TalkingLocal – Interview with Ann Smarty

TalkingLocal – Interview with Ann Smarty
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In this second edition of TalkingLocal we are joined by a very special guest who is extremely well-known in the search industry.

Ann Smarty TalkingLocal

Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty is a regular speaker at search and content events. She’s also a specialist community manager who runs her own blog, and in addition to this she works for the Internet Marketing Ninjas. Perhaps most famously of all, Ann is also the founder of MyBlogGuest.

The blogging community started in 2009 and grew rapidly to the point where it had 73,000 users by 2013 (as this Infographic shows). However, in March 2014, Ann confirmed that MyBlogGuest had been penalized by Google, and as a result, many of its users also received manual penalties.

In this TalkingLocal interview, we talk to Ann about the fallout from these events, and how it affected her site, the users, and Ann herself. Plus we look ahead to the future and ask whether MyBlogGuest – and guest blogging as a whole – still has a future.

Key Discussion Points

  • What inspired Ann to start MyBlogGuest & how it became so popular
  • Receiving a Google penalty & whether there were any prior warnings
  • Ann’s thoughts on why MyBlogGuest was targeted and who is to blame
  • What is the future for guest blogging?
  • What’s next for MyBlogGuest?

Keep a look out for more in the TalkingLocal series coming soon. We’ve got some key interviews with big personalities from the local search world lined up – so do stay tuned! You can also keep up to date with the latest TalkingLocal videos on our YouTube playlist.

Video Transcription:

Myles Anderson: Hello, everyone. Thank you very much for watching this excerpt of our Talking Local interview series. I’m Myles Anderson. I’m the founder of BrightLocal.com.

I’m very excited about today’s interview. We’re joined by Ann Smarty, whom many of you will know well by reputation. Or if you don’t know Ann, you really should do.

Ann is extremely well-known in the search industry. She’s a regular speaker at search and content events. She’s a specialist community manager who runs her own blog. She works for the Internet Marketing Ninjas. And she’s also the founder of the now-notorious My Blog Guest.

Welcome to you, Ann, and how are you doing today?

Ann Smarty: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m doing great. I hope you are too.

Myles Anderson: That’s great. Glad you’re feeling well today – and thank you for joining us.

Today, Ann and I are going to be talking about MyBlogGuest. “Why?” you might be asking yourself. Well, as many of you will be aware, Google has started to attack the tactic of guest blogging, because it fears that many SEOs are misusing or abusing the approach and the tactic of providing content to appear on other sites for the purpose of gaining links. Essentially, blogging for links, or at its worst, blogging for paid links.

And the reasons they think that this could be bad is that in the quest for links, the quality of the content is being sacrificed, and the intention of essentially writing, producing good content for the purpose of being read by human readers is being sacrificed in the quest for quick links in a fast, scalable way.

Back in March of this year, Google actually started manual penalty on MyBlogGuest, as it did on a number of the sites and services that were using the MyBlogGuest marketplace.

Full disclosure: BrightLocal.com was one of those sites. We had used MyBlogGuest for about 15 months. We’d published a number of good-quality and very positive and well-written articles through the service. We connected with a number of other content owners who wanted our content. We thought we were working well within the boundaries that Google had set, and were doing something that was considered to be very positive.

We also suffered a manual penalty, which I’m happy to say we are now out of it.

But it puts an interesting question of what is the future of guest blogging. You know, Google has sent a pretty clear message to the industry that guest blogging for links, and poor-quality guest blogging, will not be tolerated. But does this mean it’s the death of guest blogging as a tactic for anyone to use?

So, Ann, before we get into the gritty detail of the kind of action that Google took, could you give us a little more background to MyBlogGuest, why you started it, what inspired you, and kind of what it grew to become as it became a service that was well used?

Ann Smarty: I started in the industry about seven, maybe already eight years ago. And I learned . . . I tried to learn SEO by blogging about it. And I was blogging about everything that I found out, all the tactics, what worked with people. I became a member of Moz at that time.

One thing I discovered is that many people liked my blog, and they started inviting me to guest post for them. I was very excited and honored to blog for the huge names of that time. One of those was Search Engine Journal, and whilst I was promoting the blog posts I was publishing, I saw the actual benefit of people having those excited guests on their blogs, because, first of all, they make sure their article is great, and they make sure to promote it – and that’s the double benefit. And the platform that was publishing the blog posts also gave a lot of exposure to those authors. That’s how I became known in the industry in the first place. So that was my way to get known in SEO and social media industries. And many people knew me by my content.

So that was an idea back then, that there should be a place that could connect those excited writers with the platforms for their mutual benefits. That was the first thought maybe back then, it was a very thought actually.

In a couple of years, when I had some time, I decided to actually go ahead and start it. And I started the platform just as a forum where people could come and discuss their blogs and ideas, and the result would be . . . in a perfect world, the result would be a guest post.

Many people loved the idea, and many people didn’t even know that such tactic of mutual benefit really existed. There was a strict rule from Day One: there should be no money involved. So the only benefit, the only incentive for anyone to publish any blog post, would be a good content. So you are placing a good content on your blog. That was the only reason why would people want that blog post  – and it seemed like an ideal world, at that time.

So all the members started enjoying it, and started proposing some features to make the whole process more scaled and easier. And we started… we hired developers, and started implementing those features. So that’s how the whole feature set was grown by the whole community that was using it. So we were implementing the features they were asking for. That’s to start.

Myles Anderson: So, okay, Ann, it’s great to understand the kind of background of  MyBlogGuest and what inspired it. At its peak, how many customers did you have using the service, and how many posts were essentially traded through it?

Ann Smarty: The peak of My Blog Guest was when Matt Cutts, a couple of years ago, said that the guest blogging was a great tactic to gain links! We didn’t ask him to do that. We existed long before he said that. But at some point, in some interview, he said that, so everyone rushed to guest post, and we were even intimidated by the flow of crowd that started looking for guest blogging on Google, and ultimately found our website.

Many of them didn’t understand the process easily. That was at the peak of the platform, and also the start of a whole lot of other problems with quality. Because people heard that it’s a great way to build links, that’s what they started doing. That’s where we, at some point, got, like, 200 articles were published through MyBlogGuest. You can imagine that volume, 200 articles of free guest posts were published at that platform.

So we had to hire the whole team of editors at that time, who would at least keep an eye on what’s going on. We did not implement the pre-approval process of those articles, because we thought, they are still free, so our publishers will be able to help us by rejecting low-quality articles. But our team was making their best to look through all the live articles in the gallery. So that was the peak, and that’s when the team started growing, as well.

Myles Anderson: Okay. That’s pretty interesting. So essentially, the gold rush around guest blogging was kind of sparked by Matt Cutts, with the irony that he then stamped his foot on it, essentially fairly recently. Now, he would probably argue that, you know, the intention was always initially positive around it, but that maybe it being misused or even abused by SEOs looking for that kind of get-quick-link fix approach. Is that right?

Ann Smarty: Yes, and the irony is that that’s why I always say I wish those Google reps just had never said anything, because whatever they say, it blows up – and it’s hard to control. Many people just hear what they want to hear. Many people just don’t understand exactly what Matt Cutts said, and we have to deal with lots of misunderstood… very lost people, who were just trying to place an article for the link.

And ironically, many publishers were ready to publish that article, and we had to explain both sides why it’s not good to publish just for the link. And, of course, we were in the minority, because many people were asking us, “Hey, people are happy to publish my article. Why would you prevent them from doing that, trying to enforce your editorial guidelines?”

And that’s something that hard to argue with. If it’s free, and that person is happy to publish it, if that article has a demand, why would MyBlogGuest enforce those rules, editorial rules, that we were trying to work on?

So I had to publish an open letter to all of our community at our blog saying . . . explaining why those links might be risky in the long run, and why we care about our editorial policies. Not many people really understood that. Matt said it was okay. Publishers are happy to publish it, why would My Blog Guest even have those editorial rules of their own? – So it was a tough fight.

Myles Anderson: Yeah, I can certainly see that. And I imagine it must be frustrating. But we’ll come on to, you know, how you feel about it in a second.

But when Google sort of started publishing or started making comments around the negative aspects of guest blogging, its tone changed, and there were murmurs of them starting to clamp down on guest blogging. Did you ever think that it would come to affect your site, MyBlogGuest, to such a high degree?

Ann Smarty: Yes. I mean, it was logical. We were the hugest guest blogging brand. Even though we were trying to do that right, it was obvious that we were the top target. Because I’m not sure if Google even knows of other guest blogging brands out there.

So we were the largest, and that’s obvious we could be somehow affected. I didn’t expect that scale at that time, probably. And at times, I was even that Matt started talking about all the guest blogging and not using guest blogging for links, because I thought our users would hear that, as well.

Unfortunately, like I said, many people just hear what they want, and not many of them… they heard Matt once said it was okay. All other learnings were beyond them. So I was happy, to some point. But I could see the penalty coming, that’s for sure.

Myles Anderson: Okay. And did you have any sort of official kind of prior warning from Google? And since the penalty was slapped down on you, and also the kind of customers of yours, have you had any conversations, meetings, direct communication with anyone at Google who was involved in the decision that they took?

Ann Smarty: No. Never. No words about that.

Myles Anderson: Interesting. So they took very drastic action against your business that affected you enormously, and yet no one picked up the phone, no one sent you an email, to kind of explain the action they took.

Ann Smarty: No. They didn’t do that. And I think the problem with that is it would be hard to explain why they would hit MyBlogGuest. I cannot imagine that conversation with them, because we were doing our best to promote their own guidelines as well, so I’m not sure how they would even explain their intention to penalize us.

I don’t think they even have come up with any explanation, the actual rule, what we should have done differently, you know? I cannot see them even having that plan. If they could suggest us to changing anything, they would have probably asked us to do that, if they had chosen any way to collaborate with the brand. But I don’t see what they would recommend as doing differently, because we were trying to follow their rules already.

Myles Anderson: So you said that they targeted you, obviously, as you have the most high-profile guest blogging marketplace or platform out there. But you don’t think they’ve maybe identified other ones. Is that because you had more of an open publishing sort of basis, in terms of you were very open about using the platform? You also had quite strict rules about having no paid links – and you had your platform policed.

Do you think that maybe your open approach made you easier for them to target? To identify users of the service?

Ann Smarty: Yes. And that’s something I also wrote in my public blog post, in my personal blog, SEO Smarty. I wrote a public apology to my community for being too transparent, because we were publishing.. we were making everything public. Because, let’s face it, when you start hiding something, you are breaking something. There is no sending… no immediate approach other than that.

We were believing that we were doing nothing wrong, so we could not have hidden anything. So we were publishing all of our statistics, all of our users were public, as well. They could hid their blogs from their profiles if they wanted to, but the default was that everything was public and open, because otherwise, like I said, if you are trying to hide your traces, you are probably breaking something.

Myles Anderson: Okay. Yeah. I think I appreciate that, as well. I understand that you felt you were genuinely providing a service, which, by the way, we found was fantastic. We really enjoyed using the service, and would still be using it today if this situation hadn’t arisen.

With this sort of situation, do you think that the blame lies entirely at Google’s door for what we’ve perceived as the very heavy-handed action they took, or do you believe some blame also lies with some SEOs who essentially used guest blogging as a way to get quick links? They sacrificed the quality of the content in doing this so that they can essentially put in as little effort as possible to get each individual link – because it, to some extent, I suppose, is a quantity game.

And do you think that’s a big of a symptom of SEO in general, where a new tactic comes along; it’s got genuine quality and usefulness, but it finds a way to almost become corrupted because of that quest for quick opportunities, quick success, quick links – a gain in rankings?

So how much blame lies squarely at Google for being a heavy-handed sort of Goliath, and how much is it down to the SEO community, who have maybe not understood the rules, and have corrupted guest blogging.

You can have a moment to think about that, if you’d like!…

Ann Smarty: No, I have the answer. One thing that I want to make sure: I don’t think any of our members are to blame. None of the responsibility is on the community itself. I blame myself, and I blame Google, not any of our members. However they tried to use the community or the tools that were there, I built them.

So I have my own… I think that’s 50/50 responsibility between me and Google, and the responsibility comes from the same thing. We allowed the lower-quality tactics to work within our platforms, and however we tried to enforce, or recommend best practices for guest blogging, we still, with our tools made it easier. And where the opportunity for lower tactics exists – there is a demand.

So our members were just users of the tools that we built. So we did a poor job of building those tools the way that it will represent the higher quality guest blogging. Our community were just the users. They are not to blame, that’s for sure.

And that’s the same with Google. I mean, until they stop lower quality tactics working, there is no way they can prevent them from existing. And all those measures they are taking, like manual penalties, disavows, no-follows, none of them fixes the problem. Lower quality tactics still work, so they will exist, no matter what, people will adjust to implementing them. There will be short-term websites that are ready to get penalized, but they will still spoil the search quality.

So that’s absolutely the same problem they have. They need to fix the algorithm, not to go for all these semi-measures. And that’s where we’re getting to. That’s exactly what we did. We allowed the lower quality tactics to exist.

Myles Anderson: Well, I think it’s quite noble of you to accept the blame. Because, as with many things, you provide a service, and if someone finds a way to misuse it… and the people who were using it were skilled adults, if it was me in your shoes, I’d probably say the blame lies a little bit more with them. But I think it’s very noble of you to accept that.

So looking to the future, then, what do you think the future is for guest blogging as a channel? You know, as an outreach opportunity for business to get their name, their content distributed more widely in there? And what would the key pieces of advice would you give to marketeers about content distribution in the future?

Ann Smarty: Ironically, the future of guest blogging isn’t yet past. I would say the pre-MyBlogGuest era, where it was harder, it was non-scalable, it was all based on your email outreach and relationships that you had with bloggers. So that’s the future. We just had a little bit of spike of it being more the scale that it could be. That was the reason of its downgrade and lower quality managed to survive.

But now I think that, to me personally, nothing has changed in how I guest blog, and that’s how I’m going to do that, as well. Just keeping columns, guest blogging columns, on a couple of / a few type of blogs in my industry, where I contribute monthly, and help people… more and more people find out about me, and what I am doing, and what my experience is.

And probably I’m not… I never search for more opportunities, because I get regular invites to guest post – from people that know me. So I usually reply yes to any that I receive, and that’s how I also expand my reach. I get invited to guest post, and I guest post for those people.

And that’s not an element of the future of it, because with authorship and Google authorship, and understanding the power of niche influencers, people’s brands start inviting authors to guest post for them, to contribute something, some of their expertise. That’s how the power and the trustworthiness of any brand grows.

So I see more and more influencers invited to guest post for huge publications and brands. I guess that’s the future – in it’s past, basically.

Myles Anderson: So, then, if I was to write . . . if I was to sort of sit down, then, and start to craft what my objectives would be for, say, a guest blogging program… I might put, you know, brand awareness, or awareness of me as an individual, some social PR, as two of the kind of key tactics. Engagement. And then links might be an incidental benefit that would hang off that. But if I’m looking mainly to kind of broaden the reach of my audience in a positive way, to create more social interaction, and then links come as a by-product of that – if I’m looking at it through that sort of filter or those objectives, then, essentially, guest blogging is being done for the right reasons – Is that kind of what you’re saying?

Ann Smarty: Exactly, and that’s how I did my very first guest post, when I didn’t even know what it was. I was so honored to be invited, I even never added my by-line to the guest post. I just sent it as it was, and the publisher of it – the owner of the blog – would write a few words about myself in the introduction or in the, quote unquote, the blog post, about who I am, and what I do, from what they knew. So I never really cared about links when I guest posted. And that’s how it started, and that’s how it will continue, hopefully.

Myles Anderson: Great. Thank you. That’s a very good answer.

Last question, then. You know, what’s next for you? What’s next for MyBlogGuest? What’s next for you, and what’s next for MyBlogGuest?

Ann Smarty: We’ve been working on the rebrand for a little bit more than seven months now. We will not rebrand now. We will just launch a new project that was initially planned as MyBlogGuest, where all those mistakes will be part of how we develop it. There will be no . . . MyBlogGuest is essentially much more than just guest posting. We grew out of that long ago. We had a great educational value, connecting value, and we have much more than just guest posting.

So we will take the best of it, and we’ll launch a new community, and we’ll invite everyone. And it will be… it will have a huge focus on community aspect, where people with new blogs or with over-the-top response will just come to find like-minded people to help each other via interviews, providing each other with linkable assets, or content marketing assets that they have, and help each other with brainstorming, some great article ideas, so that they’ll be both educational value with tools.

Myles Anderson: Okay. That’s great to know, that MyBlogGuest will live on, will be improved, and hopefully someday it’ll be a much bigger entity than it is now, given this experience! You know, we can only learn and move forward.

So Ann, thank you very much for giving up your time today. Thank you also for explaining the situation with MyBlogGuest, and best of luck in the future.

Do you have any parting comments that you would like to give to those watching today?

Ann Smarty: Thank you so much for having me! And I cannot express in words how much I’m thankful for all the support from our SEO community that we received throughout these months after we were penalized. Thank you so much for that. I would never expect so much support for the penalized site.

And like I said in a few tweets, we will make the history of the most supported penalized site in search industry. We’ve already made the history! – So thank you so much for that.

Myles Anderson: Great Ann. Thank you very much for your time today.

Everyone, thank you for watching this instalment of TalkingLocal. We’ve got some other interviews coming up over the next few weeks and months, so please do look out for those, and have a great day, wherever you are.

Thank you very much!

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4 thoughts on “TalkingLocal – Interview with Ann Smarty”

  1. @Don, thanks so much, Don! for your continuous support and kind words!

    @Jo Ann McLellan, the safest way would be getting active at 5-10 blogs in your niche (commenting & interacting with the on social media) and then approaching any who interact back with the idea to guest post! Doing that for a couple of months will result in a few really powerful blogs where you can contribute regularly!

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