To follow or to nofollow?

I’ve been reading and joining in with a lot of discussions recently about paid links and how Google is attempting to clamp down on them. There are a lot of bloggers out there who are not sure what to do. There are a number of PRs out there who are not sure what to do. And there are probably a lot of SEO professionals getting a bit worried about their jobs.

I’m not an expert at all, so I’m not going to claim to answer all your questions. I’m not going to tell all bloggers what they absolutely must do, or tell all PRs and SEO professionals that they should be queuing up at the dole office. I’m just going to pull together some links and different viewpoints and tell you how I see the situation. Hopefully somebody will find that useful.

The basics

There’s a great guide to follow and nofollow on the Tots100 blog and they will be covering it at Blogcamp this coming weekend, so if you’re going, get your notepads and pens (OK, or your netbooks and tablets if you prefer) ready and find out what the current thinking is on the issue. Another good post about the issue is this guide to buying and selling links.

To sum it up, though, paid links (which includes most sponsored posts) skew search results. When you search for something on the internet you want the top sites to be there because lots of people think they’re good (probably – there is a whole other question about what makes a good search result), rather than because they have enough money to pay to get their site to the top. (Most of us know that the actual top result is usually an ad.)

Google does not like paid links that pass pagerank (pagerank is Google’s assessment of how good a site (or an individual page) is, based on the number of (relevant) links it has pointing to it – and probably a whole bunch of other factors that no-one really knows about, though the pagerank of the sites linking in is also a factor.

In their guidelines, Google accepts that paying for links is an integral part of the online economy and is not attempting to stop the practice. Its aim is to ensure that these links do not skew its search results. In order to keep paid links (e.g. for advertising or for PR campaigns) but not affect search, they ask people to add rel=”nofollow” to the end of their <a> tag (lots of blogging platforms or software have easier ways of doing this – e.g. a box you can tick when adding a link).

So why is this suddenly a big deal?

To be fair, this isn’t actually new. The guidelines have been around for a while. However, it would appear that Google is clamping down on people going against their guidelines and there have been a number of blogs and sites losing their pagerank, which has got a lot of people worried. In addition, the brands or sites that are purchasing the links are supposed to be being penalised, though the only one I’ve heard lots about was Google themselves penalising their Chrome home page for passing pagerank in a video campaign.

One blogger who lost pagerank recently is Nicki Cawood of Curly and Candid. Nicki says:

“I lost my pagerank because I didn’t adhere to Google guidelines. I knew the information was there but didn’t take the time to read it all properly and change all of my links quickly enough. With hindsight I would be more proactive regarding making the changes. I am currently working with the information Google has supplied to hopefully get my Pagerank reinstated. Overall though it has to be said that if you want to play in Google’s backyard, you have to follow (or no-follow!) their rules. Using followed links rather than nofollow links for sponsored posts and advertisements has to be carefully thought through as by flouting the rules that are in place to make Google rankings fairer, you are running the risk of being penalised.”

Mammasaurus has also posted about the issue of sponsored posts this morning and there are already quite a few comments with varying opinions.

How is this affecting bloggers?

There are quite a few bloggers out there who make an income from their blog. Quite a lot of that income comes from sponsored posts or paid guest posts. There are various names for these, but they involve the blogger being paid to publish a post on behalf of a brand. There are sponsored posts that fall within Google’s guidelines – a number of PR agencies and networks insist on using nofollow in their campaigns, for example. But many of them don’t.

The ones that Google are particularly concerned about are those in the ‘paid links’ area, which are the kinds of post where a blogger (or a guest poster) writes a general post around a topic and includes a couple of keywords linking to a particular website or page. The posts are not usually talking about the brand in question and their only purpose is to move that particular website up the search results for that particular keyword.

But that does not mean other paid posts are not immune. It is all purchased links that pass page rank, so that does include the sponsored posts about a particular brand. It probably does not include reviews, even where the blogger has been given the item to review. Generally, reviews are unbiased opinions and bloggers often write reviews for things they’ve bought as well as items they’ve been sent. Bloggers are generally under no obligation to write a review and usually aren’t provided with specific keyword links (if they are, then it might end up being flagged as a paid link, even if it’s not one). However, a lot of bloggers are erring on the side of caution and changing review links to “nofollow” as well.

Personally, I’m not doing this because the majority of my reviews are for books and often I don’t even link to the publisher’s site, but just to the book on Amazon (though I am considering making Amazon links nofollow, because frankly they don’t need any more PR!). I tend only to review items that are relevant and I have never written a review that has been paid for.

Sponsored posts and blogger relationships with brands are all fine as long as “nofollow” is used in the link tag. A really good PR campaign should not be about boosting search engine results, but about spreading the word about a product or service. Good PR doesn’t need to purchase links – it gets natural links from people talking.

What are bloggers doing about the issue?

A lot of bloggers are now pulling out from doing sponsored posts completely, some are insisting they will only do paid posts with nofollow links, others are pulling out of any brand associations completely and some are continuing as normal, though watching cautiously and ready to jump on those follow links if they see their page rank plummet.

Super Amazing Mum says she thinks “this is the end of sponsored posts as long as Google sees it as clients ‘buying their way up rankings’”.

Maggie from Red Ted Art says “I would be gutted if something happened to Red Ted Art, so that I am focussing on Giveaways and no Follow sponsored posts”.

What are the brands and businesses doing about the issue?

A lot of brands or networks have been asking bloggers to change their advertisements to be nofollow and/or to put them just on the front page of the blog. I’ve seen a lot of technical advice flowing back and forth while people try to work out how to make something only appear on the front page of their blog, when the sidebars and footers usually span all pages (there are plug-ins and widgets to help).

Sian To, who runs Stokke’s PR, blogs at MummyTips and is also organising Cybher, the first all-inclusive female blogger event in the UK, says that she is happy for bloggers to change links to Stokke to nofollow: “Any Stokke reviews or posts that any of you guys have. Please feel free to make them No Follow. It’s about the mention not the page rank for me.”

Another point of view, though, comes from Merry, who owns an online toy shop and also blogs at Patch of Puddles. For Merry and many others who operate smaller online businesses, the links that come from reviews of products, as well as links from advertising, have formed an integral part of their marketing strategy (along with word-of-mouth and people buying direct from links in review) and cracking down on them is likely to adversely affect their businesses.

“I won’t be placing or renewing ads for my shop that are no follow. I need the links to raise my site on Google. Visibility is only a small part of it for an awful lot of businesses, what matters is raising our site in Google’s sight so our pages rise on Google in general. I can’t see how they can expect every shop/site going to build on nothing but organic links. The Internet is just too big.

For years Google has rewarded inlinks, good (pro or even black hat) SEO, and content a poor third. They don’t reward good customer service or good prices or a decent range or a moral business model or a family that needs its business to do well to survive. So I need ads with follow links and reviews the same.”

What are PRs doing about it?

There seems to be a wide range of approaches and reactions. Some PRs are continuing as normal as, understanding Google’s guidelines, they have always insisted on “nofollow” anyway. Others are suggesting workarounds or offering more money. Others are realising that they do have to go with “nofollow” and change the focus of their campaigns instead. Stephen Waddington has just published a great post about the issue of transparency and following the guidelines from the point of view of a PR professional and he’ll be talking at Blogcamp this weekend about it, too.

What are SEO professionals doing about the issue?

As with PRs, there seem to be a number of different approaches at the moment. Some are just saying no to nofollow, because it’s of no use to them (nofollow is OK to PRs, but doesn’t really do much for SEO). Some are trying to talk bloggers around by suggesting that their links won’t damage the bloggers’ pagerank (e.g. because it’s relevant to the blog’s topic so Google won’t notice). Some are suggesting ways of getting round Google’s guidelines, including not disclosing that a post is paid for. (Please note that this is unethical and can lead to penalties from the OFT.) Others are suggesting that bloggers use an image to indicate to readers that the blog is sponsored but that won’t be seen by the Google bots. This seems unlikely to work, as the Google bots will be looking at patterns of keyword links and it will be pretty obvious to them that Brand X has paid 50 bloggers to post a particular keyword, whether or not the words “paid” or “sponsored” or “advertorial” appear in the post.

At the moment, there are still probably enough people out there willing to do paid follow links that the SEO professionals can keep it going for a little while, perhaps until the brands start getting penalised, but most are becoming aware that they will probably have to change the way they work and perhaps look more toward the successful PR campaigns for ideas – blogger outreach and on-going relationships, for example, in order to build natural links.



Are you affected by this? Are you blogger who has lost their pagerank? Are you worried about losing your pagerank? Are you a PR or SEO professional suddenly finding it difficult to place the follow links your clients are asking for? What do you think will happen next? Are we looking at the end of the (fairly short-lived) sponsored post era, or will there be new ways for bloggers to make some income by helping brands get noticed?

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