On Friday the Google Webmaster blog warned bloggers who are engaging of the practice of trading free products for reviews with links. While this isn’t new – trading links in this kind of situation has always been against Google’s webmaster guidelines, since they aren’t natural links – Google is reminding bloggers who aren’t following this guideline.
It also helps alert bloggers who might have been trading reviews for free products, but weren’t aware it was an issue with Google. This is likely why they decided to target bloggers specifically rather than just general site owners.
While some companies are up front and require bloggers to include a disclosure that they were compensated for the review, they often fail to mention that these types of compensated links are against Google’s guidelines and need to be nofollowed as well. Or worse, they ask for followed links and that no disclosure made… and some bloggers are willing to do it for the price of a freebie.
When it comes down to it, these types of links are paid links – but instead of paying cash for links, companies are essentially paying for these links with free products instead – a practice that some initially thought could skirt the “rules” regarding paid links. But these are still just unnatural links and against the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
But what does this all really mean for bloggers? Are there new manual actions targeting bloggers in these situations? Or if you follow the practice of nofollowed links and disclosures, is it just business as usual?
What Google Wants
First, Google has outlined the requirements that bloggers need to follow in order to be compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. If you are an experienced SEO, they are pretty well known, but again, Google is targeting those bloggers and site owners who aren’t familiar with it.
- Nofollow tag where appropriate
- Since these types of links aren’t natural (meaning they are placed because of the site is getting something in return, directly or indirectly, for placing the link) then nofollow tags are required.
- This doesn’t apply just to the company’s website, but includes links to other sites, such as a 3rd party seller (such as Amazon) or review site (such as Yelp), the company’s social media accounts, or their app on one of the app stores. Many people consider places like Twitter or the AppStore as high quality sites that don’t need to be nofollowed, but since these links can help these profiles and pages rank higher, they are still against the Webmaster Guidelines.
- Google wants bloggers to disclose that you have some kind of relationship with the company, such as getting a product free for a review.
- There is no “standard” disclosure, but it is worth noting that some sites may also have additional obligations to disclose relationships in various countries.
No New Manual Action
Google confirmed with The SEM Post that there will not be any new manual actions related to this issue, either for the blogger doing the linking, or the company’s receiving the links, although many in the industry speculated that Google was adding a new manual action specific to undisclosed follow links.
But Google has sent out many manual actions for these types of compensated links over the years. Many bloggers and others trading products for links have received invalid link manual actions for posting follow links for reviews, both disclosed and non-disclosed.
So I would expect this to continue as “business as usual” with regards to these types of links and manual actions. But Google does not have a new specific manual action related to this.
A Disclosure Alone is Not Enough
Sometimes bloggers use a disclosure but the link is still followed. But according to a Google Spokesperson, this is not enough.
“A readable disclosure is sometimes not that obvious, so for our algorithms, it’s important that the status of the link is clearly designated,” said a Google Spokesperson.
Some site owners get creative about how they place their disclosures as well, hiding them in a footer or an “about us” page, so it makes sense that Google doesn’t want to depend on algos to identify problematic links. That said, disclosures can make it a bit easier for Google – or competitors – to spot when links are followed when they should be nofollowed.
It isn’t just Google that is wanting to ensure that there are proper disclaimers and nofollowed links, a point Google also makes in their blog post.
Also, there are laws in some countries that make disclosure of sponsorship mandatory.
The FTC states that disclosures need to be included on all reviews where the reviewer received the product for free or received some kind of compensation for the review. And the UK has recently updated their own review guidelines for businesses and site owners to follow.
Why Google is Alerting Bloggers to This Now?
While Google has been warning webmasters for years about invalid links, including ones that are given for free products/services or in exchange for a review, why is Google making the issue so much more visible now?
It turns out that there is a huge increase on companies seeking links in exchange for free products under the guise of reviews. And it just isn’t the company’s homepage that is benefiting… some companies are trying to bend the rules by increasing links to their social media as a workaround, so their main site doesn’t get flagged for invalid links.
“We’ve recently seen a strong increase in companies using bloggers for artificial link-building like this, not only to company sites but other properties like product pages and social media accounts, so it felt like the right time to start a conversation,” a Google Spokesperson confirmed with The SEM Post.
So bottom line, if you are a blogger or site owner who is posting reviews in exchange for free products, you can continue to do so. Just make sure you are clearly disclosing the fact you have a relationship with the company and/or product – such as you received the product free in exchange for a review – and nofollow all the links, even including links to social media accounts and app store pages.
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