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How bad is the newspaper business hurting? If the shameless link selling the Express Group is engaging in on its websites is any indication, newspapers have it pretty bad.

The sales team at the Express Group has been sending emails to SEOs promoting the company's "SEO advertorials", which are little more than keyword-rich articles published on Express.co.uk, DailyStar.co.uk and Ok.co.uk that the Express Group is willing to pepper with paid links.

The email sent by a senior member of the Express Group's agency ad sales team reads, in part:

You may be interested to know, here at the ‘Express Group’ we have started to integrate SEO advertorials amongst our news articles across our three main sites – Daily Express (http://express.co.uk/) Daily Star ( http://www.dailystar.co.uk) and OK ( http://ok.co.uk/)

The SEO Advertorials run in a prominent position on a selected channel homepage (IE: Fashion) for a two week/one month period and then are archived for over 15 months.

For SEO benefits, we ask you to highlight terms you wish to use as external text links and supply destination URL for each highlighted term to and ensure the title of the article has good SEO benefits as this will be picked up in search engine

We ask for you to supply, 250-500 words of content and supporting images.

Advertorials start at £1,000 per article but am happy to negotiate on bundle deals.

The email goes on to list a number of real-world examples of these "SEO advertorials". One, which is published on Express.co.uk, features little more than SEO-bait text. It has apparently been paid for by lastminute.com. The phrases "Cheap Hotels", "Hotels" and "London Hotels" all link to pages on lastminute.com. Other companies that appear to be paying for links include John Lewis, Zurich Connect, Sainsbury's and Schwartz.

Needless to say, the Express Group's link selling is, by any reasonable standard, a gross violation of Google's policy vis-à-vis paid linking, which states "Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results." The sales pitch from the Express Group ad sales team makes it clear that this is precisely what its 'SEO advertorials' are designed to do. While the mere existence of Google's policy has never eliminated paid links (and never will), the threat of a significant Google penalty is usually enough to ensure that link sellers and link buyers conduct their activities somewhat discretely.

The fact that the Express Group is so blatantly soliciting link sales through apparently unsolicited emails that not only make the intent clear but that also expose who its paying clients may be a sign that traditional ad sales simply aren't cutting it for the company.

Needless to say, Google would be wise to take immediate action against Express Group websites and the companies that are buying links. If Google's policies are to be taken seriously, such blatant violations on the part of large publishers and companies provide Google with the opportunity to prove that its policies apply to everybody and that there are no double standards.

Unfortunately, given what we've seen in the past, a Google penalty is probably unlikely for any of the parties flagrantly violating its rules. That said, such a penalty really isn't the primary thing the Express Group should worry about. The bigger problem for the company is that while link selling of this nature may generate some revenue in the short-run, it will hurt the business in the long run. Although it's fair to point out that the Express Group publishes tabloids, selling 'advertorials' at £1,000 a pop will only do two things longer term: decrease the quality of the company's websites and further erode whatever value remains in its traditional ad inventory.

In short, the Express Group provides yet another example of just how short-sighted many print publishers are being. While they've clearly accepted that the status quo isn't sustainable, they haven't quite figured out that the imperative for 'change' does not mean 'change for the worse'.

Hat-tip to Louis Venter and Mark Cook for the tip-off. 

Photo credit: griffithchris via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 April, 2010 by Patricio Robles

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

2377 more posts from this author

Comments (29)

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Anonymous coward

This practice is not new; the fact you've received an unsolicited and blatant email is, though. Plenty of search agencies have offered/advised the use of 'advertorials' with big publishers that are coincidentally keyword-laden for well over 18 months. To pick on just one other example: http://www.birminghampost.net/news/special-features/2010/04/06/your-essential-guide-to-sat-navs-provided-by-zurich-connect-65233-26187360/ The problem is: Where does it stop? Online PR newswires essentially offer a paid linking service by allowing businesses to submit PR stories that are - coincidentally - keyword laden that link out to the originators' sites.

over 6 years ago

Jon Hudghton

Jon Hudghton, Development at Quayside Clothing Ltd

Not that I think it would happen, but it would be quite amusing if Google did penalise the Express site in some way. I wonder if Lastminute.com would pursue a refund?

over 6 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

This is very interesting, and I tend to agree with your analysis of why this doesn't make sense for The Express long-term (although I can still remember when their homepage was a scanned image of the paper's front page).

However, I'm slightly concerned that a correspondent at a respected industry site should be encouraging Google to take action, or feels that it would be a shame if Google didn't penalise those buying them.

I'm sure you mean that it's in Google's business interests, and that what you find unfortunate is that smaller brands might not escape such penalties, but be raising these points in the way that you do, you open the debate up to the inevitable (and ridiculous) suggestions that buying links is, in some way, a moral issue.

over 6 years ago

Jack Hubbard

Jack Hubbard, Managing Director at Propellernet

This is happening across the newspaper industry, although some newspapers are clearly more open about it than others. The lid it seems is now well and truly off on this so watch out brands whose SEO straegy is based on buying advertorial links. Get creative or get caught short. Looking forward to discussing with you all at internet world next week.

over 6 years ago

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Dan W, Digital Marketing / Ecommerce / Optimisation Professional at Personal

Would this be less inflammatory if the advertorial in question carried the standard 'Advertisement Feature' as per their newspaper? Google appear to be more tolerant of links which clearly state that they're sponsored.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Ciaran - I think Pato's main point is that there needs to be a level playing field with regards to Google action, but I agree with you. we are not the police, nor arbiters of moral codes of conduct.

For the record, I don't see link buying as evil. It's horses for courses. We all know the risks involved, and for the Express the risks are clearly loss of Google love / firepower in return for some short term revenue. 

You'd imagine that would be myopic, but maybe the Express doesn't rely on Google in the same way that other newspapers do?

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Dan - it is labelled a 'sponsored article', so it complies with ASA guidelines. The issue is that it is openly and actively selling articles / links "for SEO purposes", which is frowned upon by The Google Police, and - for that reason alone - it's kinda silly. 

over 6 years ago

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Richard Nowak

Nothing special - marketing ~ SEO

over 6 years ago

Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, Head of Business Development at Harvest Digital

Your calls for damnation and punishment of the few that were caught are a little harsh when so many companies pursue these tactics.  A broader issue is why marketers are willing to completely forget about their customers in their quest for better search rankings.  People invest so much time and energy in complete drivel which they distribute across the web and their sites to try and get up the SERPS.  There's something just wrong in commissioning keyword rich content rather than just content that would inform delight and entertain. Why punish a small number of people for tactics that the majority of companies follow, albeit discretely?  It is probably a better to get the issue into the open and then try to resolve it through an improvement in search products.  Use of crowdsourcing mechanisms such as retweeting and in the longer term the semantic web should mean that marketers would be forced to stop broadcasting spam for visibility's sake and refocus on their customers and providing value. 

over 6 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

@Chris - as I said, I thought that was Patricia's point, but it came across more like the sort of thing you expect to see in a Daily Mail editorial. econsultancy is (rightly) respected across the industry, and so I think it's important that you don't give the (incorrect) impression that you are looking for companies to be punished.

over 6 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

It's been well known for years now that PC World sells links but they have never been penalised. Companies still buy them too so it must still work. I think Google's inaction here is more of an indicator that they condone good, high quality paid links because they provide other more valuable benefits like traffic and eyeballs. Spending £1000 is also a pretty good indicator for Google that the linked page is actually about what that anchor text says it's about. But given that page has zero PR on it anyway, you have to ask the question. For SEO was it worth £1000? Nope. But I bet it was worth it for the eyeballs and click throughs.

over 6 years ago

Linus Gregoriadis

Linus Gregoriadis, Research Director at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

It will be interesting to see if this has any impact on other newspapers / publishers who have been selling links to search agencies more discreetly. Part of me feels this is the online equivalent of a so-called victim-less crime. 

BTW @ciaran it's Patricio (AKA Pato or @probles) not Patricia

over 6 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

There was a PR update at the beginning of the month. That might not be a penalty. PR is a relative floating value of a pages popularity not the websites. It might just mean lots of other websites got more important or the ones linkiing to it got less important or they have changed their internal link structure etc etc. For example The Times dropped from 9 to 5. It doesn't mean they have had a big link penalty applied.

over 6 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

@Julian: Sure, if you hadn't pointed out the Times I'd have said it's surely a bit odd for both the Express and OK to see their TBPR plummet like that.

Of course, the Times has recently repointed some domains and pulled its incredible vanishing from Google for 12 hours trick, so who knows what that's about ... 

over 6 years ago

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Ross Collins

What's wrong with making a living? Anyway, who pays £1,000 for an advertorial link like this? Please introduce me to lastminute, sainsbury, john lewis and schwarz so I can show them how to do proper link building! 

over 6 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

@Julian: the Times went to PR 5 back in January: www.davidnaylor.co.uk/the-times-online-screwed-up.html

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Ciaran, I simply believe that Google should enforce its policies consistently; there shouldn't be double-standards. There's a good debate to be had about paid links in general, but Google is pretty darn clear about what it thinks: they're a no-no. Yet if it doesn't punish big companies that are breaking its rules, what message does that send to everyone else? That's the big problem here.

over 6 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

I realise that's what you meant Patricia, but think that the word 'Unfortunately' is a powerful one, especially when wishing punishment on a brand. 

over 6 years ago

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Hilarious

Evenin' All,

I spotted this story first on www.further.co.uk/blog

Eevryone pointing fingers and the uproar of the lessening length of the Express's green bar. Having never heard of further.co.uk as an SEO agany I had a quick gander to see who is their customers.

And then I spotted this http://www.further.co.uk/fitness-footwear.aspx

We all had a laugh at the hypocrisy of calling out The Express for selling links and then doing it themselves!! The links to all the brands are all do follow (though I bet that changes double quick!). I mean obviously we would like your excuse please on why you dare point "uncondommed" links to someone who pays you. 

I mean really what a joke. 

over 6 years ago

Ryan Clark

Ryan Clark, Link Builder at Linkbuildr

The one thing I have learned is that Google turns an eye as long as you are big enough. Sad but true, and I go through dozens of backlink profiles daily!

over 6 years ago

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Hilarious

Hey Ryan,

I dont think people mind other people pointing out people buying links IF and only IF they dont do it themselves. The problem lies in the fact that the internet and in particular SEO individuals and companies are often hypocrytical.

Case in point:

www.Further.co.uk originally broke the "Express sells links via advertorials" story while simoultaneously selling links for money.

(http://www.further.co.uk/fitness-footwear.aspx)

Its just a bit of a joke....

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

over 6 years ago

Ryan Clark

Ryan Clark, Link Builder at Linkbuildr

?--- awesome find and while it looks pretty legit, that is some sneaky yet smart link building there for a client. I imagine Google would turn a blind eye to that sort of linking...who knows though with them. I even do not mind competing against a site that is buying links...makes for an interesting campaign!

over 6 years ago

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hilarious

@Ryan You must compete against everyone?!

How is it "legit"?

They are being paid by a firm and then giving them links against Google's TOS.

Its just ironic how they pointing out other people doing the same thing.

                             *rolls eyes*

over 6 years ago

Ryan Clark

Ryan Clark, Link Builder at Linkbuildr

I guess that would slide because it's a client of theirs as well the linking seems fine. All the major press release companies basically sell links but Google wouldn't dare touch that industry. I use legit so very loosely these days! The major problem Google had before were people just buying lousy blog posts on unrelated blogs....I am aware that you already know this and are most likely thinking " well duh". Either way this newspapers approach is going to cause them trouble..should be fun to watch.

over 6 years ago

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hilarious

Google clearly states dont buy links for SEO purposes. 

Further.co.uk get paid to promote that site and give do follows out with anchor text.

That is Paid for link.Against G's TOS. Factomundo. Clear cut. Go straight to jail, do not pass go.

Admittedly, no one really gives a monkey (other than the SEO gossip gang) but if you are going to start pointing fingers courtesy states to ensure you remove the pooh from your own finger first  : )

over 6 years ago

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gary oldman

Patricio Robles,

Northern and Shell (the group that owns The Express) will make £100m profit this year. How much will you make? Or Econsultancy? or any of the critics who jumps up and down at what is just a simple legal commercial deal?

If I was Mr Desmond I would tell my Digital guys to ignore the noise and if there is a demand for a product and its not illegal then sell to it and not panda to the critics.

I would remind them of that most famous of speeehces from Mr Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Though I expect this will fly straight over your head and you will decide that you are right and that it must stop or the world will end. At least try and remember as you tweet, talk and type that the company is succesful, and there will be a reason for that. 

It mot certainly wont be because they don't take chances or play by your rules or listen to the endless critique from smaller less successful companies.

{I do absolutely love that "man in the arena" speech}

over 6 years ago

Gareth James

Gareth James, Freelance SEO Consultant at SEO Doctor

I agrees with @Ross, who pays a grand for an advertorial? And I bet the link buyer is not even properly testing the links.

I've recently been offered similar links but at £100 each in minimum bundles of 10 regional sites.  I explained to the news group that they were all on the same IP and not worth the price...but they were selling fast with only the big brands buying.  Does the Vince update allow the big brands to get away with even more now? 

about 6 years ago

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Paul

One of our clients was approached and received a similar email from an SEO Agency; so clearly some SEO companies don’t have an issue with this practice....

Question: Is this any different than creating and submitting an article to a paid PR/article hub for distribution? Or creating a blog, targeting a particular industry?

about 6 years ago

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David Reilly

I find the sentiment of this blog post unconstructive. UK newspaper websites have been particularly hurt by the advertising downturn, arguably via search Engines haemorrhaging their news value, and yet have shown great innovation in debating and constructing new online revenues such as The Times soon to launch pay subscription model and the Telegraphs Online integrated ad spots. Naming and shaming the Express Group does little to support those news groups who are innovating and developing new online revenue models.

Also, Gary O nice quote, but given that we have just celebrated St. George's Day can we not quote someone a bit closer to home like the great Sir Winston Churchill: ‘A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty’

about 6 years ago

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