If you are running advertorial or sponsored content, Google is watching you

We’ve described a number of times at paidContent how publishers large and small are looking for alternative sources of revenue as traditional advertising declines in value, and how some sites — including The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker — are experimenting with new ad formats such as sponsored content or “native advertising,” as well as affiliate links. On Friday, Google engineer Matt Cutts reiterated a warning from the search giant that this kind of content has to be treated properly or Google will penalize the site that hosts it, in some cases severely.

In his post on the official Google blog, entitled “A reminder about selling links that pass PageRank,” the Google staffer notes that the company has repeatedly warned about the dangers of links — including those on advertorial pages — that are designed to pass some of the hosting site’s PageRank (in other words, its status in Google’s search index) to the company paying for the links:

“Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or “advertorial” pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations.”

Sites that host such content can be penalized

The penalties for doing this, Cutts says, including “losing trust in Google’s search results,” as well as a reduction of the site’s PageRank status, and lower rankings for the site in Google’s search results. The proper way to avoid this kind of penalty is to use what’s called a “nofollow” tag at the end of the URL for a paid link, which tells Google not to assign any PageRank to the page on the other side of that link.

According to Search Engine Land, the Google post may have been triggered in part by the behavior of a number of British local newspaper sites such as the The Worcester Standard and This Is Dorset, which were hosting advertorial content from an online flower-delivery service called Interflora. Even though the posts clearly say “ad features” and “advertisement,” the links to the company’s website and other related links don’t have the nofollow tag attached.

David Naylor, a consultant who specializes in search-engine optimization or SEO, described in a post of his own how the Interflora content had broken the rules, and how the company’s own PageRank had declined sharply as a result — and he also noted that the PageRank of the local news websites that posted the content hadn’t just declined, but had actually dropped to zero. According to Naylor, such a massive drop for a single infraction is unusual.

pagerank

The Atlantic has been in the news recently for its experiments with sponsored content, including a large feature on the Church of Scientology that was widely criticized. The magazine later apologized for the piece and said it was amending its rules on sponsored content, but it’s not clear whether those rules include adding “nofollow” tags (the Scientology piece has been removed). A survey of some of the Atlantic’s recent sponsored content showed no links at all.

BuzzFeed is also known for its sponsored-content program — in fact, the site carries no traditional advertising whatsoever. The use of this kind of advertorial sparked a critical post from blogger Andrew Sullivan at his Daily Dish site, in which he suggested that blurring the line between editorial and advertising the way BuzzFeed does is unethical and disturbing (Note: We’ll be discussing alternative monetization methods with Justin Smith of the Atlantic, Jon Steinberg of BuzzFeed and Andrew Sullivan, among others, at paidContent Live in April).

All Google really seems to care about, however, are the links in this kind of content: in one of the sponsored posts that Sullivan criticized, about the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 4 console, a link to a contest Sony is running did not have a nofollow tag attached, but — like the Atlantic — many of the other sponsored posts we looked at on the BuzzFeed site contained no links at all.

In a post on Twitter, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti said that all of the paid content that appears on the site goes through Google’s DART system (which is part of its Doubleclick advertising unit) and therefore doesn’t pass PageRank.

Peretti tweet

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Brian A Jackson and David Naylor

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