My friend Bill Hartzer has created quite a kerfuffle in the SEO industry over the last couple of days. For those of you that haven’t been keeping up, Bill has been working with a client after their site received a manual penalty from Google for unnatural links – for the non-SEOs among us, that means links Google thinks might have been bought or obtained through “unnatural” means.

 

Bill, while cleaning up this site, practiced the normal protocol and submitted a re-inclusion request to Google in an effort to get the site cleared. The response he received from Google was that there were several suspect sites linking to his client’s site. Of those links, a couple had been procured by responding to requests from the popular “Help A Reporter Out” (HARO) site.

HARO was started as a Facebook page by PR entrepreneur Peter Shankman. The purpose of the service is to connect reporters with sources. Quickly, HARO outgrew Facebook and became an email-based service. It’s a very simple concept – but a lucrative one.  HARO’s main source of income is through advertising. The open rates on the daily e-mails are so high as to be unheard of. Full-disclosure, WrightIMC advertised in HARO during its first couple of years. The concept is so lucrative that Shankman sold the site four years ago to the PR marketing services company Vocus, which also owns the large press release syndication service PRWeb, among other things.

Before Shankman sold HARO, it was well known that he wouldn’t put up with PR flacks getting out of line. He knew that if people were spamming reporters through HARO, no reporters would use HARO. He even called out offending “pitch-ers” in his blog and elsewhere.

I think the lesson to be learned here by SEOs, small businesses, and PR pros alike is that the shoe is now on the other foot. We need to vet the publishers for more than just past-perceived reputation or 3rd party validation through services like HARO. In fact, we always should have been doing this. The publishing landscape is bleak. Don’t discount the possibility that even major publications might look for shortcuts to increase readership. Some of those shortcuts may very well include techniques that make them seem like bad partners in Google’s eyes. And if you have a bad partner, Google will consider you guilty by association and penalize your site.

I’ve noticed that the publications asking for responses in HARO have been more and more obscure of late. As far as I know, HARO does little to no vetting of the reporters or publications they allow to post in their service. Just looking at Wednesday’s HARO e-mail, I see requests from publications like the Wall Street Journal to something called the Sokanu Blog, where you can do personality tests to see if you are compatible with multiple jobs, including “Air Weapons Specialist.

Bottom line – if you are using HARO, it’s your job to make sure that the publication is a legitimate fit for you. This isn’t 1980 – or even 2003. Just because a website includes a blog or someone is ostensibly writing a book, that doesn’t mean they are legitimate in the eyes of Google or that they can provide you with significant exposure. Just like everything else in this world, if you don’t do your homework and research the site, you could get burned. I learned this lesson the hard way way before Google was even penalizing sites. Research the publication you are pitching.

Looking at the list in today’s HARO, there are many publications that I immediately know would be legitimate and great for my clients. And, I’m not saying that the smaller publications are bad. On the contrary, small niche publications frequently have more impact on your target audience than the national pubs.

However, if I’m going to pitch to the Sokanu Blog, you can bet that I’m going to research them first. Not only to gauge the real influence of the publication (Why waste time on the pitch if not?), but also to determine if Google will punish me if they link back to me? That’s a hard question that even the most seasoned SEO can’t answer definitively. But there are signs – and if the site looks spammy, probably the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. If you don’t know, you should educate yourself on the clear-as-mud “link rules” … even if they do tend to morph frequently.

Most of all, monitor your brand, and if you see something fishy, do something about it. Contact the site and ask them to remove  the link. If they won’t, disavow it.

Right now, whether I agree with it or not, as marketers it’s our responsibility to keep our link profiles in compliance with Google’s guidelines. Google and HARO aren’t going to do our work for us. Before you pitch – vet the publication – otherwise, you are asking for trouble. And, that trouble doesn’t always come in the form of a search engine penalty. Again, here’s the link to how I learned this lesson the hard way.