Matt Cutts vs Ted Murphy on Paid Blogging & Sponsored Conversations

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In a followup to the Forrester report on paid blog advertising via sponsoring the conversation in blogposts, Google’s Matt Cutts has weighed in a bit on the conversation, reiterating his stance on paid blog posting.

Clear disclosure of sponsorship is critical, and that includes disclosure for search engines. If link in a paid post would affect search engines, that link should not pass PageRank (e.g. by using the nofollow attribute). Google — and other search engines — do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.

Cutts has now taken Google’s position further, using the Izea Christmas K-Mart campaign which was mastered by Izea and some A-List bloggers as an example :

The Forrester report discusses a recent “sponsored conversation” from Kmart, but I doubt whether mentions that even in that small test, Google found multiple bloggers that violated our quality guidelines and we took corresponding action. Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.

Google Quality Guideline :

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

Why does Google dislike paid blogging?

Matt uses his classic brain cancer example as a way to illustrate how paid blogging can be misleading and destroy the trust associated with Google search results.

The paid post at the top happens to be about brain tumors, which is a really serious subject. If you are searching for information about brain cancer or radiosurgery, you probably don’t want a company buying links in an attempt to show up higher in search engines. Other paid posts might not be as starkly life-or-death, but they can still pollute the ecology of the web.

In addition, Matt asks Google users to rat out blog which offer ’empty’ paid reviews or sell links :

“That means that now is a great time to send us reports of link buyers or sellers that violate our guidelines.”

Wow Matt, not pulling your punches anymore are you? Again, the major conflict I see here is when a trusted organization or company does sponsor a conversations which is moderated and hosted by the blogger. Do you expect all bloggers who participate in these programs to always use a NoFollow 100% of the time? Is this a reasonable expectation by Google and are you saying that if Google catches sponsored blog posts without a NoFollow that you’ll be making the decision to penalized those entire sites so “Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.”

I know you’ve addressed this in the past, but this is much more of a warning post than anything else. By using Izea’s example, you’ve called out some of the top bloggers in the blogosphere to tell them Google does not trust them because they gave KMart an organic link when asked to blog about their experiences there after receiving a $500 gift card.

Looking at one of the blogs listed on this page, I notice that Loren Feldman’s link to KMart is a doubleclick ad link, therefore, not an issue with Google and organic ranking. Furthermore, this post is coming from the heart and sincere, or seems to be (keep in mind, Feldman is a professional actor and puppeteer).

BTW, after watching Loren’s video, my wife and I were influenced enough to actually check out KMart, and we did some shopping there for Christmas. I bought some baby dolls for my niece and a fishing set for my nephew. So, the campaign and video worked, without an organic link.

Question, what if the blogger did use a NoFollow in their post, then wrote a follow up post one day about how after doing the KMart $500 shopping experience, they shop there all of the time now. What if they linked to KMart from another post with a story about KMart? An organic link would be expected.

Would Google then throw away the trust of that blog too? I mean, they would not have been introduced to KMart if not for the original $500 giftcard. Right?

Seriously, I think a lot of this argument is a result of Google being challenged by a new trend and also a company like Izea going public with their paid conversation offerings and giving the bloggers the final call on how to link out, NoFollow or not?

Comparing misleading Brain Tumors blog spam posts and A List bloggers videoing and writing about THEIR experiences in KMart using a giftcard is not fair. We’re talking big brand relationship building vs. “Buy Viagra” style spamming, and I believe these bloggers have earned their trust.

I really don’t see the difference in the KMart cards and a large company flying a blogger out to Mountain View and taking care of the hotel and dinner to make sure they attend a press conference on a new product launch or some new behind the scenes technology.

Wining and dining a blogger with press passes and comp dinners is not much different than sending them a giftcard to do shopping for their family. If I placed a NoFollow on every company which has hooked me up with a free drink, a hotel room, dinner or an AdWords $100 credit giftcard … well, there wouldn’t be many outbound organic links to any of the search engines or search marketing conference companies from Search Engine Journal. Neither would TechCrunch, EnGadget or many other tech and search industry blogs.

Interestingly enough, the man behind the KMart campaign, Ted Murphy, has his own blog post on the Forrester study :

While compensating bloggers was considered taboo a few years ago there has been a paradigm shift in thinking over the past 12 months and this briefing underscores that change. Many major blogs participate in some form of sponsored conversation or sponsored blogging, and the economy is driving bloggers and advertisers to explore this option more everyday. Both advertisers and bloggers have come to the same conclusion – display ads don’t work in social media.

Again, I get where Google is coming from here and seriously, were I to plan a sponsored blogging campaign with A List blogs, I would recommend that they do use a NoFollow. Not only because I would not want them to get blasted out of the water by Google, but also because linking is not just all about Google anymore.

It’s not about Google, it’s about RSS, and Facebook, and Twitter and all of the other outlets which bring a warm introduction between a writer, a blog and its subscribers.

What are your thoughts on sponsored conversations and Matt’s post? Please feel free to comment below.

Loren Baker
Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing strategy & development agency.
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  • Chris Hooley

    I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with Google’s policies. There seems to be a paradigm shift in the culture there that is straying from “Do no evil” to “I am the law, and I am watching so don’t eff up”

  • Chris Hooley

    BTW- I was just corrected. It was never “Do no evil” – it was “Don’t be evil” but you get the point. 🙂

  • Jeremy Rivera

    It seems that the big companies would like for the wild wild west days of the world wide web to come to an end. While I applaud companies embracing the new medium, I believe that mitigating/moderating the effect of large sums of money seems to me a good policy for Google. I also am glad to see them come out with a much clearer stance than before, rather than mysteriousness and uneveness in application.

  • Ted Murphy

    My response here:

  • Nicolas

    First, I feel this whole no-follow-paid-links thing is much unfair for the Web ecosystem. Google act as if it should be the only entity interested in making money on the Web and we should all be enthusiasts amateurs that produces the very content they index profitably all for the merry fun of it.

    I mean, unless you are not engage in any commercial activity whatsoever on the Web, every link you post out there is being paid for somehow.

    According to a lot of people, the normal thing to think here is that Google has the right to do whatever it will with it’s index and that if you don’t like the rules then don’t rely on the traffic.

    With great power comes great responsbility. Google being so dominant on the search market makes this reasoning completely flawed. Really, what can I successfully do on the Web without Google’s traffic ?

    Google needs my content for indexing. If every website blocks Googlebot then it’s over. All is left is Youtube and Maps. Treating all content creators as potential spammers is disdainfuly arrogant. Furthermore, the spammers dont give a damn about nofollow. They aggressively spam the index and will likely succefully continue to do so for a while. The only ones reallly hit by this are honnest marketters trying to make a living.

    Sorry for being so long.

  • Michael Martinez

    Matt Cutts needs to start disclosing in all his blog comments that he has a financial interest in seeing other people make Google’s PageRank system work the way Google thinks it should work.

    He is becoming increasingly opaque and hypocritical in this topic because he doesn’t point out to people that he does have a financial interest in seeing PageRank work.

    It’s time for people to start telling Google to either engage in full disclosure (such as labeling Supplemental Results Pages again and explaining to users WHY the most relevant content is not shown first).

    Until Google fully discloses what it is doing, no one else needs to fully disclose to Google what they are doing.

    The fact that hundreds of millions of people use other search engines every month shows that Google is not yet a monopoly. They need to stop acting like a monopoly.

    BTW, Google – can you afford to pay all your AdSense publishers yet?

  • Arnie K

    Chris – I get the point and I totally agree with you. Their obsession with paid links is sort of like the speed cameras. The original idea was okay, but now they are just being abused.

  • steve plunkett


    a. i don’t do paid links
    b. i don’t EVER use no follow.. why should i try an manipulate the way google crawls?
    (shut up i am talking about links, just think about it)

    c. QUESTION: let’s say i am invited to speak at IMSpringbreak. (I was)
    Let’s say my hotel room is paid, my flight is paid, etc… if i blog about the conference, RT: dave snyder’s tweets, sphinn jordan’s blog posts, blog google posts that will be discussed at IMspring break as it gets closer, etc..

    is that considered sponsored blogging?

    i am part of the conference but is my compensation for speaking attached to me posting relevant unique information on my blog that will make it’s way into search?

    @mattcutts is there anything wrong with this?

    or is this whole thing about INTENT?

    are you buying links to boost another link via anchor text… isn’t that all this is really about?

    simply tell webmasters… as of… (date)
    ALL paid links MUST have nofollow. or google may remove.. the people doing it know what it is.

  • Anchored Text

    I guess G is the running the web so what can you do. You have to play by their rules or buy traffic. It all seems to be a convenient way to stack the deck cause G has over 60% of search so they got you coming and going.
    Now What?

  • massa

    somebody should sue them for restraint of trade.

    Good luck!

  • Michael Martinez

    Bob, “restraint of trade” or running a protection racket? They keep stepping up the rhetoric but they don’t disclose their own conflicts of interest in the matter.

    Anchored Text, Google doesn’t control 60% of search. That is just absolute nonsense based on the outdated metrics reported by Compete, comScore, Hitwise, and Nielsen. Number of queries performed is no longer relevant to search market share analysis because Google acts as a destination for a large part of the queries people run there.

    Search engines should disclose how many visitors they actually send to other Web sites each month. That would give us a much better picture of search market share.

    100,000,000 people use Microsoft’s search every month. They can’t all be twiddling their thumbs, watching Ms. Dewey talk about her personal life.

  • Neyne

    @massa Made me LOL. Searchking vs Google.

  • Christina Gleason

    What really isn’t fair to bloggers is that many (most?) bloggers don’t even know what a no-follow link is, let alone how to do it. I’m a mommy blogger, and since becoming active in the mommy social media scene, I’ve participated in a number of blog giveaways. I’ve even won quite a few of them – sometimes with very significant prizes. I don’t remember seeing a single no-followed link in one of these combination product review/giveaways.

    I don’t think that my fellow mommy bloggers are willfully disobeying Google’s guidelines. I think they have no idea that the guidelines exist. Additionally, bloggers who use free blogging platforms may not be able to no-follow links, or can’t figure out how to do it within the limitations of the platform. I don’t think it’s fair to penalize them for this.

  • John Rasco

    Excellent comments from Nicholas. Thanks for taking time to communicate so well.

  • Melanie Phung

    Gee, here I thought I was supposed to write content and link to things I liked with my users in mind, and not manipulate my sites specifically for the search engines.

    As someone pointed out before, what if I’m just serving my users and don’t even have a clue what nofollow is? How is Google serving its users when it punishes my site because I’m not coding my links to this totally confusing and capricious FUD standard?

  • John Somerton

    What would be interesting is if everyone just stopped using nofollow – then what would Google do? Penalize everyone?

    Their bread and butter relies on providing relevancy in the search results. Seems pretty shortsighted on their part to put so much control over that relevancy (or irrelevancy) in the hands of everyday bloggers and webmasters and their use of nofollow. Great news for professional SEOs though – yet another enabler.

  • Joshua Sciarrino

    @massa That would be a great idea but sadly congress is in bed with Google. So, no luck winning any battles against Google, unless Google FUBAR’s and I doubt that will happen.

    If Google was really serious about Nofollow, they’d educated people more. A lot more. They have a huge visibility factor, heck, put it on the homepage, youtube, blogger, etc. But no, they try to play hide and sneek and then smack someone when they find someone.

    Google is a hypocrite. But then again, much of Coporate America is. It’s all about money. (Enjoy the vid :D)

  • Chris

    I think things are going to Google’s head… it’s not our job to work the way Google wants us to (though most of us do to some extent) it’s Google’s job to work around us/the web/users/websites. Just because they’ve hit a brick wall and can’t figure out how to make their algorithm smarter doesn’t mean we pay the price. If you upset the people the people will go somewhere else. I don’t see the difference between paying someone to write a review about your website on their blog and putting dofollow links vs doing it yourself… business as worked this way for years why do you think so many websites write reviews about products. Sure the bias ones can be spotted a mile away. Google needs to implement their TRUST algorithm sooner rather than later because there is much more on the web to consider besides dofollow links. The nofollow tag was a nice thought and a good recommendation but I think it’s gone too far.

  • CybernautSEO

    This all brings up a question.

    What is the incentive to giving someone a dofollow link?

    Just no follow all of your links and horde your PageRank for yourself.

    is this not just as unethical?

  • andrew wee

    I am disturbed by Google’s position as the self-appointed gatekeeper of what’s kosher and what’s not.

    So with some inconsistencies that they are filtering what China internet users are able to view, in “consultation” with the Chinese government, they’re moving on to the next lap by dictating that the mere fact that a post is sponsored, affects the final editorial output?

    Seems pretty draconian to me.

    A blanket policy (even if it enhances brand visibility, builds social goodwill) seems overly mechanistic and disregards a user’s possible positive reception to being “marketed” to.

    If this is their position, I’ll probably be bringing more business to or other channels.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Unlike many here I agree with Google sponsored links should include disclaimers so users know it’s an ad, there may even be a law that says that, I know when SEs first started placing ads in and around results the FTC made them label them as Ads or “sponsored”. I could care less what Google says nofollow should be used. NoFollow is the author or webmasters call based on their criteria, not Googles. Afterall the HTML spec says that’s the purpose of the attribute… not to tell Google how to remove sites using paid links from their results.

    I do believe that labelling for the public/their user is part of the beef Matt/Google has with the paid blogging. IMO, they are just a bad day for someone at the FTC unleashing the hounds and Google doesn’t want to be part of that again!

  • Judith Lewis ‘deCabbit’

    I’ve blogged about this, I’ve spoken about it and I’ve commented about it.

    *all* links are paid links because at the end of the day time is money and if you get good service and blog & link, it was paid for through employing someone specifically todo that job.

    Journalists get freebies all the time and are paid to write.

    You can easily argue that there is no such thing as a free link – or lunch and that’s where I’m off to 🙂

  • sohbet

    thankks you

    sohbet chat

  • Uttoran Sen

    humm… the problem is that there are not too many companies that offers nofollow sponsored review opportunities, and i wish there were because nofollow is not bad, just useless to search engines…