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I've discussed the nofollow attribute several times lately.

The bottom line: Google doesn't like paid links and regardless of whether or not one agrees with Google's stance, the use of nofollow with paid links is a best practice worth implementing.

If you need any proof of this, it can be found in the ongoing discussions around 'sponsored conversations'.

According to a new report issued by Forrester Research, sponsored conversations are "here to stay".

What are sponsored conversations? Put simply, they're paid blog posts. And more and more brands are using them. From Kmart giving bloggers $500 gift cards to Ford letting 'Chief Mom Officers' drive a new Ford vehicle for a year, many brands are clearly finding the blogosphere an attractive place to drum up publicity. Often for far less than they'd have to pay for exposure via traditional media outlets.

I'm not going to discuss whether I think this is a good thing or a bad thing (I might write about this in the future). It's not exactly new, it is happening and it will continue to happen.

Unfortunately, when bloggers write about brands they're being compensated by, they're almost always linking to the brands' websites. Those links are therefore the very definition of 'paid links'. And most bloggers seem to have no clue that Google's quality guidelines state that paid links should not pass PageRank.

Google's Matt Cutts left the following comment on the blog of Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang:

Clear disclosure of sponsorship is critical, and that includes disclosure for search engines. If link in a paid post would affect search engines, that link should not pass PageRank (e.g. by using the nofollow attribute). Google — and other search engines — do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.

In a post on his own blog, Cutts revealed that Google is not all talk:

The Forrester report discusses a recent “sponsored conversation” from Kmart, but I doubt whether mentions that even in that small test, Google found multiple bloggers that violated our quality guidelines and we took corresponding action. Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.

Ouch! Cutts went on:

We do take the subject of paid posts seriously and take action on them. In fact, we recently finished going through hundreds of “empty review” reports — thank you for that feedback! That means that now is a great time to send us reports of link buyers or sellers that violate our guidelines. We use that information to improve our algorithms, but we also look through that feedback manually to find and follow leads.

Cutts' words make it clear: Google is laying the smack down on paid links, including those that come from the so-called sponsored conversations.

Bloggers and brands should take note because a Google penalty is a no-win for everyone involved in these deals. Penalized bloggers potentially lose valuable SERPs, brands risk contributing to a decline in blog's Google mojo, which potentially reduces the value of their deal. Ironically, the more successful a sponsored conversation, the more likely it is that Google will discover it and take action if its guidelines aren't being adhered to.

Frankly you'd have to be insane to knowingly violate Google's guidelines and I don't think anyone who understands the importance (and value) of Google's trusts would risk it for a $500 Kmart gift card.

Of course many bloggers don't know about Google's quality guidelines and in the comments, Cutts recommends that such bloggers receiving a penalty can make any changes required to regain compliance with Google's guidelines and then request reconsideration. But that's a pain in the you-know-what and the truth is that you'd hope anyone making serious money as an online publisher (as the most popular bloggers do) would be staying on top of basic things like Google's guidelines.

While it would be interesting to see if Forrester's report mentions how not to attract Google's ire (like Cutts I'm not spending $750 to find out), it's really quite simple:

  • Bloggers: use nofollow when linking to websites owned by third parties that are compensating you in some way.
  • Brands: when doing sponsored conversation deals, request the addition of nofollow attribute to your links.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Patricio Robles

Published 3 March, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2364 more posts from this author

Comments (18)

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Jeremiah Owyang

Good post, in our interviews with vendors (Izea in particular) we found through Ted the founder and CEO that he had a conversation with Matt Cutts and has been aware of this for sometime.


Ted told us last week that all of this bloggers are required to comply with the suggestions you spelled out: 'No Follow' links.  

Sadly, I did speak to another blog network, who did NOT enforce the no follow rule, and as a result, may be penalized by Google. 

You bring up good points, thanks, I cross linked from my own post

over 7 years ago

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Anonymous

It's also happening on Twitter. Search for "Gotta love" to get an idea.  Some firms are paying twitter folk to wind their brand into their conversations.

over 7 years ago

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Dan...

Although "smack down" makes a good title for linkbait, Matt's stance on no-follow is kinda old news.  As an investor in IZEA I've followed this for awhile.  In fact, IZEA (the company behind the Kmart campaign) launched the industry's first 100% auditable no-follow marketplace for sponsored conversations (SocialSpark) almost a year ago -- with GOOG's blessing.  If advertisers and bloggers follow the SocialSpark Code of Ethics they can launch sponsored conversations, growing sponsors and PR hand-in-hand.

Of course, there are some PR8 blogs (that Matt appears to read) with pagerank-passing sponsor links who don't use SocialSpark to help ensure disclosure & no-follows, violating GOOG guidelines in the process.  This could be a good reminder for them of potential "smack down"...unless the rules are different for blogs Matt reads ;-)

over 7 years ago

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Sugar Inc blog network is a giant paid link farm

Well, how is it then that Shopstyle manages to dominate every keyword by getting paid link banners with 50 links per page from the sugar inc network.  Oh yeah thats right, because Mike moritz is on the board of both Google and Sugar Inc.  Well that's a win win . . . for them.

over 7 years ago

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Ted Murphy

My response to Matt

http://www.ted.me/open-letter-matt-cutts/

over 7 years ago

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Lynnelle Wilson

Good post. It seems to be a happy medium. The blogger has every right to leverage his or her public status to promote and be compensated based on that status. With full disclosure and no follows, it's a win-win for everyone. While the blog/client's site ranking won't be effected directly, the discussions will still be taking place. If done well, the site rankings - oh, yes.. and business - will grow.

over 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Jeremiah: thanks for the comment! This is an interesting discussion.

Anonymous: I believe all UGC Twitter links use nofollow.

Article Marketing Man: there are plenty of ways to do SEO without engaging in 'link schemes'. There are lots of legitimate ways to build inbound links without getting involved in the abuse link schemes that Google defines. I think you're confused or hanging around the wrong SEOs.

Dan, Ted: it's great that your policies demand the use of nofollow but if the bloggers you're working with don't know about them or respect them, it doesn't do any good.

That your policies state 'use nofollow' is of little use to the bloggers who participated in the Kmart campaign and who Matt Cutts says have been penalized by Google.

over 7 years ago

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Anonymous

I think if we believed that Google's guidelines were applied equally to all then we should all go out and get beaten up by the Niave Stick!

Google, bless them, have constantly ignored their own guidelines when dealing with certain sites, notably big brands who spend lots and lots of money with them.

Is it wrong...of course it is but it has been going on for as long as Google has existed and is nothing new.

I have only just found out that Mike Moritz is on the board of both Sugar inc and Google (allegedly) , if this is correct err HELLO has anyone heard of a conflict of interest.

Or why sugar inc isn't getting penalised for selling these links, banners with multiple text links, without checking this out sounds a lot like spam to me.

over 7 years ago

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Article Marketing Man

Patricio: The guideline that I quoted above clearly says to avoid schemes designed to build links for the purpose of increasing ranking. To me, this includes any method where you had a hand in creating a link where you knew you were likely get more SEO benefit from it than direct traffic. This includes methods such as a directory or article submission - just because Google aren't "laying the smack down", doesn't mean they approve.

The only method of link building I feel that this guideline not discount is the provision of targetted content that people want to read and link to. This is because the achieving of links is always secondary in purpose to the provision of good content.

Besides, as far as I can tell from this story, it's the link sellers that have suffered most here (and rightly so, if you prostitute your blog then it IS less trustworthy), and the brands themselves have got away pretty cleanly (save for a few angry bloggers). Not exactly threatening.

over 7 years ago

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hubs

These issue was covered extensively when google reduced page rank on blogs using the paid links (such as TLA) about a year ago.

over 7 years ago

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Jon Keefe

Good points Patricio. I was blogging about nofollow only this morning but from a different perspective, comment spam. Google is clearly dominant but Yahoo, Ask and MSN shouldn't be ignored. There is an amount of uncertainty and disagreement how these search engines treat nofollow. Several experiments have given different results. I'd like to knopw your thoughts.

over 7 years ago

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Article Marketing Man

Patricio: What Matt Cutts says in an old sitepoint thread, and what Google's guidelines say are very different things. I'm pretty sure Matt would agree with me on that point. Until they change the wording of their guidelines, I'm of the opinion than if you build directory links for SEO, you are breaking their guidelines as badly as an link buyer.

Also, in this case, "best" is a pretty subjective word. In industries where sites using link schemes dominate such as, say, travel or finance, you could spend literally years building up a site's popularity through good content to the point where you can compete. Or you could buy some links (and get some free ones from directories and articles while you're at it) and achieve the same thing in a matter of months. Google might not like it, but they also don't seem to be doing much about it, looking at the top SERPs for these industries.

over 7 years ago

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S Howells

Sugar Advertising (founder Lisa Sugar swapped her job title from advertising exec to editor in chief but advertising is what it is) also owns Starbrand Media which it combines with ShopStyle and its blog content to drive the remnants of editorial from everything it touches. If only Andy Burnham would ban it for blatant product placement.

over 7 years ago

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pixie

I've never been paid to review anything, but I have mentioned great finds on my blog before, stuff I found on etsy that is hard to find etc. How do I know if google will think i am doing something bad when I am not? I know I've linked to amazon before for great books when i want someone to be able to link directly to the book, that's the entire point of A HREF and the internet!

over 7 years ago

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Michael Martnez

Google has been fighting paid links for years and it's not winning the war.  Most people are not even aware of Google's concern about paid linking.

But here is the real problem with Google's war on paid links: they are NOT practicing what they preach.  Matt Cutts in particular has failed to disclose -- when he runs around the Web telling people to abide by Google's guidelines -- that he has a financial interest in seeing people honor those guidelines.

Nor has Matt Cutts disclosed that Google is trying to arbitrarily end a practice that existed before Google did for its own sole financial gain.

Nor has Matt Cutts disclosed that Google has threatened Web sites with wholesale penalizations if they don't use "rel='nofollow'".

Google needs to disclose to searchers which of its listings are in the Supplemental Results Index.

Google needs to disclose to searchers that less relevant content will be promoted above more relevant content in the search results when the more relevant content is in the Supplemental Results Index.

Google needs to disclose when it is showing a Wikipedia "stub" article instead of real content because "most people don't know that Wikipedia content" is not very reliable.

Google needs to disclose that it is practicing Web Apartheid by segregating the Web into two categories: those pages that accrue Google-approved value and those pages that don't acquire Google-approved value.

Google needs to disclose that most links don't count in its index, and that therefore PageRank is sham, a fraud.

Google needs to disclose that it has been very, very naughty in its unethical war against paid links.

over 7 years ago

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Peter Young

Does anybody else find it kind of ironic that Google is clamping down on 'Sponsored conversations' following the Google JP debacle?

over 7 years ago

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online currency trading system

i think we’re all in agreement that our blogs are pretty darn important for business.if you lay it out to look at the generation process, twitter is for converting folks into visitors while your blog should be used to convert people into subscribers. now, enter email

about 7 years ago

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Cupp

I am new to building websites and I was wanting to know if having your site title related to
your content really that vital? I see your title, "Google lays the smack down on 'sponsored conversations' | Econsultancy "
does appear to be spot on with what your website is about yet, I prefer to keep my title less content descriptive
and based more around site branding. Would you think this is a good idea or bad idea?

Any kind of assistance would be greatly appreciated.

almost 4 years ago

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