Google Flags Help A Reporter Out, Press Release Links as Bad Links

As you probably know by now, Google has been on the prowl lately, flagging and penalizing links from directories, paid and sponsored links, links in guest blog posts, and, now you can add Help a Reporter Out links to this list that you should be cautious about.

In the response to a recent Google Reconsideration Request (I’m in the process of cleaning up a client’s links and getting rid of their Google manual penalty), Google gave three example links that “violate their guidelines”. Their response was something like this:

google reconsideration request response

Now, I realize that this particular website does have inorganic links pointing to the website. And I’ve been working hard to clean up the organic links pointing to the website, mainly done by a previous SEO working on this particular website. However, the links that Google points out as examples in their response to our reconsideration request are like this:

– two links from Help A Reporter Out.
– one link from a media outlet who picked up a press release we distributed via a newswire.

The first two links provided as “inorganic” links by Google are, in fact, where the owner of this particular business was quoted in an article. In BOTH cases of the first two URLs, we had used the Help A Report Out service to respond to a request for a quote from a business (which was in a particular industry). As far as we knew, the reporter or journalist was writing an article and needed a legitimate quote from a business owner. Not only was the business owner quoted properly, we’ve seen traffic from these articles to the website. And, oh yeah, for those who care, the “anchor text” of the links are “branded” (i.e., the anchor text is the company’s name) and NOT a keyword-rich anchor text links.

The second link that Google flagged as being inorganic was, in fact, where a site picked up a press release that was put out on a popular press release distribution service. The news that was being reported in the press release was that this particular business was an official Toys for Tots drop-off location. Even the Toys for Tots website lists this business as an official drop-off location.

So, at this point, it is my impression that Google now doesn’t like links obtained from using Help A Reporter Out, and they don’t like links that are from websites who pick up stories from popular press release distribution services. Why?

Well, a Google manual review from a reconsideration request flagged those links as being inorganic links. In other words, the website is still manually penalized because of links obtained from Help a Reporter Out and a popular press release distribution service. If Google isn’t targeting Help A Reporter Out specifically, then perhaps HARO needs to do some more “policing” of the reporters who are using their services, as the last thing we need is for things like this to happen. There’s not much we can do about popular press release distribution services, though, as the popular press release distribution services really can’t do much about low quality websites picking up your press release. They are, though, being a lot “pickier” when it comes to the press releases that you submit to them, as they really do, in fact, need to be news.

Bill Hartzer is Globe Runner’s Senior SEO Strategist. Connect with him on Google+ or on Twitter as Bhartzer.

UPDATE: I want to clarify a few things that have come up regarding this. First off, I can tell you that in the case of the HARO articles, these were from legitimate HARO requests. In fact, we responded to requests for quotes from HARO. Just like we have done in the past with great success. The sites where the articles appear seem to be legitimate news sites or media sites. However, upon further investigation, it appears that the sites in particular where our links appear are “doing fishy or spammy things” in regards to inter-linking and duplicating of the content/articles. So, I believe that our client is “caught up” in this, and being innocently penalized because we innocently responded to a HARO request for a quote.

In no way are we, nor our client, involved in the “fishy or spammy” things that these websites/media outlets are doing. So, I still am recommending that you be very cautious in what you respond to when HARO is involved.

Update 2 I’ve updated the title of this post so that it is clear that Google has only flagged links that were a result of responses to HARO requests as being inorganic, unnatural links. I do not want anyone to get the impression that Google is targeting HARO in any way other than flagging inorganic links.

Comments 37

  1. Bill:

    Unraveling the issues around webmaster notices can be tough. But a few thoughts.

    Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is a service that matches qualified journalists with potential sources. There is no quid pro quo, no link promised, and no control or tracking of the story. We simply make a match. In fact, we often have no idea when or if a story gets published where HARO was helpful. In our estimation, it would be highly improbable for Google to identify a link as a “HARO link.”

    Also, we are very strict with requests we publish for HARO and vet every single one. In fact, one of our biggest complaints is from publications that we do not allow to use HARO. Our newsletter’s readers can be assured that the journalist requests published in HARO are from outlets of good quality and reputation.

    As for PRWeb, we were the first major press release service to add REL=NOFOLLOW to all our links ( when Google modified its Webmaster guidelines last summer. This is true for every release we host on, as well as every one that we distribute to partners, ensuring each release we publish is strictly in line with current Webmaster guidelines.

    Perhaps there are some old links in your client’s site or some sites that have repurposed content, or any number of issues. Either way, I am available to look into the links that were flagged and help you get to the bottom of this issue.

    You Mon Tsang
    Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Vocus (parent company to Help A Reporter Out and PRWeb)

    1. Post

      Hi You Mon Tsang,
      Thanks for clarifying HARO and PRWeb’s position. We really like HARO and PRWeb and have had some great responses and successes using both services. But, Google is now making us question as to whether or not we will continue to use HARO. I realize that it’s not anything that HARO has done specifically, I think this is more of a Google issue than a HARO issue.

      You see, we used HARO (just like we’ve done over and over again for a long while now). We responded to HARO requests for a quotes and gave them. Our client then was quoted in two separate legitimate articles (these were two separate requests). Links were provided back to the client’s website (using the company’s name as anchor text). We’ve seen traffic from those articles to our client’s website. They’re legitimate articles. But, Google has flagged them as being inorganic links or “bad links” and even links that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

      As you suggest, these are NOT old links, they’re not repurposed content, and we aren’t seeing any other reasons as to why there are issues with these particular links. The articles are recent articles that were posted, as far as we can tell, that were responses to HARO requests.

      As for the links, it’s a matter of the press release being syndicated on another site. So, there’s no control over that. But you’d think that Google would see that it’s a syndicated press release and we cannot control it. They should just ignore those links, at best.

      Thank you for your offer to look into the flagged links, if we decide we need your help in this I’ll be in touch.

  2. This is getting beyond a joke now.

    Google need to take their foot off the pedal and think about this one a little further. We won’t be able to do anything online soon without fear of a penalty from Google. It’s not right, and our only hope is that a competitor gets in on the action sooner rather than later.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the link, Antony. It turns out that the link in question does not sit on the domain and it doesn’t sit on even sites like or The link that Google has a problem with is on a site where the site picked up the feed from the newswire and put that press release on their site. In fact, the site in question that Google has a problem with even shows specifically that it’s a press release from a newswire (right at the start of the press release it shows the attribution, date, etc.).

  3. Well the press release thing do have a genuine reason for Google to suspect. But the Help a journalist is another thing. If your site did’t had a manual penalty caused by many other spam back links, Google wouldn’t even consider that back link. But once you are under surveillance of Google for spam actions, everything will look suspicious for Google. That’s what happened with this link i believe.

    1. Post

      JithinC, I’m not saying that there aren’t other spammy bad links to the site, those are being cleaned up and many of those links have been cleaned up (removed). But, the problem I have here is that the example links that Google says are “bad” or “low quality” or “don’t meet our guidelines” are, in fact, legitimate links that we obtained by using Help A Reporter Out and a popular press release distribution service.

  4. The page is getting some good reach and thats how landed. If I am truely to believe that the links are from HARO and are being a factor for the penalty. Its something to be scared about for a lot of people .Thanks for putting it out there and I am sure the SEOs around the world would help you to come to a conclusion to this.

    1. There are no “links” from HARO – It’s a manual system. You reply to a journalist query via private email on HARO. The journalist wants to use you? They reach out. That’s why this story is so BS – What “links?”

      1. Post

        Peter, I understand it’s a manual system. The quotes and links will show up on a media outlet that created a story or wrote an article. I get that, it’s how HARO works.

        In this case, we responded to HARO requests for quotes. More than one, several.

        As a result of the contacts that HARO provided, articles were written and links were created: and those links were flagged by Google as being inorganic (against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines). So, it would make sense that one would want to use another source, something other than HARO, because the links from those articles resulted in a website receiving inorganic links.

        Let me explain it another way:
        You use CraigsList to find something to buy from someone. You have a bad experience. You then would say “I’m not using CraigsList anymore”. Even though CraigsList is not the source of the bad product that you bought, it was part of the process.

        HARO is a good service, don’t get me wrong. I will continue to use it. But, I will be very cautious in the future when using the service since some media outlets allowed to use HARO provide inorganic links that were against Google’s guidelines.

        1. I see one problem with this. Your client got links cited in the reconsideration response because the media source published them, which HARO had nothing to do with. You could go to any other “help a reporter” system and the same thing could happen.

          That said, a simple link from a media source shouldn’t cause issues. In this case it’s being used almost as a citation, like you did in this article. So I don’t get it. It’s almost like Google is choosing links at random for these responses.

          1. Post

            Michael, in this case, however, it’s not just one link that was published by a media source/media outlet. It’s multiple links that Google thinks are inorganic, and there are plenty of other inorganic/unnatural links that the site received as a result of responding to HARO requests. So, it’s not just random: there’s a pattern here.

            If it was just a few links, maybe a few inorganic links received from HARO requests, then I could ignore it. But again, it’s multiple sources, not just one or two.

  5. I think if you’re going for a journalism style in brand content, you have to act more like mainstream media in that you don’t link to your source. If someone has already printed something and you’re quoting them, yes, it’s proper to link for attribution to the source cited. However, if you’re connecting with people via HARO and interviewing, there’s no need to link to the person’s website. It is an unnatural thing to do simply because you’re not referencing anything on the page you’re linking to. The benefit to people using HARO to become a source for stories is the exposure – if people want to know more about them, it’s up to them to look them up. But in a BBC, CBC or NYTimes story, you don’t see them linking to Ace Bakery because the owner of Ace Bakery gave a statement about how the construction is affecting his business.

    It’s subtle, but in true journalism and news publishing, there’s no need to link in the cases mentioned above.

    1. “It’s subtle, but in true journalism and news publishing, there’s no need to link in the cases mentioned above.”

      Says who, exactly? Google should not be allowed to be the arbiter of who links to what and why. That choice is down to a webmaster. I can understand the search engine penalising certain tactics, such as paid links, but I’m struggle to see how the HARO links violate Google’s Webmaster guidelines.

      It’s increasingly looking like Google has a problem with any company whose business model might involve the generation of links, even if that is tangential to its primary purpose – as is the case with HARO.

        1. I agree with Miranda. Also, Will, journalists learn this in journalism school (or should) — how to identify the right sources, not just any person on the street who says they’re an expert in the topic.

          As a journalist, you are supposed to be unbiased and the sources you quote in an article are supposed to be those who best represent one side of an issue (then you find the person who can talk about the other side of the issue). You would mention their title or place of business or other identifying factors when appropriate. If you ask a baker what he feels is the best way to get a certain type of baked good, you’d state his name and place of business to set the expectation that you are quoting someone knowledgeable about the topic, not to give this baker publicity (even though, in a way, it is free publicity, because now people are aware of the bakery and this baking “expert”). So, the point is, including a link to a source’s place of business simply because they took the time to speak to you is contextually irrelevant. If the article mentioned something like, “To learn more about the process of making X,Y,Z, visit” and the link led to a page that had directions on X,Y,Z, then that’s relevant.

          But generally speaking, a link that’s included in an article for no other reason than to give “publicity” to the source is kind of a spammy link. I can see where Google would ask, “Why is this link included?” If the article can stand without it, it should be left out of the article. If people are interested in learning more, they’ll copy and paste into a search engine.

  6. Quick question Bill,

    Just trying to think through this and how legit HARO stuff can possibly be on the radar for Google – Presuming that they can see the network of publishers using HARO (not sure that is really the case or not) – Has every HARO request fulfilled for this client included a link? Are there some where they were quoted without links? Wondering if its an option to leave the quote in the article and just go back & ask them to remove the links – at least in some of them. Wondering if they all do include links if that is what causes Google to think they are inorganic. Either way, it stinks – when they are legit, they are legit.

    1. Post

      HARO (and a lot of other sites) claim that there’s no footprint that Google can see. However, that’s exactly what other sites have claimed, such as PostJoint.

      For this particular client, sometimes there is a link and sometimes there isn’t a link and it’s just a quote by the CEO of the company. And there haven’t actually been a lot of these fulfilled through Help A Reporter Out, it’s just been hit and miss. There never is an option to leave a quote in the article or get a link changed or removed, as these are media outlets: they very rarely will go back and change or edit an article once it’s published.

      And it’s not like we have any sort of way of influencing whether there is a link or not, whether the client is quoted, or even how the anchor text of the links appears. It’s all up to the writer/journalist/reporter. We feel as if we’re lucky when we get a mention, let alone an actual link. For Google to penalize a site or flag links obtained through HARO as being inorganic is absurd, really. But that’s what they’ve done in this case.

  7. Why didn’t you publish the screen shot of the links in question? If you are claiming that the links are from reputable news sites, then you could have shown the root domain. Isn’t part or reporting showing proof to the claim? You stated, “Google gave three example links that “violate their guidelines”. Their response was something like this:” I am struggling with the phrase: “something like this:” Was it or was it not the actual request sent over? I get that you need to protect your client’s identity, but we need some concrete proof to sustain this claim.

    1. Post

      Chuck, the screen shot of the links is the exact message that was received in Google Webmaster Tools. I used Photoshop to take out the client URL and the links in question. I apologize for my writing, as when I said “something like this” I think it was more “slang” in my writing style that made it sound confusing. But that really is the screen shot of the response to the reconsideration request.

      1. Bill,
        You removed the links in question that validate your point and is the crux of your entire article. The image is not only the foundation but your premise rests on it, ergo your you defeated your argument but not furnishing the evidence..

        1. Post

          I totally understand your position, I would think the same thing. But unfortunately due to the business/client relationship I am unable to publicly disclose the actual links at this time, and the name of the client. I have, though, in confidence, furnished this information to Barry Schwartz of SE Roundtable and Search Engine Land, and if asked I’m sure that he’ll vouch for the fact that he’s seen these links and the name of the client and that this is all true.

          1. So Barry states the links in question had nothing to do with HARO but sites that picked up the PR and published it. So now we have to wait for Barry to expose the links and hope that its not Al Capone’s vault.

          2. Post

            Chuck, just to clarify: we responded to 2 HARO request for quotes from journalists/reporters. Our quotes were added to articles that those media outlets published and then linked to our client site. Those 2 links were absolutely from HARO and from nowhere else. The press release in question was a syndicated press release from a newswire that the media out let decided to pick up and publish on their site.

  8. Hello,

    interesting the case. It shows how organic links becomes toxic by being on a bad reputation website.
    The sample links maybe are generated by the algorithmic / tool, or these are not handmade examples?
    I am curious to see, if we get a statement about Matt Cutts via Twitter or anybody responsible from Google.

    Greetings from Hamburg, Germany

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  10. I obviously don’t work with HARO anymore, but the premise doesn’t make sense – If I’m using HARO to respond to let’s say, the NY Times, Wall St. Journal, and NBC4, and two of those outlets run my quotes, nothing I said in those articles traces back to HARO – It’s simply not possible – The reporter isn’t gonna say “This source, from HARO, at” It doesn’t work like that. So to “target HARO articles” simply isn’t possible. See what I mean? Weirdness.

    1. Post

      Peter, thanks for your comment. That’s what you would think, many ‘link networks’ or ‘link schemes’ that we would think are not detectable (re, that Google has targeted in the past actually do have some sort of footprint that Google can apparently detect. So it really is possible that Google might, at some point, target HARO.

      In this case, it just so happens that two out of three links that Google gave us as being inorganic “bad” or links that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines came as a result of having provided responses to request for quotes using HARO. Google could have picked from thousands of other links, but in this case they chose two that originated from HARO. Could be a coincidence, but that’s why I brought it up in the first place:

      Help a Reporter Out is a good service, and we’ve generally had great success using it. We’ll still be using it, and still recommend that people use the service. However, you need to be cautious when using the service, as, like us, you could wind up with links that get your site or your client’s site penalized in Google because of inorganic links.

      1. Bill, I love your work and your blog posts, but I’m totally lost on this one. Earlier today, it seemed you had discovered that the sites that linked to your client site had done some fishy things. Why continue with the comparisons between HARO and MGB or PostJoint? Google hasn’t given any indication that reporters using a social network of sorts to find story sources is somehow in danger of violating their guidelines. It just seems like people are really reaching to make that connection, to say Google did something crazy and wrong here when the links were simply not good.

        I’d also argue that business owners who are doing outreach not only do have some control over how they are cited in interviews. In fact, they have a responsibility if they’re actively pursuing coverage and exposure to know who is going to publish it, and where. You can then simply request that they don’t link. If you’re really just after the exposure and authority, it’s not a strange request. There’s no need for media to link to a person’s website – or a company’s website – to attribute a quote gathered in an interview. Or ask them to link to a Twitter account. Something.

        1. Post

          You’re right, Miranda. There’s really no need to compare HARO and MGB or Postjoint with each other. Google has, in fact, just flagged these links that were results of HARO requests as being inorganic. I’ve updated the title of the post to indicate this, so there’s no confusion going forward that Google is, in some sort of official capacity, targeting HARO in particular. Thanks for setting me straight.

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  12. The point, I believe is that the writer probably included the link for no other reason than to thank the source for their time. The link was likely contextually irrelevant. So, it’s not that HARO is being targeted; it’s that the client’s link are being included when there probably was no need to do so other than the client asking that it be included or the writer being overly generous.

  13. I just had someone from HARO call me asking why I thought their links would be regarded as spam. To me, HARO is passing links that are spam because people are buying them. Just like and PRnewswire and such PR sites. They are a scam. I am glad Google is going after them.

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