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.