Is Google really breaking their own link buying rules with sponsored posts?

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase
Search Engine Land has a good piece of news out that hit the web late yesterday that asks if Google is buying links or working with thin content. Danny Sullivan wrote the piece himself.

There are some poor blog posts that contain the phrase "This post is sponsored by Google". These posts, most of them, also contain video ads that have come via Unruly Media.

Danny writes a balanced article on the discovery and points out the concerns;

"The campaign is odd in two major ways. For one, it potentially violates Google’s guidelines against paid links.

The head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, has been quite vocal that sponsored posts shouldn’t be a way for people to gain links in response for payment, that any links in such posts should use the nofollow attribute to prevent them from passing credit to Google’s ranking algorithm."

I don't have any inside knowledge on this one but I have worked with Unruly Media in the past. They've never asked me for a link and always ask for suitable disclosure - hence the "This post is sponsored by Google" cropping up in these posts. If we tweet about a video we're asked to include #spon or #ad in the tweet too. The tweet request is more strict than current ASA/CAP rules suggest (since they don't give us the text to tweet) but probably wise given the indications coming out of the OFT.

If this is a standard Unruly Media campaign then the media asset being promoted here is the video. That's what Unruly do. It's also most likely that that's what Google's ad agency wanted to achieve.

If, as an SEO or a blogger, you had a video that you were paid on a view-to-earn basis then wouldn't you write some content to post the video along side and publish the two together? Or would you just blog a video without any context? That would look odd. Or would you just blog the video without any traffic driving text content to go with it? Wouldn't that be pointless?

My hunch is that individual bloggers have written editorials for their sponsored video (which is just a CPA ad - like so many others, just like any affiliate deal) and put a link naturally into that text.

There are certainly times when editorials are encouraged for videos. After all, the best viral candidate videos tend to get to success by building up some buzz. It's certainly known for video seeding companies to push for this - but they never ask for links.

There's one exception; ebuzzing. Ebuzzing demands links, gives you the links to use and then checks the links are in place before your article is validated. I have experience of ebuzzing UK and can tell you that they nofollow those links and redirect them through a tracker.

I hope I'm not wrong. This will be a big story as TechCrunch has picked it up but unless Unruly Media US is very different from the core of Unruly then I doubt these posts were about links.

Sadly, I could be wrong. It's all too easy to imagine an ad agency putting pressure on some rookie Unruly Media account manager to ask bloggers to go that extra step and put in a link - but let's hope not. If so then it's an argument as to why all ad agencies need to blend SEO expertise into every part of their digital activities. Branded content is a media activity.

I really doubt Google's ad agency decided to promote Chrome, by brand, in search by asking bloggers to include links and videos in their posts. If they had wanted to spam they'd just have dropped the video requirement.

Google have done this before

It's also worth noting that Google have used other viral video platforms before. I've taken part. Over on Geek Native I wrote about a video ad from Google about their Science Fair project. Many other bloggers did too.

Google's Science Fair video came to bloggers via the AOL owned GoViral. Bloggers got paid for each play of the video they achieved.

In my case I wrote some text to showcase the video. I even included a link to the Science Fair page on Google - but I didn't have to and wasn't asked too. It's an editorial link.

The one eyebrow arch for my own post is GoViral's video player. I could have sworn the wrapper for the player included a statement about the video being an ad - the standard disclaimer mention. That's why there's no additional reference to it at the foot of the blog post. It could be the case that once the video ad expires on GoViral and it's no longer bought media that the player transforms into a more discreet unit. That, however, has nothing to do with links, Google or Unruly. That'll be an AOL idea.

To consider...

The real issue here, I think, is whether the blogs caught up in this stormy teacup count as thin content, spam, made-for-ads or good enough for advertisers. Let's just ditch "made-for-ads" as a concept in any way similar to "made-for-adsense" right now. Many blogs are commercial. That's not a crime.

I bet Unruly will be wondering whether their screening processes are good enough - although given that it's a CPA deal you could argue that the system is self-correcting.

I've not checked out all the blogs that have been surfaced by today's drama but some are certainly pretty poor. Hopefully Panda will keep that sort of content away from our eyes.

Lastly, there's a debate about exposing dodgy SEO here. I'm very happy to point out when some one's cheating. I think it's good for the industry as a whole (read: it'll save SEO from itself) and a valid business tactic. However, some people in this exposé are supposed to be strongly against "outing". They've done themselves no favours on that front.

I'm sure it was one of Google's agencies that have done this - and either spam SEO has been outed, in part, by the no-outing brigade or some of the no-outing brigade have cried wolf on this one.

Ironically, perhaps they're right and I'm wrong - perhaps outing is bad because unless you can be certain you know what's going on then you have no business slapping on labels and spotlights on your terms?

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