Do you ever have times where you feel like you’re biting your tongue online for the sake of not wanting to get in to a needless social media argument? Well, that’s been me ever since Google released their latest webmaster blog post about receiving products or payment from companies, nofollows and disclosure. You can read their post here.
Now as someone who works in digital marketing and SEO, as well as being a blogger, I often avoid conversations in this area because the two halves of my life want to do very conflicting things. But I have been finding myself increasingly frustrated this week with the number of posts in blogger groups that have taken what Google has said as “the law” and are instructing other, perhaps newer and less knowledgeable bloggers, to do the same. So I thought that rather than stewing in my own irritation I would just put my thoughts to a post and be done with it. A form of mental cleansing if you will.
Dissecting the Post – nofollows and disclosure
The first thing to consider when reading this post is the use of language within the title:
Best practices for bloggers reviewing free products they receive from companies.
“Best Practice”. By definition this means procedures that are the most effective. This isn’t saying that this is the law or the only way to do things – just that it’s the preferred, best method approach. That is very important considering the advice or “instruction” that follows.
Use the nofollow tag where appropriate
This is the crux of Google Webmaster guidelines. To put things simply – if you have received payment of any kind (by means of product, payment in kind, voucher or monetary compensation) then you must nofollow the branded links to avoid passing artificial “link equity” or “value” to the brand pages. Branded links can also include links to social media, app store, review store pages etc. This is because Google uses links as one of their most important factors in their algorithm as a way to rank which websites appear for particular search terms. The easiest way to think about this is that each link counts as a vote. A link to a dress using the link text (anchor text) “dresses” would be a strong “vote” from the linking website (your blog) that the brands page are relevant for the term “dresses”. This is also true if the link text says something like “click here” but the content is about dresses. Google is smart like that.
I have no issue with the nofollow requirement. I get it – they want their search results to be as natural as possible and brands working with bloggers and publishers to build these links *could* appear to be them trying to artificially boost the number of “votes” they have.
But there is something very key to remember here – Google is not the law. They have their own guidelines and whether bloggers and publishers choose to abide by them is entirely their decision. Many bloggers, particularly those that have been going for a long time and who understand the risks, will choose to still use followed links – maybe just occasionally – so they can still work on interesting brand opportunities that require them. It is down to the individual blogger.
The risk of not abiding by these guidelines for bloggers is that Google can penalise either the individual post OR your entire blog which means they devalue it and may remove it from their index (search results). Does this matter? Well, if you receive a large percentage of your traffic from Google then you may decide that it does. If you don’t receive much, if any, traffic from Google then you may decide it really doesn’t matter for the time being.
It’s also really important to remember that you can rectify the situation if you are penalised. Google will notify you through the manual actions section of Search Console (webmaster tools) if you have received a manual penalty and generally all that is needed is for you to go back and nofollow or remove the offending links and resubmit your site for consideration. This can take as little as a month or two if you act quickly.
Conclusion – This bit of Google’s post makes sense. It’s the rules as they have always stated them but with a few extra details around linking to branded social media etc. Whether you choose to follow the guidelines is entirely your own choice and you can rectify any penalties quite quickly if you decide that you want to use followed links. Risk vs. Reward – the call is yours to make.
Disclose the relationship
OK. This is where I may get just a little bit irate.
Disclosure is something that has become far more prominent over recent years – particuarly for vloggers and bloggers. In essence we can break this down as being “owned” by three different areas:
The CAP Code – a code for direct marketing and non-broadcast advertising that outlines key rules to follow. Applicable rules in our blogging scenario are:
2.1 Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such
2.3 Marketing communications must not falsely claim/imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer
2.3 Marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if not obvious from the context
3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so
The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority)
is in charge of enforcing the CAP code and investigating and upholding complaints – think of them as the “henchmen”
The Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 act which has a list of 31 blacklisted practices which are deemed “unfair” to consumers. A key one for us as bloggers here is:
Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable to the consumer (advertorial)
These three make it quite clear that if something is considered “paid for” or “marketing” or an “advertorial” it should be immediately obvious (i.e. disclosed) to the viewer. Totally makes sense. I would hate to read a glowing review, buy the product and then find that it’s a big pile of shit and that the reality is the blogger was paid for a wonderful review but hadn’t made it clear. I get it. I am fully behind it.
BUT. I have seen a LOT of confusion around what is classed as an “advertorial” a.k.a. a marketing communication/advert. People seem to think that ANY product review or sponsored post is considered an “advertorial” because they have been paid in some way. That is not what the code states. CAP themselves have even elaborated on this in a blog post which you can find here.
You can read it for yourselves but essentially to be classed as an “advertorial” and to therefore require disclosure they follow a two step evaluation process. This comes down to whether there was:
To be classed as an advertorial, rather than native advertising (natural content that befits the blog), you must meet both of these requirements. If you don’t, you don’t need to disclose because you haven’t been “forced” to write anything you wouldn’t have naturally. So simply:
1. If you are paid (in money, voucher, kind or product) but you retain full editorial control over the content – you do not need to disclose
2. If you are paid and they instruct you about what to write you do have to disclose
Simple right? Obviously there’s no telling whether they will change these guidelines in the future but that’s why it’s so important to stay up to date with guidelines and change your approach when you need to.
So why are you pissed off with Google?
Well for one simple fact – Google have put out this post which they title “best practice” and they tell bloggers they must disclose when payment or product has been received. Google have not mentioned the exact rules around this, which is fair enough as they operate over multiple legal systems and countries, but they have included this in a post that makes it appear as if these are the rules that *should* be followed.
Google are not the ASA. They are not CAP. They are not the Office for Fair Trading. Yet they are making a point of telling bloggers that they should be disclosing. Why? Well there is one simple reason for this and it relates to their above nofollow guidelines.
You see, one of the ways that Google pick up whether a blog is using paid follow links when it “shouldn’t be” is by manually reviewing the page. They have people whose job it is to assess posts very quickly (think under a minute) and decide whether it has broken their guidelines around paid for links. One key way they can do this is by looking for disclosure. If there is disclosure then the chances are the post was “paid for” in some way and the link should be nofollowed. If it’s followed then they can quickly identify it as being paid for.
But what if there’s no disclosure? Well, then they need to dig a bit deeper and sometimes it can be very hard to tell whether a blogger has linked to a brand because they were paid to or because they just love the brand. And herein lies their problem.
Google want people to disclose because it makes their life easier. It makes it easier for them to spot bloggers who aren’t following their own guidelines (again – these aren’t the law) and therefore makes it harder for them to penalise bloggers for not doing so. It’s also worth noting that Google actually fund ASA research. They have a vested interest in making sure people are disclosing for this very reason but under the guise of creating an “honest” internet.
And THAT is why this post has irritated me. Google have been clear that this is “best practice” but bloggers will take this post as a given – these are the rules that should be followed. And that’s just not the case. Newer bloggers and those less familiar with SEO or the rules surrounding blogging in general will look to Google for guidance – and they seem to have capitalised on that power with this post.
Obviously I am just one person – everyone will want to do things differently – and I haven’t touched on the morality around disclosing gifted items which many feel is just as important so as not to mislead their viewers. That’s fine – but lets not confuse that with “law” and “regulation”.
Each to their own. Just remember that there are specific regulatory practices that we need and must adhere to and then there is Google. A powerhouse in the modern era but NOT our judge, jury and executioner.