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On Friday, Google explicitly stated what it expects from bloggers who receive free products (read the blog post here).
In a nutshell: a prominent clarification of a commercial relationship, a no-follow link and content that isn't suspiciously hotchpotch.
We already knew this, so why has it peeved some SEOs?
When is a link a natural link?
The Google blog post in question prompted some SEOs to bemoan the fact that marketers are finding it increasingly difficult to earn organic traffic.
Hasn't Google made online PR a more tricky proposition than offline?
If a company sends a product to a blogger, it does not dictate what that blogger writes. Indeed, bloggers often explicitly state that being sent free products does not in any way guarantee blog coverage.
There is no money changing hands in these situations either.
If a blogger becomes aware of a great product (let's say a new and unique product from an SME) through being sent something in the post, is this not a valid method of discovery?
There are already conventions in place that allow brands to promote themselves through influencers - think of designers dressing celebrities for the Oscars.
This particular convention relies on implicit commendation from the star in question - it's the press, offline and online, that fill in the blanks or ask the celeb about their outfit.
Why should online PR not have its grey areas, too, or even its guerrilla tactics?
The answer of course is that Google doesn't enforce hard or fast rules on bloggers - no algorithm is sophisticated enough to deduce subtle relationships between products, bloggers, article style, website content, linking etc.
Google merely recommends rules of thumb and is likely to agree that do-follow links are indeed appropriate in some instances.
Time for a crap analogy?
Those marketers who are mired in blogger relations, trying to make it work for their brands that are struggling for visiblity, would do well to remember there are other priorities.
Here's a crap analogy.
Sending free products to bloggers, trying to increase traffic to your site (directly or via search gains), instead of looking to improve the customer experience of your site is like:
- Pushing more paper into a jammed printer.
- Serving bigger portions of foul-tasting food.
- Practising a rain dance instead of building an irrigation system.
- Tuning the engine of a car with flat tires.
Google's advice to bloggers is the same that should be heeded by brands. Provide a consistent, enjoyable and accessible experience via your website.
For bloggers, this means that output should recognisably be themed, of a consistent standard and without conflict of interest.
This content should reside on a mobile optimised website.
Brands ultimately need to face up the hierarchy of product over experience over marketing.
Yes, there are crap products that are marketed well (just think of any random smartwatch).
Yes, there are great products, for which we must endure a poor buying experience (think continually refreshing a website to buy gig tickets).
But, the holy grail is creating repeat custom and high conversion by selling a good product on a slick website.
Do that and the SEO will (more than ever) take care of itself.
It could be less hassle just to buy some social ads or old-fashioned creative
Okay, I don't want to contradict myself here, but social advertising over the past few years, chiefly Facebook ads, has matured to a point where it offers reliable visibility at scale.
If you're paying an agency to find bloggers, measure and report on their audiences, contact them to discuss partnership, send them nicely packaged freebies, measure the impact of any activity, and potentially, after all that, need to disavow some links, you'd be forgiven for being frustrated.
Though the most successful bloggers can offer good scale, if you don't have the products to command serious consideration from these influencers, some straight-up advertising might be a better option.
Out-of-home advertising is still going strong, an area that many brands barely consider, though it can deliver high engagement and ROI.
Do a lack of skills necessitate blogger relations?
In a recent article about ecommerce product descriptions (are they always necessary?), I posited that there may be a focus on content by many brands because of a lack of skills in other areas.
Whilst content professionals abound and UX specialists and programmers are in high demand, it's perhaps inevitable that this blogger debate should be so fervid.
However, until marketers have their owned content in order, they need to stop worrying about influencers. The ground on which freebie blogger links are built seems to be increasingly infirm.