The ability to rank well in Google can mean the difference between a business succeeding and failing. Google determines their rankings using complex algorithms but the primary metric they use to decide who ranks where is the number and quality of incoming links a website has. Blogs tend to be updated frequently and link out often which makes them a primary source of links on the internet.
These two factors (influence and link potential) have lead to brands and businesses wanting to work with bloggers to get in front of their audiences and gain better search engine performance.
This post is to follow up and accompany The Hungry Australian – Chrisina Soong’s post; ‘Bloggers and brands: why we’re (mostly) doing it wrong.’ Christina’s article gives advice about how bloggers and brands can/should work together in general and I’m adding some advice to help both brands and bloggers understand the SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) perspective and stay within Google’s guidelines to avoid penalties.
Christina’s post gives some important definitions of blogger – brand arrangements which I’ve summarised below;
- Gifted – free product or service, no contract but brand hopes for a review/endorsement
- Famil – free experience to familiarise the blogger, no contract but brand hopes for a review/endorsement
- Sponsored – blogger is paid to write a post about a product or service on their blog, there is a contract
- Commission – blogger is paid to write some content on the brand’s blog, there is a contract
- Advertising – the brand pays for ad space on the blog, there is a contract
Paid links that pass PageRank are a big no no when it comes to the search engine guidelines. Google have stated this time and time again in their webmaster guidelines, blog posts and videos. Matt Cutts, the head of G’s web spam team, created a video recently going through the criteria they use to determine if a link is considered ‘paid’ (you can watch it here) and its pretty clear that Sponsored Posts and Advertising arrangements that pass PageRank are violations.
Disclosure is important for maintaining the integrity of your blog and for legal reasons but regular written disclosure can’t be understood by search engines and is therefore not enough in the eyes of Google. Search engines want you to add some code to the links in your sponsored posts and advertisements to let them know that those links are not editorial. There’s a few different ways to do this but the primary one is the no follow attribute.
But What if I Only Do Sponsored Posts for Brands that I Would Link to Anyway?
Nice try, but unfortunately this argument won’t fly. Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable famously (in the SEO industry) had advertisement’s in the sidebar that passed PageRank and used this argument but was still given a manual penalty by Google for paid links.
A similar argument was used by MyBlogGuest in their policy that guest posts arranged through their service must include author bio links that pass PageRank. This didn’t stop Google penalising the site and blogs that had used it.
It also makes sense because there’s no way for Google to tell the difference between editorial paid links and non editorial paid links so its best for them just to say that all paid links are bad.
What is PageRank?
PageRank (PR) is Google’s measure of how important a webpage is from a link perspective (only). G is worried that if you link to a brand because they paid you rather than because they earned the link from providing a great website or good product or service, then this will manipulate their rankings for the worse and also encourage more link buying which will further deteriorate their search results. The answer is to prevent paid links from passing PR by adding the no follow tag.
What is the Penalty?
Google doesn’t disclose the magnitude of penalties and how much of an impact they could have. Interflora in the UK lost a huge amount for search engine visibility and traffic after being caught buying links. A report from Barry Schwartz suggests that his penalty didn’t have a big effect for him but I still wouldn’t risk it. Barry’s previous post about the penalty also discusses how both he and the sites he was linking to were getting penalised for the paid links, so both bloggers and brands should be weary of these types of arrangements.
Can Sponsored Posts & Advertisements Still be Valuable?
Sure! There’s obviously plenty of opportunity for exposure, traffic and branding from sponsored posts and advertisements that don’t pass PageRank. Brands may even receive indirect SEO benefits from the exposure because it could help them get editorial links from other sources that didn’t previously know about them.
‘Gifted’ & ‘Famil’ Arrangements
Using the definitions above, particularly the parts about there being ‘no contract,’ these two types of arrangements are search engine compliant and therefore good options for brands and bloggers to work together from an SEO perspective. Its important to make sure that the blogger is not required or does not feel obligated to write about the product, service or experience because this would lead to any links being effectively paid rather than editorial. Going back to the Matt Cutts video I mentioned above, here are some of the criteria Google would use to determine if your arrangement is akin to a paid link;
- What is the value of what the blogger is getting? Is it enough to change your (the blogger’s) behaviour?
- How close is what they’re getting to money? e.g. a gift card is pretty close to money where as a free trial of perfume is not
- Is it a gift or a loan? A loan copy for review is fine where as a gift is more like material compensation
- Would it be a surprise to consumers and others that this free gift has been given? ie. is it relevant and normal in this industry
As long as the contract doesn’t require the blogger to link to the brand in any way from their own blog then this type of arrangement is search engine compliant. The commissioned content could attract links for the brand on its merits alone and/or because of the reputation of the blogger.
Bloggers should be careful here that they don’t link back to themselves with optimised anchor text (link text) as these would be non editorial links and could mean a penalty for the blogger, the brand or both.
Blogger, Brand & Agency Fails
I want to pick on agencies here because while I think that bloggers and brands can claim ignorance of the search engine guidelines to a degree, its the agencies’ job to know about this stuff and if their negligence is leading to the bloggers and brands they work with being at risk of a search engine penalty then that’s a huge problem. Having said that, bloggers and brands should really be on top of this stuff as well, especially since agencies are really only involved in a small number of cases.
The biggest areas of concern are the obvious (PageRank passing) paid links from sponsored posts and advertisements. I see these all the time and have identified at least four Australian blog agencies that list ‘sponsored posts’ as one of their options and the on-the-blog evidence shows that these links are “followed” (paid links should be ‘no follow’).
‘Gift’ and ‘Famil’ arrangements that are close to paid links are also a problem, see my discussion of that above.
Other problems stem from how brands approach bloggers. Christina mentions two examples of this; the ‘Machine Gun Approach’ where the brand essentially sends the same pitch to tens if not hundreds of bloggers without taking the time to craft something specific and relevant for the blogger and the ‘But We Love You Approach’ where the brand tries to get the blogger to work with them for free by pumping up their ego.
How Blogs & Brands Can Work Together for SEO
There’s two primary ways that brands can get SEO benefits from working with bloggers;
- Getting links from the blogger’s blog
- Getting links other people’s blogs and websites
Giving the Blogger a Reason to Link to the Brand
The brand needs to create a situation where the blogger has a reason to link to them. As discussed above, the reason can’t involve payment (with money or something akin to money) because this would be a paid link. The best way to do this is to create a product, service, experience or resource that would be relevant and interesting to the blogger’s audience then expose the blogger to it and hope that they write about it. The ‘hope’ part is important because if its a requirement rather than a hope, you’ve crossed over into paid link territory again. Here are some ideas;
- A gifted product or service for review which is relevant to the blogger’s audience
- A famil experience such as product on loan, a dinner or a holiday (that’s relevant of course)
- Some other kind of experience such as an event
- Exclusivity on some news or story which will be relevant to the blog’s audience
- A competition that the blog’s audience can enter and gain benefit from
- A special discount for the blog’s audience
- Create a really useful/funny/interesting online resource such as a complete guide, calculator, interview etc. which is valuable to the blog’s audience
To avoid creating something that the blogger and/or their audience won’t be interested in, its probably a good idea to do some research or contact them first before you create it. Research can include looking at types of things they’ve written about and linked to in the past, questions their audience tend to ask, in the comments for instance and asking the blogger directly.
Even if your creation is highly relevant, interesting and useful it doesn’t mean that the blogger will link to it or even accept it. To increase your chances of success you should focus on building a relationship with the blogger first and add value to them and their audience as much as possible before approaching them about something that will benefit you (the brand).
Giving Other Blogs & Websites Reasons to Link to the Brand
This is a great alternative where the focus is on leveraging the blogger’s skills, experience and notoriety to create something for the brand (either on their website or in the real world) that will attract links from elsewhere. Here are some ideas;
- Commission the blogger to write something for the brand’s website (I discussed ‘commissions’ earlier)
- Get the blogger involved in an event the brand is running e.g. as a speaker, as a brand ambassador, as a host of the event
- Get the blogger involved in a competition the brand is running e.g. the prize might be a workshop with the blogger
Tips for Brands Who Want to Work with Bloggers for SEO
- Go for quality over quantity – its tempting to use the machine gun approach which will allow you to reach more bloggers for less money but your results won’t be anywhere near as good as if you take the time to select blogs that are a good fit and try to come up with something valuable
- Don’t buy links that pass PageRank!
- Focus on adding value to the blogger and their audience
- Insist that the blogger provides full disclosure to their readers including the fact that they had full editorial control over what they wrote and their choice to write
Tips for Bloggers Who Want to Work with Brands for SEO
- Don’t sell links that pass PageRank! Or, if you do, don’t make is so obvious by labeling it ‘sponsored post’ or having a banner in the sidebar which is clearly an advertisement
- Focus on what you can do for the brand that will attract links from other websites to their website
- Help the brand to understand what they can do (if anything) to create something that you would write about, or mention, for free if it was sufficiently valuable to you and your readers
Bloggers, brands and agencies should all be aware of what effects their arrangements can have on their search engine rankings and how to make sure they play by the rules.
Brands should focus on creating valuable resources and experiences for bloggers and their audiences.
Thanks to Christina Soong for writing her original post. I suggest you go and read the post to get an understanding of how blogs and brands can work together more generally.