As more advertisers move into social media, you may have noticed that the blogosphere is all abuzz with posts about “Sponsored Conversations”. When the medium first emerged years ago, a thriving economy cropped up around paid posts, with companies angling to help match bloggers with paid writing opportunities.
But in the fall of 2007, Google came down hard on the practice, lumping sponsored conversations with the practice of paid text links and labeling them as ‘unethical’. Flagship A-list blogs as well as trusted news sources such as Forbes and the Washington Post all saw a Google Page Rank drop. It was a strong warning from Google: stop the link selling, or we will drop you from our search engine.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with Google, in order to get their traffic, we now had to play by their rules. They even encouraged people to ‘snitch’ on sites by telling people how to report paid links. Matt Cutts, the most public voice of Google, reiterated Google’s position again recently, in response to the release of Forrester’s report that Sponsored Conversations are here to stay.
The problem with Matt’s post isn’t that there is something unethical about selling links or posts. The problem is that the world of social media marketing has evolved faster than Google’s policies have evolved. Sponsored conversations come in three main ‘flavors’, yet it is Google’s position to lump all of them into the first kind, “Paid Posts”.
The First Kind of Sponsored Conversation: #1 – Paid Posts
Google has a problem with people paying bloggers to put up a post with organic links to other websites. Specifically, if a post is paid for, then Google considers any link in that post to be influencing the search engine unfairly. It doesn’t matter if you truly endorse the product or service or not, any link in a paid post is subject to disciplinary action (i.e., getting your site dropped out of search engine results).
Matt cites a great example as to why Google would have a problem with this in this image and post:
On this blog (more like a ‘splog’), random posts are thrown onto a blog with no disclosure that they are paid, and they cover unrelated topics from ‘colon cleansing’ to ‘auto loans’.
I have to say that I don’t think any self-respecting blogger would ever stoop to this level of Paid Posts.
Why they are wrong:
- The links pass page rank
- There is no disclosure that the posts are paid for
- Their intention is to truly manipulate search engine rankings
- None of this is in line with the ethical standards set out by WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association
Now, a blogger might write a paid post without the intention of gaming the search engine, they might actually only write paid posts that fit in with their topic, and only about products or services they believe in. To Google, they are all the same. Paid Posts = Bad.
The Second Kind of Sponsored Conversation: #2 – Trade
“Trade Posts” are somewhat different yet similar to Paid Posts, and are somewhat self-explanatory. Instead of giving a blogger money, they give them something in trade to put up a post on their blog, which almost always includes links. Examples include:
- Guest posts (trading free content for links)
- Contest posts (trading a contest prize for links)
- Link swaps (trading a link for a link on another site)
All of these seem fairly harmless, and I’ve not ever seen an instance in which Google has penalized a site for engaging in these practices. But Trade Posts can become a slippery slope in a number of ways. Giving 10 bloggers a free book to give away to their readers is pretty dang cheap compared to trying to buy links from these blogs. In other words, Trade Posts can be exploited. But since it is incredibly difficult to track, Trade Posts are flying under the radar for now.
In the past, Google has even encouraged these practices. Link exchanges date back to the beginning of the web. Yet ultimately, people are still trading something of value for a link. This is why I personally don’t understand why Trade = Good and Paid = Bad. And I’d love for Google to weigh in on this answer, but they have a vested interest in keeping people guessing.
The Three Kinds of Sponsored Conversations: #3 – Straight
A “Straight Post” is a term I made up, but I think it’s the right meaning for what true social marketing is all about – being straight with your advertisers, with your readers, and with the search engines. This means disclosure to your readers as to how you are being compensated, only picking advertisers that can add value to your readers, and putting a “nofollow” tag on your links so that the search engines aren’t fooled into thinking this is an uncompensated endorsement.
In Straight Posts, bloggers are extraordinarily picky about what kind of Sponsored Conversations they are willing to engage in, because they know full well that their name is on the line. They are walking a fine line between ensuring readers’ interests come first, maintaining their integrity, and being compensated for the value they bring to their advertisers.
What value are they bringing to their advertisers? Quite simply, Straight Posts are in a sense a ‘Co-Branding’ campaign. Companies align themselves with bloggers who have their own brand with which they want to be associated. Bloggers, in return, are selling access to their readership. And finally, Straight Posts create separation between sponsored and editorial content.
Great examples of Straight Posts are usually not limited to a single blog post, either. Rather, they are more frequently an ongoing relationship between bloggers and advertisers, or part of a larger campaign. Some recent ‘Straight Campaigns’:
- WalMart’s 11Moms
- Sparkplugging’s Epson Campaign
- ReadWriteWeb’s Advertorial Posts (written by advertisers, not bloggers)
Now, Marshall Kirkpatrick from ReadWriteWeb would disagree with me on characterizing his advertorials as anything close to a Sponsored Conversation, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Marshall has clearly stated his love for his Advertisers in unpaid posts, and everyone who knows Marshall and his reputation know full well that he wouldn’t sell Advertorial spots to just anyone. So, Marshall has met the criteria I outlined above, in which he has associated the ReadWriteWeb brand with a product he loves, and he has sold access to his readership to this advertiser. It isn’t a Paid Post, but it is a Straight Post.
Why Google Wants to Lump us all into the Paid Post Category
Now, I could go on for pages and pages as to why I don’t think it’s Google’s place to be regulating bloggers. But I do understand their obligation to keep spam out of their index.
The problem is this – there is a fourth factor in these three categories, which I’ll call the Fade Factor. This means that not all Sponsored Conversations fall neatly into these three categories.
What if a blogger doesn’t even know what NoFollow means?
What if a guest post on a blog links to a site that is later turned into a porn site?
What if a blogger wants to talk about a sponsor in a random post as a natural part of the conversation?
Now you might understand why Google wants to treat all of us the same way. I think most of us can agree where it’s OK for Google to say “hell no’, but we might not all agree on how that Fade Factor makes one link right and one link wrong.
Sponsored Conversations Aren’t Going Away
The fact of the matter is that after measuring social media influence over the last few years, advertisers now know that engaging in Sponsored Conversations will produce real, trackable results.
Google simply can’t continue to say “NO PAID POSTS” and have that be their blanket answer for all social media marketing campaigns that include a link.
Additionally, consumers now expect to have a say in how brands market to them. Never again will people be willing to put up with untargeted, intrusive advertising now that brands have become a part of the conversation.
We can’t ask consumers to stop talking about brands.
And we can’t expect brands to not participate in online conversations.
Nor can we expect consumers to help brands market their products for free.
There is no going back to the way marketing used to be.
The reason that WOMMA was established was to provide an Ethics Code in line with the Federal Trade Commission’s fair advertising goals. The blogosphere doesn’t need people telling them that they shouldn’t be compensated for the value they bring to advertisers. The blogosphere DOES need more education and awareness on how to ensure that word of mouth marketing is done in a way that adds to our community, rather than detracts from it.