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Melissa Fach

A Guest Blogging Guide for SEO: 2020 and Beyond

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Melissa Fach
Guest Blogging guide for SEO

I have been editing guest posts for the marketing industry for ten years, and obviously, a lot has changed over the last decade. Unfortunately, many people are brought into to write for companies and are not aware of the issues that will impact the success of, or lack thereof, a guest blog post today.

In this article, I am going to break down what you need to know about search engines and content quality in 2020 and beyond in the hopes that you can create content that will be successful in more ways than one. Here are the main topics I am going to cover:

Traditional Guest Blogging is a Thing of the Past

Guest blogging used to be a way to rank, be seen, create a good reputation, and for many, to get backlinks. All of this was easy to do, but it is not anymore. Ranking is difficult due to the level of competition, expertise, and the wide variety of things search engines are evaluating.

Personal branding and building a reputation through writing is only possible now if you are willing to go above and beyond.

Link building isn't so simple anymore. Google started penalizing over links, discussing their views on guest blogging, and breaking down Link Schemes to avoid for the masses; hence, don't do it! The use of nofollow was recommended, and honestly, many started seeing the clear benefits of creating "quality content."

Google has been giving recommendations on linking in guest blogs for a decade, and they are still answering questions today. 

google's john mu tweet on links in guest posts

John Mu's tweet about links in bylines

If you are sending guest blogging pitches where you are demanding a follow backlink in exchange for the article, you shouldn't. Editors that know SEO will ignore those emails — and those that don't, you could actually hurt them in the long run.


So next, let's look at what Google has been trying to tell us for years about what kind of content they are looking for, so you can create something that will rank while meeting your goals. 

What Google Says and How it Should Guide Your Guest Blogging

I could review every algorithm and core update we know of, but many others have done that, and it isn't what you need. I am going to quickly explain the critical points expressed recently that will give you insights on what you MUST consider before you start guest blogging. 

Keep in mind, Google is all about providing quick, helpful, high-quality, and accurate information to its users that matches the intent of the individual's query. Over the last decade, they have made this goal very clear. 

The Panda Update

This one is a bit old, but it still applies today. The Panda update in 2011 was designed to reduce low-quality and thin content in the search results and replace it with helpful and unique content. When I say unique, I mean not repetitive or duplicated. So, this update alone tells you that 9 years ago, Google wanted people to stop writing crap, yet as an editor today, I still see people pushing useless articles.

I always wonder, "Why?????" It is a waste of time, money, and effort, and there is no return. Why keep repeating a pattern that doesn't work? 

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Guest Blogging:

  • Who does your article benefit? 
  • Who would want to read it? 
  • If the article is only for your benefit (links, branding, etc.), why would anyone want to publish it? 
  • What information provided will be unique and different from what Google has already ranked? 
  • Is this topic saturated in the SERPs?

Fact: If you are hoping to build links or build a reputation, low-value content will never get you what you want. 

BERT and Intent: With Tips You Need

In Oct 2019, Google announced they were applying BERT models to search. They said,

BERT models can consider the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it— particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries.

Search intent is the ultimate goal of the person using a search engine.

Before writing, think about what is the person I want to reach trying to accomplish?

Perhaps they need an answer to a question, find an item, or find a guide or tutorial to help them complete a task. You need to determine the intent of the person that will be reading it and provide any and all information needed to match their intent. 

If you are writing something with no thought of the reader's intent, then your chances of success are low. 

Recently Marie Haynes suggested the following SEO technique for content writing: 

Look at the intent of each of the pages that are outranking you.

Before begin creating a guest post for anyone, you should examine the pages that rank for the same topic, and take notes on the intent behind them. And intent changes rapidly. Once a query is answered, the intent will shift to what could be a next step or action; consider the initial intent and the intents that may follow. 

E-A-T and YMYL: Step Up Your Game 

Google released its complete Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in 2015, and they outlined two critical factors regarding how Google looks at pages and articles

  1. E-A-T — Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness
  2. YMYL — Your Money or Your Life

In the 2019 version of the guidelines, E-A-T is mentioned 135 times, and it explains in detail what they are looking for in any kind of content. Here is just one section:

Google search evaluator guidelines section on E-A-T - screenshot

What is Google saying over and over again?

They want experts writing content that is trustworthy for their readers. Why? Because bad advice can result in problems and tragedies.

Think about it, who will write with expertise and authority, a novice content writer discussing roof construction, or a roofing contractor with 15 years of experience? Someone with expertise is going to be more authoritative and cover the bases that matter in content. 

Below they explain what they are looking for in high-quality pages (which tend to rank better).

Google guidelines Characteristics of High Quality Pages


Google wants you to provide value to their readers, and if you are a guest blogger, the two sections above from the guidelines should be a massive part of the direction you use when creating content.

  • Who do you have that can write with authority on a specific topic for another website?
  • What insights must you gain from experts before you start writing? 

Google stated in the guidelines, "Think about the topic of the page. What kind of expertise is required for the page to achieve its purpose well? The standard for expertise depends on the topic of the page." Plan carefully.

YMYL — Your Money Your Life 

Google doesn't want content that could hurt their readers. Google states:

We have very high Page Quality rating standards for YMYL pages because low quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact a person’s happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.

— Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines

Which is a better choice for writing an open heart surgery recovery guide? 

  • A content writer that just graduated from college.
  • A heart surgeon with 20 years of experience.

I am not saying that new content writers can't create good content; I am just saying that they rarely succeed at ranking high-quality content on serious issues related to health, happiness, and money without direct and significant input from an expert. 

An Editor's Perspective 

Over the last 10 years, I have declined thousands of SEO guest articles on the expertise aspect alone. I can read something and quickly determine whether or not the writer actually does SEO or was paid to write SEO articles for blogs in the hopes of brand awareness.

Facts can always be found, but expertise and authority are the beauty behind "words", and they shine very brightly. 

I prefer an expert no one has ever heard of that provides value versus a popular writer who doesn't really "know" the nitty-gritty things that matter. And based on articles that rank well, it appears Google does as well. 

Personal Branding in Guest Blogging

I am adding this section here because expertise and authority are critical for personal branding, and as you saw, it is what Google wants. 

There is no better way to stand out in any industry than to create amazing pieces of content that screams knowledge and authority. You need to have unique points and tips that are better than the top writers out there.

You should go beyond explaining a concept and anticipate what people will want to know next. What do they need to know, but don't know it yet? What experiences do you have that could help them avoid potential pitfalls from the start? What are the ways they can save time and money?

Inform and educate, impress the reader with your knowledge, and make sure you have a home base (website) where people can find you, not just the company you work for. A lot of brands will be mad at me for saying this, but the truth is jobs don't last forever. You need a brand outside of your job as well! 

You can't make a huge name for yourself with one blog post; it will take a while. But, if you make sure every guest post you create is educational, authoritative, and useful to readers, you are a hundred steps ahead of most people.

Guest Blogging to Build a Brand: What Won't Work

We all understand needing to increase brand awareness, and guest blogging can assist with that, but ONLY if you do it the right way. 

If you want anyone in your company to be published on a large and well-respected blog, you have to avoid the following:

1. Mentioning your company name/product/service in the blog post.

Doing this comes across as self-promotional and tells the editor, the reader, and Google that the only point of the post is to serve yourself, not the reader. The place for your company info is your bio UNLESS you were asked to write about something you offer. 

2. Adding links to your site that are not relevant to the article.

No editor wants to present their reader with links that appear self-promotional, and no editor wants to risk making Google think they are engaging in a link scheme or selling links.

Natural links are not a problem, but what appears as unnatural can result in a manual action or penalty.

Remember what John Mu said above regarding links. Google is pretty clear on what they want on guest blog posts — nofollow links. So don't use guest blogging as a link building strategy. He also implied that blog links have no value

John Mu Tweet on blog links

If you have relevant and high-quality resources on your site that could benefit the reader, a link to them can be a good thing. While it most likely won't be a follow link, it could send a lot of traffic your way and help with brand awareness. 

3. Bragging about your company or a tool/service you offer.

This strategy doesn't help the reader or the site you want to be published on. It isn't about you; it is about their site, their readers, and creating trust in your brand. 

You don't need to brag about yourself in content. If you create something amazing, the publisher will brag for you on their website, on their social accounts, and maybe in their newsletters. Odds are, since you want to be on their site, they will have a lot of followers and a large audience.

Just make sure your bio features your brand and an author who can answer questions in comments and social media quickly and authoritatively. Remember, no one ever built trust by bragging. 

What Does Work: Authority and Superior Quality

Impress an audience on a new blog with your knowledge and expertise. Your guest blogging content needs to be superior in grammar, flow, and organization. The quality of the piece is critical. Answer questions, define terms, examine pain points, and provide solutions.

Side Note on Flow: In February, I spoke to Google's Gary IIlyes personally about content, and he emphasized the importance of flow and transition in writing. He specifically mentioned a flow from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph. So focus on this when writing. 

Write to impress, to educate, and to create trust. Each person that reads it has the potential of becoming a fan of your work. If they share your content, their followers see you and your brand. As you gain new followers, you want to share posts that are just as authoritative from your blog. 

You want to be present and timely with comments on blog posts and in social shares. The quicker you answer a question, the better it makes you look. And truthfully, when an audience gets to interact with an author one-on-one, they build a relationship that is not easily forgotten. 

Choosing a Topic to Write About

Where to Start

Keep in mind that large and influential blogs often have content plans and goals. While other blogs are open to a variety of ideas within their niche — it is your job to know their niche and to find out what the blog is looking for in guest posts.

The first thing you should do is look for writing guidelines and carefully review what the blog is asking for. If the site took the time to write these guidelines, this is what they want, so pay close attention. 

Here is an example of our old guidelines page when we accepted blog posts. I cannot explain how many emails I have received in the last three years that offered to write blog posts on topics totally unrelated to our blog. We have also received endless emails with articles that didn't match our guidelines at all.

Don't waste your time or an editor's creating a guest post that doesn't match what the publisher is looking for.

Doing Your Own Research

If you can find a ranking gap for the blog you want to be published on, you have an edge.

You can use a tool like the Keyword Gap tool to find a gap between the blog and its competitors. If competing blogs are ranking highly for a search term, and the site you want to be on does not, perhaps you could help fill that gap. 

Keyword gap tool data

Topic Research for Ideation

My favorite tool for blogging research is the topic research tool. You just enter a keyword and see recent topics related to your keyword.

Guest blogging data from the topic research tool


You can click on each topic card and get recent headlines and real-time questions people are asking on the topic. 

Headlines and Q&A data

By looking at recently published articles, you can see what has been done well and what has been missed, and then figure out a plan to create something better. The questions listed will help you find the questions people need an answer to and provide insights to intent. 

Learn How to Find Relevant Topics with Good SEO Potential with this tool. 

Email Outreach: Focus on Real and Personal Communications

I do not suggest templated outreach to editors. I can tell you that those are the emails that often get missed or ignored the most. Often, a template email comes across as disingenuous, and it seems as though no effort to understand the blog has been made. 

Friendly and honest communication is critical to be seen and remembered.

I recommend creating a more personal email where you do one of (or a combination of) the following:

  • Explain who you are, what you like about the blog, why you want to contribute, and what value you think you could bring. Ask what they are looking for and where your expertise lies.
  • Explain your expertise and the types of articles you typically write about. Ask the editor if there are any topics they are looking for specifically you can help with. 
  • Keyword Gap, you have two options. One, give them two-three titles related to the keyword, explain why you have the knowledge and expertise to cover the topic.
  • Or two, explain your expertise and the gaps you found. Suggest some ways you think you could help the site rank for it and ask if you could collaborate with editors so you could both create something outstanding together.

My recommendation — stop with the cold outreach emails. I know people have been saying this for years, but the emails haven't stopped. I want to see someone who knows our blog well (style and type of content) and is a true expert in the topic they are pitching. 

Going Beyond: Standing Out Amongst Millions of Guest Posts

There are some writers that impress more than others, and their carefully planned efforts mean that the site they want to rank for has a better shot at gaining rankings. FYI, editors LOVE that! Here are some things that have impressed me that you could use to impress an editor and get your content published:

  • Include clear and easy to read screenshots in how-to posts. Don't make the editor retake images for you; many won't, so they could reject outright, or you are forcing them to take time sending you emails and making requests. Avoid wasting your time and theirs. 
  • Produce an informative, high-quality video that can add to the content: Good clarity, quality sound, and additional information the reader could use and share. 
  • Plans for SERP features — Those with plans and requests for formatting to get a position 0, People Also Ask, or carousel placement show they have gone the extra mile, and that they want to help my site be successful. 
  • Unique quotes from respected experts — Quotes from experts are always good, but when a writer goes to an expert and gets a timely and relevant quote for a specific article, that is really impressive. 
  • Using the brand/blog — whoever you are hoping to be published by, integrate their successes and blog posts in yours. Examples include links to relevant articles, screenshots of positive reviews, or a mention of something they have done that is impactful. 
  • Images and infographics — Good editors know the amount of work it takes a writer to create high-quality content. See if they have a design team to help with images and perhaps an infographic that would benefit both you and them. If they don't, check out Canva for quick ways to create impactful imagery. 
  • Optimize images — When naming images, keep image SEO best practices in mind. Reduce the size of images for editors, and use Alt Tags when submitting via a CMS. 
  • A list of quotes for social — Provide editors with some 2-3 good points they could include with social shares. When you share, say something like, "I have some ideas for social shares that might save you time. These are some of the best points in the article...". 

Tips for After Your Guest Post is Published

You need this article to do well, and while the publisher is going to promote the post, there are things you should do as well.

  • Be responsive in comments — be ready to answer any questions and respond to positive comments; this will make you stand out amongst other authors. 
  • Track the post on social platforms and respond to comments when it makes sense. 
  • Promote the post on your social channels as well, not just the week it is published. Come up with different social shares and share them throughout the year while tagging the publisher. 
  • Keep it evergreen — Things change, like statistics, algorithms, procedures, and legal issues. When you see something has changed, email the publisher with updates that could be added to the article to ensure the article remains relevant and trustworthy (remember E-A-T and YMYL).

I am a firm believer that guest blogging is a fantastic way to build a personal brand and to create awareness for a larger brand, but as with everything, it is "how" you do it that will determine whether an effort is successful or not. 

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Melissa Fach
SEMrush

SEMrush employee.

US Personality of the Year 2017 Winner, SEMrush Blog Editor, and die-hard Star Wars fan. Herder of cats. Non-cook. Find me on Twitter @SEOaware.
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