Don’t Mistake PR And Creatively Earned Editorial Links For Sponsored Conversations

This is long, so I will start it with the Cliffs notes version per the request of a friend – but please take the time to read all my thoughts before commenting.

Summary:

  • Cash for blog post companies potentially disrupt how search engines can properly attribute organic SEO.
  • Search engines will find out about illegitimate cash-for-link disruptions and take corrective action.
  • White-hat PR and web marketing initiatives may be called into question due to misinterpreting the intersection of marketing and search engines as more sponsored conversations occur alongside organic.
  • Traditional linkbait campaigns could one day be worth less if search engines are forced to devalue links from bloggers (this is only speculation at this point).
  • Bloggers and marketers engaging in outright cash-for-play are involved in risky behavior even with no-follow links due to halo effect of linking in viral promotions.
  • Marketers/PR practitioners should not fear continuing to engage in honest, organic and ethical web marketing and PR that respects both users and search engines.

Full post:

Due to a recent report from Forrester research, there appears to be a gray area emerging between linkbait ideas which generate true editorial buzz and links, a white-hat marketing/PR tactic, and “sponsored conversations,” also a potential white-hat tactic but with different rules and a cash-per-post model.  I say potential because it is certainly not there yet, and in its current form may be disruptive to both search engines and web marketing professionals – but I will get into that later.

Let’s delve into this further because I think clarification is necessary – especially with the aspect of the hot question – what is allowed from an SEO/link generation perspective?

The unfortunate reality emerging is this:

  • The search engines do not want and cannot allow a machine to exist that allows businesses with the deepest pockets to dump money into and achieve links to outrank those without as deep budgets – I agree with them 100%.
  • Pay per post companies have created a machine where companies can pay cash for posts, and also in essence links through “sponsored conversations.”  This is the machine that potentially disrupts the way search engines work, although the engines are aware of the issue and do take corrective action.
  • Creative PR and marketing plays which generate organic links and conversations – whether through giving away product, holding contests, or other engaging UGC initiatives, a white-hat tactic all companies have been free to use for years equally regardless of budget – may unfairly be lumped into the category of the pay per post machine when they are not at all the same thing.

For years I have used links in creative ways for marketing/PR initiatives, viral app development, crowdsourcing ideas, content aggregation, and blogging.  They’re great in that you can use them to tag people, aggregate buzz, and keep track of conversations and topics to help integrate social media promotions and build connections.  I’m also a PR/marketing professional, and direct advertising/sponsoring/cash pay per post doesn’t enter into my thought processes for creating promotions.

Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify – I in no way contribute to webspam and in-fact am a huge proponent of reporting black-hat tactics and truly evil and ill-intentioned web spammers/scammers.  As a user of Akismet and Gmail, I’m well aware of the power in crowdsourcing the removal of spam that does real harm to people and businesses.

This brings us to what I’d like to discuss:  links.  Links earned through PR/marketing are completely fine by the search engines, and in fact are an encouraged tactic for organic SEO.

And this brings us to the situation I knew would eventually happen when cash pay-per-post started gaining buzz again recently:

Search engines rely on links for their algorithms to function properly.  Search engines also clearly say you can’t pay cash directly for links, something I agree with.  Links for cash would ruin the fact that the web is editorial in nature and users in a sense “vote” by linking to websites and pages they deem worthy.  I’m totally oversimplifying it I know but let’s keep things basic for this post.

Cash up front for links is no good, and clearly against all search engine TOS.  But what about products?  What about sampling?  What if a large or small company or even individual blogger ask real people in social media to sample a product.  Search engines say cash for links is bad, but say nothing about products for review.  And, with a product review/links happen for better or for worse and whether you ask for them directly or not.

Marketers have relied on such tactics for years as part of the natural building of a brand on the web.  Now “sponsored conversations” come along for companies whose products aren’t strong enough to get spoken about purely by sharing a product or sample, and suddenly the positive kind of conversational, organic PR endorsed by search engines is viewed negatively?  That seems wrong to me.

But back to the matter of paid links, let’s not confuse cold hard cash up front for writing a post/linking to a product with organic reviews/editorial links garnered from white-hat linkbait or PR.  Regardless of how companies choose to influence bloggers or position their campaigns, this is not at all in the same bucket as cash-for-posts.  As I stated previously in my post on paid blogging is a lose-lose situation:

Reviewing products is a completely different animal than taking cash for writing something up.  Readers are more than happy to check out products that are reviewed by bloggers.  When someone receives a product for review, a blogger is free to write on it however he/she wants and it is still viewed as editorial (otherwise, not a single technology/gadget magazine could even exist).  But if cash is directly given up front for a post on something, no matter what is written, it is viewed by the reader as influenced by money.  The reader simply cannot take it seriously.

Speaking of consumer product reviews or WOM buzz – I have run quite a few web promotions aimed at creating such things and have been successful with an array of ideas.  Here are my insights from doing promotions which followed the rules carefully and used the web, links and tagging without restriction for marketing in a transparent, honest and authentic manner:

  • SEO benefit is never the main goal for these types of promotions, the goal is always social/WOM in nature.  But speaking of SEO, I would like to think any links I gained were editorial, especially since I always combine my promotions with fun and creative twists that encourage users to build unique UGC (but never for cash).
  • Dumping pay per post in the same category as PR could ruin a marketing tactic which is a staple of the web – contests.
  • Due to controversy of paid blogging lately, I have asked for no-follow links during promotions, however let’s be completely honest how many bloggers even know or care how to incorporate no-follow into a post.  Many of you reading do, but we’re geeks.  The truth is most personal bloggers don’t even give SEO a second thought.
  • It is unfortunate that marketers who followed the rules and ran successful promotions for years have to change their methods and add steps because of some companies who have built products that skirt the system.  Why should we all have to pay for the manipulative tactics of the few?
  • Asking for no-follow feels like PR is having to classify itself in the same category as pay per post when in reality they are not the same thing at all.  SEO and PR on the open web and in the blogosphere have an organic intersection, not so with pay per post network-based campaigns.
  • Linking, whether naturally or encouraged happens through good WOM initiatives.
  • There are no rules saying you cannot ask people to share/link if they find something compelling – and whether you ask directly or not, good marketing generates about the same amount of links/shares.  The rule is against recipricol linking – however doing so in one direction is all part of the strategy of proper content aggregation (ie – sharing all the entries of a promotion on one page so people can vote, or having everyone join the conversation via trackbacks).
  • The feedback from real users participating in my promotions is almost always close to 100% positive.  If I’m doing something that makes a ton of people happy, it’s going to be hard to turn away from that tactic – and there is a real problem if I have to break rules to create things that spread naturally and make clients/customers happy.
  • I’ve never paid a blogger cold hard cash directly for posts/links, I’ve only given product samples or built creative linkbait, something which is encouraged.  And in all cases, links and buzz happened even before any product was actually shared because readers always discuss the promotion itself since it is usually buzzworthy.  How can you stop that and why would you want to?  You can’t, and you shouldn’t – it is how good promotions spread.  And the step of having to ask for no-follow could easily stop the viral process.  That to me is a big reason why pay per post can never work – people are going to link without no-follow just to share the promotion, and you can’t stop or help that.
  • I hate webspam as much as the search engines do.  I’m happy to share the type of content that my promotions organically generate – and you know what, it’s all of extremely high quality as I like to make creativity a big part of promotions and engage smart bloggers through quality content and ideas.  The search engines all encourage this.
  • If a search engine did want to punish a promotion any PR or marketing company was doing, they owe it to themselves to look it at objectively and see exactly what the situation was before going nuclear (and I know they do that).  A vast majority are not out to game the system – there are in reality only a few bad eggs.

Links existed prior to any web companies and should be an open protocol that white-hat marketers can use freely to get creative with promotions, tagging, trackbacks and aggregation.  I don’t think it is fair that a few bad seeds ruin the creativity links enable on the web for everyone else.

If you are a marketing or PR professional – or even an advertiser, pay per post and sponsored conversations should upset you, because they try and “package” a talent that combines creativity, the web, inspiring content creation/links and understanding a business enough to encourage real people to genuinely tell their story.  You can’t package and commodify this and both the search engines and good marketers know that.

Companies that build link generating machines that allow the ability to throw cold hard cash into the system in an attempt to raise company visibility should not be in the game at all.  The problem is not the fact that they are advertorial – it’s the fact that they potentially automate link building through cash, not creativity – and that is a black-hat tactic.  Companies would be wise to go the route of advertising and not pay cash for posts.  Organic conversations surrounding products, news, or content/promotions that inspire posts/reviews are not the same as this – cash for posts/links is where the issue lies.  You should not and cannot automate editorial – it is the antithesis of the word.

This brings us to the question at hand: should businesses limit the creativity of their marketing and promotions and have to think twice before implementing ideas that get people talking because they fear of the wrath of search engines?  I don’t think that’s a strategy, or something search engines actually want to get in the way of or be known for.

I could be wrong, but I believe the search engines of the world are genuinely good-intentioned and out to stop those actively trying to manipulate their system in underhanded and deceptive ways.  I do not believe they’re going after companies creatively using the web to get their products out there and get people talking through PR initiatives – whether their product is digital or tangible.  If anything, search engines embrace the ever-increasing use of the web for marketing because it only makes their own products more valuable.

Links are the glue between conversations and are what forge connections, something businesses have done forever and are evolving to do in social media in-particular.  Should search engines adjust their system based off how honest, white-hat professionals and businesses (their users) use the web, or should businesses and people adjust to the engines?  Where can the two intersect?

Will PR-influenced linkbait become a thing of the past as many go the route of pure cash sponsored conversations and search engines will be forced to look at each promotion on a case-by-case basis?  That would be unfortunate.  Hopefully they can come up with an algorithmic solution.

Each and every blogger that gets search engine traffic should also be upset at what is happening. Why?  A potential future is that the search engine’s hands may be forced, and the weight of links from the entire blogosphere may be severely discounted or reduced.  I’m not saying that will happen and I truly hope this does not occur, but look at how things are unfolding and you can see how easy a fix that would be.

I don’t believe in cold hard cash for posts/links as a marketing strategy, but I see no problems in businesses engaging bloggers with linkbait type promotions, just as many popular bloggers do so daily with each other – it is natural web-based PR.  Even Matt Cutts clearly states that linkbait is acceptable.  Things like writing contests, product reviews, and creative twists on getting bloggers talking are going to get links no matter what – if asked directly or indirectly – links are how the blogosphere and conversations work.  They’re how the real world works too, and are merely paralleled on the web.

And the reality is we’re only going to see more of this in the future, right alongside others who engage in full-fledged sponsored conversations.

Search engines, businesses, bloggers and readers need each other – it is a symbiotic relationship.  The bottom line is I do not think either party is going to turn their backs on those who clearly have their marketing ethics in the right place.

The only solution I see at this point in the game is to be transparent and honest with all your actions and well meaning to both users and the search engines.  Sorry for the long post, I had many thoughts on this and had been jotting them down for a bit.

How do you think the situation can be resolved?

Related posts from The Future Buzz

Blogger Relations: Two Approaches For PR

Don’t Be Afraid To Have Opinions Or Take Sides

Why I Write Detailed, In-Depth Posts

Related posts from around the web

Google Won’t Remove that Page You Don’t Like, But You (or Your SEO) Can (SEOmoz)

SEO Linguistics: Updates, Changes, Glitches, Semantics, & NOISE (SEO Book)

Building Complementary Services: A Powerful Long-Term Social Media Marketing Strategy (Dosh Dosh)