Category Archives: blogging

Google to sponsored blog posts: Your links are trash

Dear Bloggers: Behave. Because if you write a lot of paid posts, your blog could get demoted by Google in search results.

This is the latest wrinkle in the story about how many bloggers are now willing to sell their “posts,” or written opinions, to marketers trying to buy their way into social media. A few years ago a guy named Ted Murphy thought to encourage legions of bloggers to shill, er, write about products for payment. Google got wind, and pretty much shut it down by removing the “page rank” of all such bloggers — turning them invisible on the web.

Murphy recast his company to IZEA, and now has launched massive efforts to make paid blogging placement more respectable with new rules such as full disclosure — bloggers who shill must declare it a “sponsored post” — and telling advertisers the bloggers can write whatever they want. The new model is now being seeded across the internet by engaging top bloggers (Chris Brogan, Joseph Jaffe) to write, show it’s cool, and encourage other bloggers to do the same.

This week, Google moved again to shut it all down. Matt Cutts, an enforcer at Google’s web-spam team, has re-announced that any bloggers who write paid posts must include a “no-follow tag” — a snippet of code that tells Google’s magic machine to ignore this post and any links from it, because it is worthless. This is a harsh judgment against paid posts because any marketer who hopes to generate 10,000 links into her brand’s web site from paying bloggers will now get exactly *zero* links (or more accurately, the scoring from those links will not drive up the brand in Google search results). Not exactly a good return on investment. Google went further by also warning bloggers if they don’t comply, they’ll face corresponding action. Cutts wrote, “Google — and other search engines — do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.”

We covered the entire ethical debate in our recent BusinessWeek column and can only say, well, Google has voted. If bloggers continue to let their opinions be sold — even while disclosing the brands who pay them for their supposedly unbiased thoughts — they now risk having all their links back into the web go up in smoke.

Photo: PSD

Bloggers, now a word from Virgin America’s lawyers

Defamation, trademark infringement, false designation, and false and deceptive advertising are not words you want to hear from a lawyer, but that’s what the ad industry blog Adrants got after posting a spoof ad not created by Virgin America.

The airline’s demand for a jury trial seems overblown until you realize the growing power of blogs to persuade consumers. Traditional newspapers have whip-cracking editors to remove any whiff of libel or defamation. Adrants’ initial headline for the spoof review read “The Hudson Crash: Just One More Reason to Fly Virgin,” followed by the copy gaffe “so woot! slather your big reds all over those news shots, V!” suggesting Virgin America really was behind the ad. The grouchy editor we worked with 20 years ago would have whacked us with a red pencil.

We sympathize — cause we all move fast writing online, and Adrants has an immensely talented staff poking needed holes in the inflated egos of the ad industry — but it’s a cautionary tale that words on a screen are held by the same standard as ink on paper. Adrants traffic is up almost 25% this year to 130,000 unique visitors a month, and 1 in 4 of its readers makes more than $100k a year. Bloggers need to tread carefully as their subjects begin holding them accountable for content that could conceivably cause material damages among readers.

It will cast a chill over the blogosphere as reviewers with fast opinions begin thinking of every conceivable downside of a brand’s mention. Did we mention that Virgin America did not create this ad?

AdFreak, Cityfile and Make the Logo Bigger have details.

The problem with Chris Brogan’s Kmart promotion

If you read blogs regularly you know that certain minds carry authority. Chris Brogan is one, attracting about 185,000 readers to his main site each month, and he provides wonderful advice on how to set up and manage social media programs. He’s an upcoming guru akin to Don Peppers in the 1990s and Seth Godin in the early 2000s.

So why are we, an ad agency, disturbed that he is pitching Kmart on a blog?

Call it the gray area of o-pay-nion, where an advertiser offers an online blogger money to write about a product. Advertorial copy has been around in newspapers since the 1940s and the intent is often to deceive — trick the reader into thinking the opinion is a valid autonomous endorsement, when really it’s all staged. IZEA is the agency behind the recent Kmart campaign, where six influential bloggers were given $500 gift cards to “experience” shopping at Kmart and then blog about it. Chris Brogan’s write-up was clearly labeled a sponsored post. In between glowing endorsements of Kmart’s vast product selection he included a few faint critiques, such as dismay that Kmart has a limited CD selection.

So what’s wrong?

This pay-per-post gambit dilutes the power of both pure editorial and paid advertising. Let’s start with the pure editorial — it’s an opinion or news report that is influenced by no one but the writer, and readers love strong minds with pure intent because they believe the information provided will be 100% useful. You may not agree with the liberal commentator on MSNBC or the conservative on Fox News, but you believe where they are coming from, and because you judge the input to be factual you take it in entirely to recast as your own opinion. Editorial comments are healthy vegetables for the mind.

Paid advertising is the flip side, an obvious attempt to spin a message to get a consumer to buy. (We work all day at our shop designing media plans trying to make ads work as effectively as possible. Yes, it’s manipulation.) But the beauty of promotional advertising is it is obvious — and consumers can judge it fairly to see if the message about the new car, new bank, or new cell phone is something they want. Paid advertising is the dark chocolate for the mind, a sweet treat that may be bad, but you indulge because you know it will fulfill your cravings.

Alas, pay-per-post blogging makes a distasteful chocolate-veggie soup. It’s worse than advertorial because the opinion of a noted writer is misrepresented to favor something that he or she really does not. The resulting opaynion makes the ad message weak (do we believe what Mr. Brogan writes about Kmart?) and erodes the power of the editorial voice (hmm, what do we think tomorrow when Mr. Brogan blogs about another retailer?). Neither writer nor sponsor win.

We don’t mean to sound haughty; we have deep respect for Mr. Brogan, who over tweets with us this Saturday morning professed his innocence. Many of his regular readers agree — hey, the post was clearly labeled “sponsored.” But if you think beyond the $500 caveats you’ll see upcoming thought-leaders at risk of losing the credibility of their opinions, if some of those thoughts are forged under the banner of “paid idea here.”

Yes, advertorials are common in print, and talking heads give voice to ad scripts on the radio. But the internet media is more bent toward knowledge … and now that knowledge is getting bent. The more bloggers who sell out, even under full disclosure, the less value the blogging channel will have — until the information is so discounted that marketers will have to move elsewhere to find new ways to manipulate the minds of consumers. Maintaining autonomy, especially in the world of marketing and advertising, is an almost impossible task. Here’s to the growing few who try.

UPDATE: Chris Brogan responds to the Kmart pay-per-post controversy here. Most of his readers don’t see a conflict. What do you think?