Adapting to Google’s Linking Guidelines – 3 Months On

It’s been almost three months since Google released new blogger guidelines, finally clarifying that bloggers should be absolutely clear about the nature of their relationships with companies, and use no-follow links for all relationships where a company is giving away something for free, i.e. for endorsed or sponsored content.

For some time, bloggers have been in a situation of confusion on when and whether to disclose endorsed/sponsored relationships, and this Webmasters blog ostensibly cleared up some misunderstandings once and for all.

In a nutshell, if you write a favourable blog post about a company or product where something has been given for free (or you have been paid), in addition to disclosing that the visitor is viewing sponsored content, any followed links to that company or product will be classed by Google as “unnatural outbound links” and will be punishable by a manual spam action on the blogger’s website.

But three months on, has this guidance (and its penalties) really filtered through to bloggers?

How do bloggers function within Google’s parameters?

For several years, companies have been using bloggers for their online marketing abilities. In return for a free product or experience, a blogger might be asked to write up a review, often containing an internal link for example a blog about must have safety equipment they may link to a page like Armco Barriers, so as to give the company credibility amongst the blogger’s audience network, as well as more authority in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Because some bloggers are not discerning about the products they endorse for free, and because some companies spread themselves widely into audiences that may have nothing to do with them, Google has long been watchful of these relationships. Best practice has fluctuated from always declaring a post sponsored to absolute denial of the question, in fear of a reprisal from Google against sponsored content. Because of the lack of clarity in this regard, myths have generated and spread amidst bloggers, to be variously answered by swathes of digital experts.

Its useful delineation of what Google wants from bloggers, then, released on March 11th 2016, was a breath of fresh air in a sphere which has been filled with contradiction.

Its guidance was threefold:

  1. Disclose the nature of the relationship
  2. Use a no-follow tag for sponsored/endorsed content
  3. Create compelling, unique content

The third point comes as no surprise when Google has been highlighting the importance of legitimate, valuable content in its SERP ranks for years now, but the first two were newly firm guidance.

Historically, confusion has been rife for bloggers on linking policies

Are these three points as easy to follow as Google would have us believe?

My question is, three months on, do bloggers know, and follow, this guidance? If even the most pre-eminent bloggers are not doing so, what does that mean? If Google’s advice is written for the most digitally-savvy bloggers and not the most passionate and audience-centred, which is more natural?

I spoke to Claire Patterson of Breadsticklers, a highly popular and long-standing Leeds-based food blog, to get a blogger-centric perspective.

Claire’s content is without question performing everything Google wants from a blogger – she puts honesty and her readership first, giving detailed, full and candid accounts of her food journeys around the city.

Case Study – Asking a blogger about Google’s guidelines

I asked Claire what activities she currently undertakes to optimise her content for Google. She answered that she begins by considering the name of the post, trying to name it “something which I think someone will search for”. For her, the key example of this is her post “How to make the perfect toastie”, which comes up second in the Google SERPs for this search term.

She also told me that she is as descriptive as possible when using pictures. Entering “alt img” information so that your pictures are accessible to the visually impaired (and of course, to Google, which cannot read pictures) is certainly crucial. Claire also commented that she tries to link back to her own posts and to other sites too, as she’s aware Google appreciates this. Interlinking in your site is a great idea to help avoid orphan pages, as is linking out where relevant, and to a credible source, so, so far, Claire is functioning as a search engine-friendly blogger as well as a passionate creative.

Moving on to the second question, I asked her to comment on how her content has changed over the years (Breadsticklers has been going since May 2011), in terms of what her readers, and what Google, wants. She responded:

I’m a lot more aware these days that bloggers are optimising their blogs for Google and a lot of bloggers work in PR, Marketing or specifically SEO so I’ve found myself brushing up, as less specific and long-standing blogs have taken over me in Google rankings. I still write the same content, restaurant reviews, product reviews and recipes, I just try to be a bit more clever with the way my content is presented.

It hardly seems fair that Claire, passionate about food, could be trumped in the SERPs by someone a little more tech-savvy but a lot less foodie. With this in mind, I moved onto the crux of our conversation, in response to Google’s new guidance – her response to a sponsored or gifted situation.

How “free” is a sponsored/endorsed/free relationship?

She explained:

I used to explicitly say at the beginning of a post that something was given to me in exchange for a blog post by placing *freebie alert* or “this meal was offered to me for free but this doesn’t mean my opinions are affected”, but as more “freebies” came along they didn’t really become freebies anymore as editing pictures, writing content and marketing the material takes a lot of time and effort.

This is a really good point, and a valuable one for critiquing Google’s system. If a meal cost £25 and a review took two hours to write and disseminate across social channels (for all intents and purposes, this would be a relatively quick write up process for a blogger!), the blogger receives a product-based fee equivalent of £12.50 per hour. The meal has functioned as payment for their services. We would not consider asking a plumber to disclose his work as “free” if he worked an hour in exchange for a bottle of posh wine, for example – if both sides have agreed, there has been an exchange of services. Only those who have never written for a living can understand how time consuming the process of writing is, and how it might be an insult to expect someone to label it “free”. Why should a free meal not constitute fair payment for a couple of hours’ work? This is another facet of the free/endorsed relationship which muddies the waters.

Although I’m less explicit that something is free these days I will always be honest and say ‘I was invited’ or ‘I was sent to review’. I feel that I have built up a trust with my readers now, so whether or not something is ‘free’ or sponsored they can always rely on me to be honest. Plus if something is very disappointing, whether it be a product or meal, I’ll always tell the PR agency or company first and ask whether they would want me to post the review, sometimes things just aren’t for me and I wouldn’t want to harm an upcoming or established company by posting something negative.

This approach is audience-centred and honest, yet possibly doesn’t sit wholly within Google’s most recent update, with its new demands on disclosure. However, her use of “I was invited” or a similar phrase more subtly but still self-evidently makes this disclosure.

Cynical versus natural content

If a blogger is honest, whether or not the encounter was free, endorsed or sponsored, how does disclosure and no-follow linking function? The irony is, the top bloggers on the web at the moment follow Claire’s approach exactly – you do not see pre-eminent vloggers and bloggers disclosing their sponsorship throughout, though all products will have been gifted. The SERPs do not mirror this need for disclosure, and neither do the legions of fans who flock to their pages.

Bloggers are often younger members of society; although Claire is in her late twenties, the activities of a blogger, if undertaken without sponsorship, can be a heavy financial burden. If a food blogger is desperate to try a newly launched restaurant and happens to get an invite to eat there for free, how “endorsed” is this relationship? Google’s new guidelines suggest using a no-follow link in this situation, when, if the blogger is honest about their enthusiasm for the company, a follow link might in fact be the more natural option.

To the question of linking, Claire commented:

I always link to places/products I review in my posts. I try to place myself in the readers’ position and more often than not if I see something I like or am interested to find out more about, a link is an easy way to do this.

Despite being in a handful of the most trusted foodie bloggers in Leeds, Claire said she “didn’t know” whether she uses follow or no-follow links. This just highlights the tech-specific knowledge Google now deems a prerequisite for a blogger. Many platforms, such as WordPress, do not make link structures easily visible and easily changeable from the Front End toolbars:

In fact, WordPress automatically produces follow links, and only a tech savvy blogger would think to change this set-up. It requires a bit of basic coding knowledge; the inserting of into the page’s code. But then, no links from this page will be followed – what if you want to link to a BBC article about pasta, for example, on your review of a restaurant, which itself was a “free” experience? You’d need slightly more complex code. Though the guidance is clear, utilising it is not as simple as it might be.

Claire finished with a comment Google would be proud of; she writes great content, for her readers:

I find that writing relevant content that people want to read is the best way to bring in readers. I try not to hang my hat on how many people visit my site each day/week/month and instead try to remind myself that the reason I’m writing my content is because I love food, sharing ideas and being a part of a local food community.

How could we ask for more, as a content- and audience-centric blogger?

Why would Google act to penalise bloggers in this way?

To answer this question, we need to delve back into the history archives and re-cap what made Google such a tour de force as a search engine in the first place.

Google was revolutionary; the first search engine to focus on quality. Before that, countless engines had been racing towards returning the most results possible for a given search. Google turned this on its head with a system that focused on the quality of results rather than the quantity of results.

This was achieved by viewing links as a vote or endorsement. The theory was that a link to a webpage was a sign that the webpage was one of quality. So, if Website A linked to Website B, Website A was essentially endorsing Website B (read: giving it a vote of confidence) for the content that it discussed. So, the more links a website had, the more votes of confidence it had which was rewarded with better rankings for searches related to the topic of the page or website.

Whilst a lot has changed with how Google ranks content, the basic concept regarding links has not. Google still relies massively on links to rank webpages, and policing their veracity is Google’s pet-project in order to maintain the quality of their search results. Artificial or manipulative links can really upset the authenticity and legitimacy of the SERPs and this is why Google is so draconian in its treatment of those who are trying to game the system.

It is well documented that links improve rankings as researched by Moz here

Historically, Google’s focus has been on punishing the website owners who are the recipients of manipulative links pointing to their domains, and there have been some big companies on the receiving end of this (including Google itself)! However, this new move significantly ups the ante by going after the sites who host these artificial links – a move to tackle SERP manipulation from the other side of the relationship. It seems Google is now looking to cut off the head of the snake rather than focusing only on the tail, and neither those hosting or receiving such links are safe.

Helping bloggers?

In short, Google’s new advice to use no-follow links seems simple, but for the average blogger, requires a much deeper thought process. As bloggers are expected to become more and more shrewd and cynical of their online partnerships with brands, they must necessarily become more and more conscious of how their site functions within Google, instead of writing from a place of passion, for their reader.

Although good, well-written and passionate content is never likely to be penalised by Google, these honest sites may be outstripped by more SEO-aware bloggers who know how to manipulate their content for Google, instead of for their readers. Whilst Google’s guidelines continue to prioritise the User Experience, the question is raised: is being “a natural writer” for Google becoming, in itself, an artificial and manipulated subject position?