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.
Loren Baker
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