As we reported on Friday, Google has issued guidelines for bloggers who receive free products from companies.
Google’s advice is for bloggers to nofollow any links that they add to products they’ve received as ‘these links didn’t come about organically’.
It may sound simple enough, but it raises a number of issues. These include:
- Is there a problem with bloggers providing links in return for free products?
- If so, is this the fault of the bloggers or the brands/agencies applying pressure?
- How can Google tell the difference between a link added in return for a freebie and a natural link?
- Should bloggers be worried? Will Google make an example of one or two sites as it did with guest blogging?
I’ve been talking to some search experts about the issue.
Why does Google feel the need to ask bloggers to nofollow links? Is there a problem with links for freebies?
Influencer engagement isn’t necessarily about receiving links but more about reaching the audience of a particular blogger or online ‘personality’. The halo effect is that these engagements produce links, but that is often secondary.
Google has no hope of enforcing any issues around this so it seems it has chosen to go for bloggers instead. If Google can scare some bloggers into nofollowing links then it doesn’t have to take the step of telling the brands off – those same brands it wants to spend money on PPC ads etc.
It’s all about scale. Blogger outreach has now become such a scalable endeavour – and bloggers are now so clued-in to the commercial possibilities of working with companies – that great outreach campaigns can achieve significant success in a fairly short amount of time.
Google doesn’t like it when any link building tactic achieves scale. Every single time a tactic has become scalable, Google has acted on it.
Where possible, it will employ penalties – the higher profile, the better – to ensure there’s a sufficient level of fear and apprehension and the tactic is quickly discredited and abandoned.
Google combines this with big pronouncements like the recent blog post, leaving no room for doubt about what they see as ‘disagreeable’. The end result is the majority of the SEO community jumping, without Google having to say how high.
In my view, there’s nothing wrong with linking out to the company that gave you a free product to review. In fact, it’s a perfectly normal and legitimate thing to do.
What are the biggest problems, as you see them, with Google’s advice here?
I run a dad blog in my spare time and, like me, most bloggers do this sort of thing as a hobby. It’s never going to make any money. If you’re lucky, you might earn enough to cover costs, but that’s not what it’s about for many. We’re not all Zoella.
As for links, if I receive a toy or something similar to review, I’m not asked by Hasbro or whoever for links – they simply want to get some reviews and coverage of their product. I’ll often add a link as that’s a natural thing to do for readers.
It’s now up to individual bloggers to make educated decisions about using nofollow tags – which also brings with it a learning curve about what the nofollow tag is and when it should, and shouldn’t, be used – and this will likely lead to extravagant use of the nofollow tag.
It wouldn’t surprise me if blogging platforms were to start tagging all links as nofollow by default.
I would advise bloggers to ignore Google entirely and link out liberally to whoever they feel deserves it. But I fear that advice will fall on deaf ears, as the inevitable fear of getting penalised will overpower all other concerns.
Google is now clearly redrawing the lines of how a company’s promotional efforts are allowed to influence the link graph. It seems Google interprets any promotional activity that results in links as an attempt to manipulate its search results, which begs the question what a company is actually allowed to do in Google’s eyes to boost its online profile.
Lastly, and most significantly, this is clearly yet another case of Google wanting to have its cake and eat it too. Google makes billions from the free and open web, by using the web’s content and link graph to power its search engine.
Yet at the same time Google is unwilling to put in the effort required to ensure that its search engine continues to deliver quality results. Google wants the web to police itself, so that the search engine can just chug along nicely.
This is a morally bankrupt position to take; if Google wants to continue making such obscene profits from the web, they need to ensure their search product is sufficiently smart and advanced to rank the right websites for the right query. The burden should not be on the web to help keep Google’s results clean.
How do you think Google will determine the relationship between blogger and brand whose products they are discussing?
That’s why it’s asking for nofollowed links, it can’t. Nofollow is Google’s method of choice when it has no way to enforce something with an algorithm change. It simply cant tell the difference between paid and on-paid links.
My theory is that Google is looking to add more layers of sentiment to its alogrithm, but it wants to keep its results fair and balanced. This was one reason for the launch of Google+. It can’t tell the difference between natural and ‘paid’ reviews so its asking bloggers to police this.
It can’t. That’s why, in addition to the blog post, we should expect Google to start dishing out penalties to bloggers that have obvious link placements. A few high profile penalties should suffice to instill an overpowering fear of linking to companies among bloggers, at which point Google’s work is done.
Google doesn’t actually have to figure out the difficult bit of algorithmically identifying commercial link placements; they just plant the seeds of doubt, and let the blogosphere’s inevitable panic do the rest.
What do you think? Is Google right to clamp down on links for freebies? Or is Google overreaching here? Let us know below…