Hosting third-party content: What Google says vs. the reality

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Hosting third-party content: What Google says vs. the reality


Ever since media publishers moved online, SEOs have been working to help rent out space on their sites in order to gain quicker traction.

This is not a new concept and has been done and abused over the past few decades, so much so that it has earned the name “parasite SEO.”

What is parasite SEO?

Parasite SEO is when a third party publishes content on a larger website in order to leverage its authority and gain quicker traction. This practice often happens to large media publishers and news outlets.

So why would large media publishers and news outlets let this happen? Well, it all comes down to money.

The third party does all the work, and all the website has to do is host the content. Easy revenue share opportunity! These third parties often do affiliate marketing or general high-interest content that earns either affiliate or ad revenue.

Google’s warning

Google updated its helpful content documentation in September 2023 with the following:

“If you host third-party content on your main site or in your subdomains, understand that such content may be included in site-wide signals we generate, such as the helpfulness of content… we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google.”

For third parties and media publishers currently in partnerships, this was a scary announcement to see. However, what made it worse was when Gary Illyes posted this on LinkedIn:

So, does this mean that all third-party content is inherently bad?

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What Google says vs. the reality

To be clear, hosting third-party content is not against Google’s guidelines.

It’s easy to take what Google says at face value and roll with that. But their algorithm is so much more nuanced than they could ever really explain.

So let’s break down a few things in the official statement:

‘Included in site-wide signals’

  • “If you host third-party content on your main site or subdomains, understand that such content may be included in site-wide signals we generate, such as the helpfulness of content.”

What this means

If you rent out sections of your site, any content the third party produces will be lumped with your main site’s content.

The reality

Google using site-wide signals isn’t a new thing. What’s important to note is that Google uses a mix of page-specific and site-wide signals simultaneously. All ranking factors may be weighed differently at any given moment depending on the search intent.

A bigger reality is that larger news and media publishers have some of the largest sites on the web due to their lengthy history. This means that even without third-party content, they will be affected by the helpful content update due to poor content already existing on the site.

As someone who actively publishes content on third-party sites, this makes me much more selective with the media publishers I choose to partner with. I don’t want to invest my team’s time and effort into a site we’ll struggle to rank on.

‘…host third-party content on your main site or in your subdomains…’

What this means

It’s common for media and news sites to carve out completely siloed sections of their site for third parties. This can be a subfolder or a subdomain. What happens is these sites allow third parties to have free reign over these sections, but they receive no internal links from the core site.

The reality

This is actually a negative signal for Google, telling them almost explicitly that this content is renting space and the publisher doesn’t want to affiliate themselves with the content other than sharing the root domain and branding.

This practice really doesn’t help the third party that much and is a practice that needs to go. If you’re in this situation, talk with your publisher about finding ways to add internal links to your content naturally.

‘…typically without any oversight…’

This comes from Illyes’s LinkedIn post about the change in documentation. The full quote is:

  • “We’ve heard (and also noticed) that some sites “rent out” their subdomains or sometimes even subdirectories to third-parties, typically without any oversight over the content that’s hosted on those new, generally low quality micro-sites that have nothing to do with the parent site.”

What this means

Based on the sites I’ve analyzed, news publishers often fall victim to this. They form partnerships with agencies and give them free rein over a microsite.

It’s often unlinked from the parent site and is typically focused on general affiliate marketing, while the main site is focused on news.

The reality

Google is actually pretty spot-on here. The content I’ve seen doesn’t follow any E-E-A-T guidelines. It disobeys my number one rule of content, “Does it sound like ChatGPT wrote it?”

Typically, the authors on these posts just say the name of the marketing agency and the content is very generalized without providing any meaningful value or usefulness.

‘…we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google.’

The full quote is:

  • “For this reason, if that content is largely independent of the main site’s purpose or produced without close supervision or the involvement of the primary site, we recommend that it should be blocked from being indexed by Google.”

What this means

Google is recommending to these publishers that they place a noindex tag on all third-party content that is not closely supervised.

The reality

I’m really torn on this comment. If I was the lead SEO at a publisher and discovered all of this low-quality content, I wouldn’t just noindex it, I’d likely remove it.

However, there are so many business contracts and relationships at play that this is likely not feasible. This is often revenue-generating content that is there for a reason.

If you’re currently in a situation like this, the logical next step is to do a mass overhaul of your content and create an E-E-A-T rubric for your third party to follow.

Who’s Google talking about?

As I’ve mentioned before, Google is mostly targeting local news sites and larger media publishers who have active third-party content on their sites.

Here are a few telltale signs of sites that the next implementation of the helpful content update will hit.

The content is completely siloed

This means that the site has no internal links coming from the parent site and the content is not relevant to the main site.

The content sounds like AI wrote it

This is my number one criterion for judging content quality. When you read it, does it have a voice, or does it sound like a robot wrote it to be generalized?

Your content should have a point of view, otherwise, it might as well be instructions on a shampoo bottle.

There’s no authorship

It’s worth noting that Google’s algorithm doesn’t actually use authors as a ranking factor. This was confirmed at Pubcon in 2023 by Illyes and documented by Mark Traphagen.

However, Google can recognize authors through internal links.

Contradictory? Well, kind of. It means that Google can recognize authors but doesn’t actively use it as a ranking signal.

What this means for us is that Google may end up using this as a ranking signal in the future.

So, if “Acme Marketing” authors your content, you may want to invest in some meaningful experts in the field.

Hosting third-party content: How to do it correctly

I’d like to reiterate that there’s nothing inherently bad about hosting third-party content and it’s not against Google’s guidelines.

There are ways to do it correctly where you actually provide value to users. Here are my top tips to do it correctly.

Stay on-brand

Your content must stay on-brand with the parent theme. So, if you’re partnering with a media publisher that focuses on home decor, make sure any content you’re producing fits within that niche.

This, unfortunately, makes it difficult for news sites, but you might be able to creatively find a way to produce meaningful content for news sites.

Get qualified experts

Especially when it comes to YMYL content, getting qualified subject matter experts is vital to maintaining E-E-A-T. You’d be surprised how many experts would love to review or even write content for you if it means they get featured somewhere notable.

Make sure to create meaningful author bio pages to demonstrate why users should trust them.

Find and create natural internal linking opportunities

If your content is staying on-brand with the parent site, then you should have no problem finding natural internal linking opportunities.

If none exists, work with your team to create meaningful content that may naturally link to your third-party content.

Work closely with the parent company

It’s critical to work closely with your parent company to ensure your content is on-brand with the rest of the site.

Because the helpful content update is a site-wide signal, all content on the site must be consistent in tone and messaging.

Making third-party content work for you

Never take announcements from Google at face value. Take time to think about what Google is saying and decide what nuances may play into it.

Nothing is final. If the algorithm worked exactly like Google said it does, we wouldn’t have so many algo updates. It’s an evolving process.

So, pick up on the signs of where Google is heading and always focus on creating the best experience for your users.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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