How to Build a (Non-Spammy) Content Contributor Program
We’ve all heard Google talk about quality content and how essential it is if you want your site to be trusted by the big G.
They’ve been saying it for years.
“Create quality content.”
More recently, Google has talked about E-A-T and how that relates to the content on your site.
But what is E-A-T?
Great content alone is no longer enough. You need to prove to Google that your content, and those publishing it, can be trusted.
Unfortunately, while you may have experts in your company, that doesn’t mean they’re going to have the time, resources or ability to create content for your site.
So how can you create this trustworthy content?
I’m a big fan of content contributions – although they come with a caveat.
If you launch a content contribution program (or even if you don’t) odds are people will pitch you terrible ideas and send unsolicited articles that they’ve already published on other sites. Some more nefarious spammers still send spun or plagiarized content.
If Google’s doing its job, it’s not going to trust any of that content. It wants content written by experts.
Reducing spam pitches is vital when putting together a content contribution program – so how can you make sure the content you receive is both trustworthy and high quality?
By making your program as detailed as possible.
Let People Know They Can Contribute
It might sound obvious, but I’ve seen many sites that don’t make it clear you can contribute.
Don’t hide your “Write for Us” or “Contribute” links in the footer of the site. Footer blindness is a real thing and anything you place there is unlikely to be seen.
Give your contributors section a helping hand by placing it prominently in the navigation. I’m not saying it should take top billing, but it does need to be well signposted.
Create Guidelines For Submissions
Before you start accepting contributions from your readers or industry leaders, you need to write guidelines. Detailed guidelines not only help maintain the quality of the content, but they also help the style and tone of your content stay consistent across the site – no matter who puts the content together.
Here are some of the recommendations I make when helping bloggers and businesses create submissions guidelines.
It’s vital that you put formatting near the top of your guidelines. This will deter anyone that isn’t willing to write in the style your readers are accustomed to.
But what do you need to cover in the formatting section?
This is not exhaustive, because every site is different, but here are the main areas you need to cover:
- Sentence length
- Paragraph length
- When bullet points and lists should be used, and when they shouldn’t
- How image credits should be presented
- How and when you should link to data and sources
Despite what you might assume, not everyone knows about duplicate content and the issues it can cause with Google. You need to set out your stall early on in the guidelines to minimize any problems with duplicate content.
I usually recommend stating that all content will be run through Copyscape to check for originality and plagiarism.
At the end of the day, it’s your site. If spammy or plagiarized content appears on it, it’s you that suffers.
If you don’t need your content to be original, think about using cross-domain canonicals. This will make sure that if the content is republished on another site, you will still be considered the original source by Google and other search engines.
Set Out Timeframes
You need to know how many guest contributions you and your team are going to be able to handle from the outset. If you get too many you’re going be burying your team in editing and proofing.
Once you’ve worked out how many contributions you can manage, you can give time frames for when people can expect to hear back from you, and how long it might be before they see their contribution on the site.
It’s also essential to state when you expect to receive a contribution, once the pitch has been accepted. Setting this out in advance will help you better manage your content calendar.
Timing is crucial – for you, your team, and your content contributors.
You know your audience better than anyone else. While many of your guest contributors may be familiar with your audience, there will be others that aren’t.
Let potential contributors know who your audience is from the start – it will reduce the number of submissions you reject.
Whether you tend to post snappy short-form content or in-depth guides, let potential contributors know.
Each contributor will have their own style – and that can include content length. Seth Godin is well known for his short and snappy marketing articles and thought pieces, but his style would never fit on a site that produces detailed 3000-word guides.
Topics That You Do And Don’t Cover
One of the biggest frustrations for any site that allows content contribution from other writers is that you get pitched topics you never cover.
Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to stop the email-every-site-en-masse spammers from sending landscape gardening ideas to your marketing blog – but you can at least try and reduce them.
List all the topics that you cover. I’m not a fan of including topics you don’t cover as you’ll end up with irrelevant pitches from spammers who are scraping “Contribute” pages for keywords and sending mass email merges to all of the sites they find.
Reducing how much spam lands in your inbox is crucial for maintaining a robust workflow.
Image and Video Guidelines
If your site or blog usually includes images and videos, then tell people in your guidelines. How do you want the images to be presented? Do you want original images or can they be sourced from elsewhere?
I also like to tell the businesses I’ve worked with that Creative Commons images are an absolute must.
Setting Creative Commons guidelines from the start ensures that you’re not going to be sent a bill for using copyrighted material. Like the site or blog owner, it’s you that is liable for the use of this material, not the author.
You may also want to consider describing the type of images you like to see in contributions, as well as your preferred sizes, file type, and quality.
The more information you include, the closer the contributions will be to the rest of your site’s content.
When I say author requirements I’m talking specifically about bylines and bios. It is pretty standard practice for guest contributions to come with these, but every site is different.
Consider these things:
- Do you need a headshot of the author?
- How long should the bio be?
- Can the author link to their site from their bio?
- Can the author include more than one link in their bio?
Almost everyone that contributes to your site is looking for one of two things. Either exposure for their business or personal brand, or links.
Links have been the bedrock of Google’s algorithm since day one – and they’re still one of the biggest – if not the biggest – part of the algorithm to this day.
Links are incredibly valuable to digital marketers. Make sure you’re clear from the start on your linking policies.
You may want to consider the following:
- Will links follow or nofollow?
- Are there certain types of links you won’t accept in your content (e.g. links to gambling sites or links to product sales pages)
- Can contributors have links in the main copy or are they only allowed in the bio?
- Following Google’s recent announcement, will you be adding the rel UGC or sponsored tags onto the link?
How do you want to receive your submissions? This might sound fussy, but if you start accepting some submissions in Word, some in Google Docs and some HTML, things are going to get messy very fast.
Don’t let simple requirements slip through the net. A few sentences in the guidelines can save you hours of work further down the line.
Adhere To Your Own Guidelines
When I say “adhere to your own guidelines,” I’m not talking about the content that you and your team already produce. You should already have an in-house style guide for that.
I’m talking about adhering to your own guidelines within your guidelines.
Very meta, I know.
But bear with me.
Set out your guidelines in a format that is similar to what you want to see in your submissions. This will show potential contributors to your preferred style and tone.
Everything I like to include in the guidelines is designed to save time on proofing and editing. The faster the content can be added to your site, the quicker you can benefit from the search engine traffic it can attract.
Write Guides To Help Contributors
Now you need to set about creating guides for your contributors. This adds an extra level of detail, making sure that spammers are deterred from pitching ideas.
It goes without saying that you are not going to accept guest contributions that are littered with grammatical errors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell people what you expect with regards to grammar.
You might want to consider the following:
- If you have a predominantly US audience, then set out grammar expectations for those that don’t usually write in American English
- Do you prefer to use the oxford comma or not?
- Do you prefer % or percent?
- Do you like to keep the use of exclamation marks down in your content?
Grammar can be subjective. Make sure that the guide is geared towards what you want to see in the content on your site.
When you first start accepting contributions, it’s unlikely you will know what your FAQs will be. Don’t worry. I like to recommend that these are built up over time.
In past projects, I’ve had the editorial team save each and every question into a shared Google Doc that any of the team can access.
Each time a question is asked, it’s added to the Google Doc. Over time you start to build a repository of questions that can form your FAQs.
Not everything has to be completed on day one.
Examples Of Past Content
This is another guide you can build up over time.
As you receive more contributions, add the best to a showcase. This shows potential contributors to the level of content you expect.
If you cover several topics on your site, you can break them down by topic example.
I’ve found that this also helps in keeping the number of low-quality pitches and submissions to a minimum.
Include A Submission Form
Let’s finish on what sounds like an obvious one – including a submission form.
I say obvious, but it’s incredible how many people miss this when putting together a content contributor program.
You don’t want to lose valuable content because people can’t find the right email address. Another benefit of using a submission form over an email address is you get to choose the fields you want completed.
I tend to use these fields:
- Company name
- Pitch title
- Brief pitch summary
- Links to social profiles
- Examples of other pieces of content they have written on other sites
This simple form will allow you to sort the wheat from the chaff at the beginning of the submission process.
When you bring all of the guidelines and guides together, you are creating a detailed program that will attract industry experts in place of SEO spammers and will ensure you only publish the type of content that Google wants to reward.
About the author:
Aaron Agius, CEO of worldwide digital agency Louder Online is, according to Forbes, among the world’s leading digital marketers. Working with clients such as Salesforce, Coca-Cola, IBM, Intel, and scores of stellar brands, Aaron is a Growth Marketer – a fusion between search, content, social, and PR. Find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or on the Louder Online blog.