Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Friday, 8 March 2013

Of Adverts, Disclosure and Spam

I removed the last of my blog's adverts last week as they've run their course and I don't have any more lined up, yet. I'm OK with that. I outlined my approach to Adverts and Blogging With Integrity a while ago, but since then the landscape of adverts on blogs - and working with companies in general - has changed. I feel it's time to say something about it.

Last year, Google made a real effort to prevent the artificially high return of items in their search results, because they wanted searching to reflect the content that's really valued rather than the content whose position's been paid for. That doesn't mean that all paid-for links are bad, but it isn't easy to build that distinction into a computer algorithm designed to reward real effort which is well regarded by real people.

Their algorithm changes caused quite a furore at the time. Some blogs were penalised by Google (their Page Ranking was reduced to zero) almost immediately all this came to light; others like mine received requests from companies wanting their adverts removed.

Talking to these companies, it soon became clear having links with the no follow attribute set, would be OK as these don't affect search engine results. Some were happy to change their link to the no follow attribute, most were not. Google also updated Blogger's editing software to make it very easy to include the no follow attribute when adding links to a post. NB the no follow attribute was introduced to cut down the amount of automated spam around the internet, though it doesn't seem to be doing much of that in my experience! *

I still have plenty of advertising enquiries and most of them turn away as soon as I say my links are no follow. I'm happy for them to do so, as it's a great way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff! In time, I hope companies and the PR they use come to realise that trust and online brand value are just as important as search engine results. So today I've altered my advertising page, to help them understand why that is:

  • Having no follow links for advertisements means my blog complies with Google's Webmaster Guidlines (see also Google's helpful page on Link Schemes)
  • I have lots of requests for advertisements. Having a no follow links policy is an excellent way of finding good companies to work with who value their brand over their product's internet search position
  • If I had a follow policy and if Google then penalised my Page Rank, my links out become worthless from a SEO viewpoint
  • Some say a few follow links are acceptable to Google. I have no way of checking that, so I'm not prepared risk my blog for the sake of a few £££
  • Nowadays, when I see a blog advert with a follow link, the trust worthiness of that blog AND the company linked to goes down in my view
Whether they're persuaded remains to be seen. I only decided to take adverts to cover my blogging costs and I've now built up a nice little reserve of funds to tide me over for a while.

Bloggers should note the Webmaster Guidelines don't just cover adverts. I've seen a marked increase in provided content, product reviews and competition offers from PR companies since Google made their changes. Whatever stance a blogger decides on taking adverts (if they decide to have them), it should apply to any associated links for these other approaches too.

NB all UK based bloggers also have to disclose by law any relationship they have with a company. This doesn't just mean making it obvious when and where any adverts are displayed. It also means the receipt of anything from a company, such as money for content (even when it's the blogger's own) or any gifted items which are reviewed or blogged about in some way - no matter how tiny their value - needs to be made clear to readers**.

* = I've written this post solely with no follow links added. It'll be interesting to see if I have any spam comments - they're usually the first thing to arrive as soon as I hit the Publish button!

** = after today's seriousness, next week I'll be examining one of the recent approaches made to Veg Plotting in a much more fun way.

Update 9/3 - the day I published this post, I also heard about Google's PR penalisation of Interflora, who went about acquiring links big time and probably lost quite a lot of Mothers' Day business as a result. It's a sobering story - here's my summary of what happened + links.

Update 14/3: Interesting update on Disclosure guidelines in the USA, especially re the placing of Disclosure notices after the product links possibly being regarded as not transparent enough.

Update 28/3: I'm delighted to have a new sponsor for part of the blog with a company keen to develop a good working relationship. Their support is clearly marked as such and links are no follow.

13 comments:

  1. Does this mean that if I mention the IntoGardens app II need to disclose that I once got a hug from JAS? It was a long time ago tho' :(

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  2. Like you, I was accepting ads. Like you, I follow Google's request to include the special 'no-follow' code into the html for paid links. Like you, I see point in this. It's an attempt to give weight to links where products are genuinely recommended by bloggers instead of those which are paid for. Google is a commercial company that provides our blogging platform for free. It's able to do this because it makes its money from advertising. So it doesn't seem unreasonable that it wants to protect its own income, for all that it's (financially!) annoying for us. So, like you, I'm including the html 'no-follow' and making it clear to advertisers. Like you, I now have none. One advertiser, while deciding not to take out an ad because of the 'no-follow' code said he approved of blogs which 'stick to the rules'. I hope others will come to see it the same way and chose to advertise on blogs which do so.
    It's clear some bloggers are happy to carry on advertising without the code. They are prepared to carry the risk that their blog will be ignored by Google or even taken down. What bothers me somewhat is that there may be many bloggers who accept ads without realising the code needs to be there and may be penalised because of it. It's hard to keep up with everything. Really hard.
    Thanks for posting this. As well as stating your (honourable) stance, it may alert people who need to be alerted of the issue.

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  3. As I'm still a relative newbie to blogging, posts like this are quite handy for me, so thanks very much for posting this. My blog is growing now, and I'm starting to get approached by various folk etc, so pointers re disclosure have been very useful. Recently had an enquiry from an agency about do-follow links but have heard no more since I declined. It will be interesting to see if any advertising traffic comes my way as I grow... It's all a bit of a steep learning curve, so when more experienced bloggers share their thoughts on it, it's very helpful!

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  4. I'm not taking issue with being totally transparent, but the nitpicker in me has raised her head. Are all the points you make, Michelle, based on the OFT enforcement action? To me, that seems to concentrate solely on payment for editorial and promotions and making it clear when this occurs. "Gifted items, however small", don't seem to come into it. Being sent items for review is somewhat different from payment and I'd be surprised if the OFT would bring the weight of law against bloggers who didn't reveal that the book they'd reviewed had been sent unsolicited.

    What readers don't want is to be encouraged to buy something when the reason for that encouragement is that the blogger gets paid for the recommendation. And this brings me on to affiliate links.

    Am I wrong about this? I always assume that any links to Amazon from blogs are affiliate links (mine are). It doesn't bother me because, if the blogger's lucky enough to get a small return for their effort, it seems reasonable (and I know the average blogger will be getting so little, if anything, that it probably doesn't affect the review anyway).

    Perhaps I'm the only blogger with Amazon affiliate links (must do a page on my blog to make that sort of thing clear) but I'd be surprised. So, I've often wondered why, when so many bloggers are very careful to mention when they've received something for free, mention isn't made at the same time of Amazon (and perhaps other) affiliate links. Surely that's more pertinent to the OFT case than declaring small items received free for review as, potentially, the links could be seen as skewing the review?


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  5. This is really interesting - have never bothered with advertising on my personal blog but plan to get back into it a lot more this year - I have been approached by a firm (a reputable garden-related company, but not one I've ever been a customer of)asking about sponsoring a post on my blog. I'm interested, but have no idea how to set rates, or whether readers would be put off sponsored posts - even if they are very clearly labelled as such. Any thoughts? And how does the no-follow link issue fit in with this?

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  6. Oh, VP, you took away the spam comment which complemented you on the beat of your blog and your broadcast with its shiny transparent concept. Have no idea what it was talking about but it came from here to my inbox and caused me great delight!

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  7. Fascinating - I had no idea any of this existed until I read your post. Note to self - I need to pay more attention ;) or maybe ignorance is bliss!!

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  8. Such a minefield, I respect your personal stance, and it is good to have such a clear piece of writing about the issues. I'm sure the PR folk will eventually work out that "nofollow" isn't a disaster for them, you'd think they'd understand that they will gain more from the people following the links because of the place/circumstances they found the reference...

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  9. I must admit I have never wanted having ads on my blog, nor my website for that matter, and I have no idea how many ad or link exchange requests I have refused over the years. I didn't think it would give me any real income anyway, and would be more to their benefit than mine. Since I have no actual expense from my blog I can't really justify it the same way as you do, and in any way I like the uncluttered look an ad-free blog gives. But am I missing a significant income or would it be just pennies anyway?

    I agree with what’s been said above here, whether people have ads or not makes no difference to whether I visit and read, unless their blog is plastered with ads so it is hard to find the content. However, I never click on ad links, if I am looking for something to buy I will go to Google and search for it myself.

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  10. Hi everyone - thanks very much for your comments. As always with posts of this sort there's much from you that deserves to be answered properly rather than via an answer here or individually via your blogs or email.

    I was at a blog summit in Bristol yesterday where the topic of no follow was discussed in great detail, so I'll be writing an update post soon.

    In the meantime, here's my shorter answers for you...

    Arabella - if you profited from the association, then you need to declare it. A hug from JAS counts ;)

    Lucy - yes I'm probably being harsh when I said the blog is devalued because lots of bloggers don't know about this at all. Which is why the sellers of adverts can just shrug their shoulders when we say 'no follow only' and move on to a blogger who isn't aware or is prepared to take the risk. And there are so many bloggers now, they have plenty to approach...

    TTG - thank you. I've been thinking about this for a while and knew awareness amongst bloggers needed to be raised. You've made an excellent start with your blog, so I'm sure it'll continue to grow well :)

    Helen - do please nitpick away! That's how things are improved :) I don't have affiliate links with Amazon (I don't affiliate at all) because I don't think there's much £ to be made from it with a gardening blog. You're right the OFT will probably want to catch the 'bigger fish' before turning their attention to minnows. I need to check before giving you a definitive answer, but I believe the spirit of the law is that if a blogger stands to profit from the association (£ or in kind) then it must be disclosed. And as far as Google is concerned any linking given when writing about said thing which must be disclosed must be a no follow link. A grey area I need to check up on is the situation with competitions, where you give something away to readers but don't get anything in return.

    Anon - it depends! Rates depend on how large your audience is and whether your readers are put off depends on where you place the adverts and how many you have. Many bloggers have an anti ads stance and think those who have them have 'sold out'. I decided my adverts would be limited and unobtrusive so that my blog continued to be readable. I probably missed out on the maximum I could have made, but then if nobody read my blog, the advertisers would go away. It's a tricky balance to get right, so my advice is to do what's you think is right for you.

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  11. Had to split my reply in hald as it was too long!

    Esther - yes I did because those comments are awful and complete gobbledigook. I found out yesterday another thing Google takes into account is how well a blog is being looked after. If spam comments are allowed to remain then that's considered a very bad sign. Unfortunately the spammers seem to have managed to break Google's spam filter recently, so comments are coming through instead of being trapped and therefore rendered invisible to readers. I've raised a problem in the Google forum on this matter. The reason why you saw the comment is because you subscribed to my comments when you left yours, so you get to see everything, even if I've removed it from the blog! BTW 6 comments were left before I got a spam one. This is much better than recently where the reverse (and worse) has been true. Whether this is because my use of no follow throughout the post worked, or that Google are finally getting to grips with the spam attacks remains to be seen.

    Angie - in some ways ignorance most definitely is bliss! I hope you found this useful anyway.

    Janet - thank you. I've realised since that a distinction is needed between PR and marketing approaches. Both can look very similar but the outcome intended is very different. PR is about building brand trust and marketing is about selling more. It can be hard sometimes for a blogger to see which one is intended and indeed the company making the approach may also make the distinction blurred, or even by trying to do both.

    Helene - I felt like you for a very long time and thought I had a free hobby. Then I sat down one day and calculated how much my blogging was costing me and was shocked at the result. I've made more than pennies because of the type of advertising I took (i.e. paid directly, nothing dependent on someone clicking or buying something). It financed my going to the Garden Bloggers fling a couple of years ago for instance, but it's not been sufficient to make a living. A garden blog is the wrong kind of blog to do that.

    I agree with you that plastering a blog with ads defeats the object. I've always tried to ensure that the content always won over anything I've been asked to place on the sidebar. BTW if I review something this is an extra blog post, not a substitute and I do not gain a bean if anyone then decides they like what they see.

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  12. Hello VP! This is really useful, thanks so much. Does this also relate to links we add in our posts to other blogs or places? For example, I often add links to other bloggers who have posted something that has inspired my post or is similar to my post or is than my post!! I also add links to some of the places I've visited. Like my beloved Harlow Carr. Should I use no-follow on them?
    Cheers,
    Anna

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  13. Hi Anna B - good questions!

    For blogs I don't do no follow links unless it's a company blog. Like you, most (if not all) of my blog links are carrying on the conversation started by another blogger and I think that fits with Google's stance on 'natural linking'.

    Harlow Carr is a bit of a grey area as it's a commercial venture (albeit a charity). As you go there a lot and it's one of your most loved places, then you would naturally want to write about it. Therefore I think a follow link is fine. However, if you were invited there to a specific event as a guest of the RHS, possibly with a view to you writing about it afterwards, then I'd play safe and use a no follow link.

    If you're linking to your own blog posts then follow links are fine :)

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I love reading your comments and welcome thoughtful conversations :)

Comments aiming to link back and give credence to commercial websites will be composted!

4/4/2014 - Anonymous comment spam came back with a vengeance today, so sadly I've had to halt this facility for a while for the sake of commenters who like to read what the genuine follow-up comments say.

If you're having problems leaving comments, you can contact me using the Contact Form at the foot of this page, or via vegplotting at gmail dot com, or @malvernmeet if a quick tweet is more convenient for you. That way I can get things sorted.

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