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Help A Reporter Spam? Is Google Targeting Help a Reporter Out(HARO) Links?

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.


  1. First off, Bill was already working with company prior to them getting a penalty from Google. We also do not know what the actual links in question are. Bill will not show us even the root url so there is no way to look at the site in question to see what the problem is. Bill has also backtracked on his “story” a few times now too. He fully admitted that his company did the seo for the affected company, yet claims the original penalty came from the previous seo company. Something is not adding up at all. Bill stated it was the HARO links that got him penalized and then it wasn’t the haro links. I would be willing to bet the farm that Bill’s company built the spam links after see the article published to use it to increase the ranking for their client. That makes more sense. The original HARO article did not have links. This story should read, I did bad seo, my client got slapped by Google and I am making up a story to get clear my name and gain new traffic and hits to my site. Take a close look at the links Bill has built to his company’s site. You will not believe he is so innocent after all.

    • Ok, I debated on whether or not to approve this comment, as I think it pulls the whole point of the article off track. I don’t know what Bill did for SEO on the sites and frankly, I don’t really care. The point I’m trying to make is that you need to look at the publishers you are pitching. If you implicitly trust the publishers from HARO, you aren’t doing your job. Due dilegence is necessary. Shortcuts don’t work.

      Guest Blogging wasn’t bad – but people made it bad because they didn’t actually take the time to see if the place they were putting their content was relevant and complying with Google’s TOS. I preach that we have to be picky about where we pitch, and where we allow links to go. This goes back to my days when brands were worried about the publications they appeared in, as being in the wrong publication could hurt the brand.

      On another note, SEOTurd, I invite you to come out from behind your anonymity. I don’t know who you are, and it doesn’t appear you want anyone to know who you are. I don’t like people who anonymously bash others in the industry. You have the right to do it, but I’ll call you a coward unless you come forward. You aren’t doing anyone any favors with poorly written diatribes and slapshod site with tons of broken links. I’ll let this comment stand for now and let Bill respond. But in the future, I don’t want to promote your agenda by allowing your anonymous comments on my blog. You sir (or madame, as the case may be), in my opinion are what is wrong with SEO. Either grow a pair and comment as yourself of stay out of the game.

  2. “Chuck”, or, should I say, “Darren Dunner”? Due to my agency/client relationship, I just cannot reveal the links in question. I wish I could, but I am under an obligation not to do so. I’ve provided the links in question to media outlets (in confidence) to those who have written about this situation. That should be enough.

    All I can tell you is what I’ve maintained all along: we responded to MULTIPLE haro requests for quotes. Several of those requests ended up in our client being mentioned in major news sources. However, there were several media outlets who decided, for whatever reason, to do shady inter-linking and create spammy duplicate content issues with their sites. I, nor did anyone in our agency, build any links or have any hand in doing anything that would be related to these news stories.

    All we did was respond to HARO requests. And those links that originated with HARO requests got flagged by Google as being inorganic. If it were one or two links, then that we could overlook that. But it’s multiple HARO requests that are involved. That’s why I’m recommending that you be very careful about who/when/why someone links to you, even if you use HARO or some other source to get media attention.

    Since when are blogroll links shady? Sure, I link to my other sites and companies I work for or have worked for in the past. We all do that. And people who I respect and built relationships with over the past 20 years of doing SEO link to me, as well. There’s nothing shady about that.

  3. Blogroll links are not shady if they are in related topic areas. But they are sitewide links, which can come with some risk if you have a ton of sitewides out there. A few sites won’t hurt you one bit, especially if in your niche or close niches.

    As for HARO, I’ve noticed the same thing the past year or two. As an SEO myself by trade, I always vet out any site who might link to me heavily. Good PR / authority, similar topic area, reputable content, etc. all play into that evaluation. If I see anything that would give me pause, I don’t submit.

    On the other hand, I’ve had my commentary quoted in the print edition of InfoWeek and gotten some good run out of some of the second tier sites and blogs who reach out on there. They were entrepreneurship / business blogs, not SEO or Tech, but still close enough to relate to us based on topic (I also blog on entrepreneurship at times).

    Regardless of the underlying data, this post provides solid, practical advice.

  4. Tommy, blogroll links don’t have to be sitewide links. On some blogs I know, the blogroll links are actually “home page only”, meaning that the blogroll only appears on the site’s home page.

    The more ‘legit’ HARO-acquired media mentions won’t heavily link to you, they will probably not link to you at all, in fact. So typically there’s no reason to believe that a HARO request will come with many links: it’s just not typical.

    So this is why this issue came up–a typical HARO response to a request ended up with so many shady/low quality links to a site.

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