances where I think they can have value:

  1. You are a totally new site and need to seed some links to get crawled. In this situation, article directories along with social profiles, web directories and press releases are all good ways to get started. Don’t expect a lot of value from the links, but it’s worth the effort in the first month of launch.
  2. Quick link building for a seasonal opportunity. You need to get new links around a holiday topic, or you are trying to get a quick boost to de-icer sales in Atlanta. If you can get a batch of unique (not spun) articles out there with decent anchor text, then I’d say go for it.

Both these situations are fairly rare and the goal with both are to get some immediate visibility. These are the only situations where I can say article directories are worth a little of your time & neither one is going to give you a big boost in traffic or rankings. If you are not in desperate need of quick links, then don’t bother with article directories.

The Sin of Thin Content

On Monday, Google sent out a low-key warning to affiliate/scraper sites about thin content. I think everyone knows that scraped content and duplicating someone else’s work is a bad thing for the web, but I also think a distinction needs to be made between scraping and curating.

There are many good sites that draw content from other sources, then organize it to be more digestible. The structure varies but sites like AllTop come to mind. I think the issue for Google is when there is no differentiation at all. In the case of video sites, if you are replicating everything (category, title, tags, content) and not adding anything unique, then really your site has no value (in Google’s eyes).

But this is also an issue for affiliates of retailers and retailers themselves. Retailers often provide feeds via CJ or another affiliate network that contains identical content as their sites. Affiliates then pull this info in without any edits or enhancements. To make things more complicated, many retailers are taking their product info directly from manufacturers or distributors because they are using feeds too.

The heart of the matter is that too many people are using the same source material & not enough people are thinking about making it unique to their site or audience. To fix this, you need to stop being lazy and think about structural or programmatic ways to differentiate the content you receive.

Here are a few ideas for Affiliates

  • Identify synonyms for the categories used by content source and use them as site labels and navigation instead. You can also do this with tags.
  • Don’t take everything: look at feeds or your scraper tools and find ways to be selective without manually reviewing. If everything is the same, then you are just a copy-cat, but a little analysis will let you realize what is really valuable to your audience and get rid of a ton of duplicate pages
  • Give things an expiration: Keep your content inventory from being totally duplicate by cleaning out low-traffic, non-selling or low-margin content on a regular basis.
  • Manually optimize the most important stuff: Take the time to add your own spin to the top 10, 50 or 100 pages so that you are really adding value. If you do this quarterly, then you’ll quickly have a distinct site and viewpoint on the web.

Here are a few ideas for Retailers (or Anyone Else Syndicating Their Content)

    • Add copy to every product description. You should be doing this anyway, but start now if you aren’t. It doesn’t have to be a lot: look at the description and try to add your USP, something about the solution the product provides, or something that’s missing in the description (material, brand, uses).
    • Customize product titles. You can do this programmatically for most, but you also want custom writing for top products.
    • Break big product sets into sub-categories. This is the retail equivalent of curating. If you’ve got 3,000 rugs sitting in a category called rugs, then you are not helping anyone — especially not shoppers. Instead, look at breaking products down by attributes. For the rug example, you might use size, outdoor or indoor, colors, oriental, or anything else that you think will help customers. You can do this with almost any type of product.
    • Don’t put everything in your feeds: Give affiliates the out-of-the-box content from distributors and keep your additions for yourself. That way, you know that you aren’t feeding duplicate content out that can come back and bite you in the ass.

Sinning & Grinning

Google is looking out for it’s SERPs and (maybe) it’s users. But webmasters and marketers know that these issues are not always so cut and dry. You don’t want to be found guilty of any of the content sins that Google is calling out, but that doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon the tactics. Instead, use them in moderation and put the extra effort in where appropriate.

Thinner movie poster image from Film Links 4 U 

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