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.