Actually, We Don’t Think Google Hates HARO Links

haro_logoDespite the buzz going through the SEO industry today, we don’t believe that Google is specifically targeting links that are earned via the popular Help a Reporter Out service.

That’s one of the claims from SEO consultant Bill Hartzer, in an article he published yesterday, Google Targets Help A Reporter Out, Press Release Links as Bad Links.

In his article, Bill says he’s cleaning up a client’s links to remove a Google manual penalty. After submitting a reconsideration request, Bill says Google replied by pointing out three example links that continue to violate Google’s guidelines. Two of those links, he says, were earned via Help a Reporter Out.

In case any of our readers don’t know, Help a Reporter Out — better known as HARO — is a popular service in which publishers can connect with expert sources for information, quotes, etc. (As a writer, I might use it, for example, to put out a request along the lines of “I’m working on a story about Twitter advertising and looking to hear from small businesses that are using it successfully.” And other HARO subscribers that can help would reply directly to me.)

HARO doesn’t promote itself as a way to earn links, and publishers using HARO aren’t required to link to sources they find through the service. HARO began primarily as a service used by the public relations industry to connect with media outlets in search of sources for news articles. It’s now also used by many online marketers and publishers outside of recognized media outlets to gain visibility and attention for their clients. (Disclaimer: I used HARO regularly back when I was doing consulting.)

To protect his client’s privacy, Hartzer understandably didn’t share the actual links that Google flagged in his blog post yesterday, but he did let Search Engine Land review the links.

In our review, we found red flags associated with the URLs that Google flagged in its reply to Bill’s reconsideration request. In one case, for example, the URL that Google flagged was a duplicate article with credit at the bottom to the original source.

The original article — which presumably was the one arranged via HARO — didn’t link to the client that Bill is working with, but did include a quote that the company provided to the writer. The duplicate article, however, was modified to link to the client.

Further, in both cases where HARO had been used, there are multiple copies of the article indexed in Google’s search results. These seem to be red flags that might prompt Google to reply as it did to the reconsideration request.

Bill tells us that he and the client “went through the ‘normal’ HARO process and legitimately responded to the HARO request and provided a quote from our client. We in no way were involved in any other linking or duplicate content or posting of articles like this. So whatever was done was done without our knowledge.”

Our sense isn’t that Google is targeting links earned via HARO. We think that Google flagged the links because of the way the articles are duplicated on a variety of websites, with those copied versions all linking to the same company that was used as an expert source in the original article.

The problem doesn’t appear to be that HARO was used to make a connection between a publisher and an expert source, it’s that one of those two parties used HARO incorrectly and went overboard in how the article was published.

Should marketers stop using HARO? In my opinion, not at all. But marketers should recognize that HARO is not only being used by major media outlets and PR agencies, it’s also being used by publishers that may not have that kind of trust level (in Google’s eyes). And they should recognize that not all HARO connections are going to lead to links — and that’s okay, too.