This is an issue we’ll be debating in lots more detail at BlogCamp next week, but we are getting lots of questions on Twitter about this issue, so thought a brief Q&A might be a good place to start. If you have other questions, do leave them in the comments and we’ll ask our panel at BlogCamp to provide more guidance!
In recent weeks, you’ve probably heard lots of discussion about follow links and no follow links and Page Rank.
What’s it all about?
There are a few things you need to understand to get your head around this stuff.
Why Google cares about links:
When you search Google for any information, some sites rank more highly in the results than others. Being a top ranked site in Google is very important if you run a business. And the sites that rank at the top of the results are those with the most links pointing to them.
How your blog is a part of this:
Every so often Google crawls your blog (along with all the other sites on the web) and looks at all the links it contains. A regular, normal link on your site is known as a ‘follow’ link because Google will follow that link to see where it points.
If Google finds a link to Site X in a post about cats, this basically means you have recommended Site X as a good place to find out about cats. As a result, the site will rank a little higher on Google next time someone searches for ‘cats’.
How PR/SEO is part of this:
Being a top ranked site in Google helps companies make more money – so they are happy to invest money in making that happen. One way is to simply ‘buy’ links on blogs like yours, that tell Google you recommend their sites. That link might be purchased by a PR agency who asks for a paid-for text link in a post or on your blog sidebar. Or they might ask you to write a sponsored post containing a link.
Why it’s a problem:
The problem with this is that paid-for links unfairly skews Google’s results. After all, when you’re looking for information about cats, do you want to see the sites that have the most money? Or the sites that are really, genuinely recommended by other Internet users?
What Google recommends:
To avoid these skewed results, Google came up with the ‘no-follow’ link. This is a special sort of link that tells Google not to count the link when it crawls a website. Google’s own guidelines say that any website owner or blogger should ALWAYS use a no-follow link when adding a paid link to their blog. That includes links in posts, links in your sidebar and (yes) banner ads. Affiliate and network ads should already be set up with a different sort of tag that lets Google know they’re advertisements, so you shouldn’t need to worry about those.
What’s no follow?
A no-follow link is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a link Google doesn’t follow.
If you use WordPress, there are plug-ins to help to create no-follow links, and Blogger recently added the capability to its blogging platform.
Otherwise, creating a no-follow link isn’t too difficult. You simply need to add rel=nofollow to your existing link. For example:
A follow link might be:
<a href=”http://www.nappiesrus.com”>Buy discounted nappies here </a>
The no-follow version could be:
<a href=http://www.nappiesrus.com/ rel=”nofollow”>Buy discounted nappies here<a>
Why should I worry about this stuff?
To an extent, you may not need to worry about this stuff at all. Google’s guidelines aren’t the LAW, and it’s not illegal to accept sponsored posts with follow links. Nobody will go to prison or be fined for this stuff.
However, Google is clamping down on these paid links, and if you get caught by its algorithms, you can be penalised in different ways:
- You might find your site is demoted in Google search results, either just for specific searches, or for all searches. This could mean your site traffic could drop dramatically.
- You might find your site is removed entirely from Google. Again, if lots of your traffic comes from Google, this could be a problem. It’s also likely to be a problem if you’re running ads that are paid based on page impressions, for example.
- You might find your site loses its Page Rank. This is a score from 1-10 that Google gives to all websites to indicate how influential they are. Many blogs have a Page Rank of 3-5. If your score falls to 0, you may find you receive fewer PR and advertising opportunities. (You can check your Page Rank at www.prchecker.info)
Can I get around this?
Some SEO and PR ‘professionals’ may tell you that if you use a word that isn’t ‘sponsored’ in a sponsored post, then Google won’t know the link is paid for. They might suggest you use an image saying ‘sponsored’ because Google can’t read images.
We can’t say for sure whether this strategy works or not, but ask yourself – do you think Google’s algorithms are REALLY that easy to fool?
What if I get caught out?
It’s not the end of the world, so don’t panic.
If you find you’ve lost your Page Rank or been removed from Google results, you can get in touch with Google to find out why and they will tell you what the problem is.
Experts then recommend you spend some time removing the links that Google doesn’t like, or amending them to no-follow links. Once this has all been done, you can apply for re-inclusion. The process should take around 90 days.
So, should I stop accepting paid links?
We know paid links and sponsored posts are a REALLY important source of revenue for many of you. It may be that you choose to accept sponsored posts with follow links – but you should be making an informed choice, and be aware of the potential consequences.
Should I go back and remove old sponsored posts?
Again, this is a personal choice.
In some cases, companies will specify a certain type of link in a sponsored post, or require that the post remains live for a specific period of time. If this is the case, then you have entered into a contract with that company, and you can’t change the terms of that contract (ie change the link or remove it) without their consent.
In practice, companies are unlikely to give such consent, and you will need to decide whether to live with the link on your blog, or offer a refund to the company.
However, if a company requesting a sponsored post didn’t request the post remain live indefinitely, and didn’t request a follow link in the post (or provide specific code for the link) then you should be fine to make changes, as there is no contractual requirement to provide a follow link.
PS: This isn’t the same as disclosure
While Google isn’t the law, and there’s nothing to stop you NOT using follow links for paid links on your blog, there are laws and regulations that mean it is NEVER okay not to disclose a paid-for link or post on your blog. Both the OFT and ASA take a very dim view of web publishers who do not disclose when they’re being paid to recommend something. So regardless of the link you choose to use, remember to always tell your readers when you’re being paid to do something, or have been compensated for writing something.