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Horizon Interactive Awards - 2008 Silver Winner (Best Blog Category)
An Invitation to Google, MSN, Yahoo and Ask.com

Matt Cutts and I sat down for a conversation after his keynote earlier this month at PubCon. We spoke for quite some time about Google’s policy surrounding paid links and specifically the use of no-follow tags. I have to say that I like Matt and I enjoyed our conversation. However, I don’t completely agree with what he had to say regarding sponsored content.

I explained to Matt that in SocialSpark all links required by an advertiser would carry the no-follow tag. I thought this would be a great thing. Matt commended the decision, but then added ALL links inside of any sponsored post should carry the no-follow tag period, regardless of whether they are required, not required or even link to the advertiser paying for the post. That means if Nikon pays me to review a camera and I link off to a site about photography that link needs to be no-follow, along with the link to the blog of my buddy the photographer. His reasoning was that the sponsored post wouldn’t exist without the sponsor paying for it, therefore all the content is commercial and should be no-follow.

The ramifications of that statement and policy didn’t hit me until I was on a jet back to Orlando. Is Google really saying that all content that is commercially driven by a sponsor should carry no-follow tags? Let’s look at what that would mean at a higher level.

1. Every link on this blog should have a no-follow tag.
2. Every link on the IZEA corporate site and millions of other corporate sites should have a no-follow tag.

The fact is a huge amount of content on the web is sponsored in some way. I am paid to blog on the IZEA blog as part of my salary. I largely write about and link to things with a corporate agenda, whether that be linking to a blogger in our network, a promotion, or another IZEA owned website. None of the content I create would exist without payment to me, and while I am not paid on a per post basis the content I create is most definitely influenced or driven by this company.

Under Google’s policy all of the content I create on behalf of IZEA should carry no-follow tags, regardless of whether there has been actual payment for any individual link. So now it’s not just paid links that require no-follow, it becomes commercial content in general because “it wouldn’t exist without payment”.

When we announced we would require no-follow links in SocialSpark I was really excited. In fact I still am as I think it is the right thing to do. But no-follows on all sponsored content just doesn’t sit right with me.

If we decide to enforce no-follows on all links where does it end? How/where/why does Google draw the line between bloggers like me and those when get paid on a per post basis? Am I exempt because I am on salary and they aren’t? We are both driven by our sponsors, I just happen to work full time for mine and blog exclusively about them. I am not required to link to anything and either are they, but under this scenario I should be using no-follow for every link.

I titled this post An Invitation to Google, MSN, Yahoo and Ask.com because I want to hear what all the major search engines have to say on this subject. Matt, if you are reading this post and I have got anything wrong here please correct me.

IZEA is still committed to no-follow on advertiser required links in SocialSpark. We have already put a no-follow option in PayPerPost. However, I would like to get some input from the other engines, bloggers, advertisers and search experts (would love feedback from Andy Beard, Danny Sullivan, Rand Fishkin, Aaron Wall) before we commit to anything more.

Update: Great post by Andy Beard. "There is absolutely no way I can comply with these current new demands, I would have to stick nofollow on every link within some of my most popular and highly rated content."

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Comments (RSS)

Cass said...

We should not have to alter our blogging style to help the google figure out it's own algorithm. That's not my problem. I didn't no-follow before I knew what pagerank was, and I don;t think the onus should be on the individual blogger to change the way they blog.

Dec 27, 2007 4:58:23 PM

Wolfie said...

It's a tricky question, but I do think that you can't lump corporate blogging and sponsored posts on a non-corporate blog together. As CEO of Izea, there is an expectation that you will write blog entries and when you do, they will be about the company and things related to it. Your commercial position and the relation between you and Izea is obvious.

Posties, though, are not writing for a corporate blog; they are offering sponsored posts - on behalf of many different advertisers - on an otherwise non-commercial blog. It may not be obvious to their readers that parts of the blog are written for money.

In that context, I can see where Matt is coming from; as he says, the post wouldn't exist (at least, not in that form) without the sponsor. Whether he's right is another question.

I'd be wary of adopting his suggestion, just because I'm not sure where Google are coming from; is it an altruistic "let's stop SEO gaming and make the Net better for everyone" as they might have us believe or could it be because they've got a business model to protect? Is all of this (in addition to the PR annihilation of a few weeks ago) just a way to trim down their competition and protect their Adsense, Adwords, etc revenue?

At the moment, I'd stick to your plan of making nofollow mandatory on required links, but let the blogger make up their own mind about any other links they put into the same post.

Dec 27, 2007 5:03:55 PM

Ted Murphy said...

Wolfie,
What you are talking about has more to do with disclosure than no-follow. A no-follow doesn't tell the reader anything unless they are looking at the HTML itself. It is just for the benefit of the search engines.

Dec 27, 2007 5:09:17 PM

Wolfie said...

Possibly, but the impression I got from what you'd reported of your conversation with Matt was that he was not making a distinction between the two things.

Dec 27, 2007 5:17:13 PM

Bob said...

It seems like this is just another case of Google being general and nonspecific. Matt Cutt's would probably respond to your post with this: "No I didn't say that exactly.....".

And from what we have seen between Google's distincition between a salaried blogger and a per post blogger it seems that Google is targeting the little guy and leaving those with the most influence alone.

Dec 27, 2007 5:24:55 PM

Bob said...

Ted, your response should be clear. Completely remove Google PR from Social Spark. You can leave it in Payperpost and direct advertisers that want it there.

Dec 27, 2007 5:27:49 PM

Marisa said...

I'm with Cass. Google needs to re-work their algorithm to get the results they want. Webmasters should not have to rework coding to make Google work properly. Google has gotten away from what made them special in the beginning.

Besides, nofollow is not a W3C standard. It's a google invention and it's presumptuous of Google to expect webmasters to use it.

If the rest of the blogosphere can't see it by now, let me say it one more time, the rankspank wasn't about their Holy Algorithm and Sacred Search Engine; it was about destroying anyone who dares to monetize with something that works better than Adsense. Matt Cutts wants to leave Izea impotent. They attack on bloggers didn't work so now they're going to render Social Spark useless to advertisers.

Dec 27, 2007 6:00:45 PM

dew said...

I like the nofollow for required links, but I don't think it should be required for extra links that we feel like doing.

The internet is there to make money. Almost every site has one purpose: to make money. It would be insane to require everybody that makes money with their website to have nofollow on all of their links.

Dec 27, 2007 6:15:39 PM

Holly said...

I love the idea of no-follow on required links, but I think any others we put in should be our choice. If it's a product I would link to anyway, why not.

Really it comes down to the blogger and their choice to put what they want on their site.

Dec 27, 2007 7:04:18 PM

Elizabeth said...

You ask "Is Google really saying that all content that is commercially driven by a sponsor should carry no-follow tags?"

The problem as I see it is that if we were to obey Google and start no-following our sponsored links, then where would it end? Next, will Google say that if I want to link to a post on my friend's blog, that I have to no-follow it because if she hadn't written the post, I wouldn't have linked to her?

If you are going to work on moving your advertisers away from relying on page rank, then why bow to the pressure from Matt? To put it another way, let's say you were starting PPP up right now. You knew from Google that sponsored links were going to devalue page rank. Would you still make page rank a part of PPP anyway?

Dec 27, 2007 8:36:16 PM

Clement said...

This would also lead to deadpool for Techcrunch

Dec 28, 2007 8:57:34 AM

Jay Berkowitz said...

Google differentated themselves from the search engines that came before them by placing value on links from other websites.
As soon as Google became popular crafty seo's started trying to 'cheat' the intent of the system by getting links that weren't completely organically created to their sites.
There is a huge grey area in between 'I link because I like' and 'I solely link for Google results'.
Sadly, Matt Cutts and the team at Google likely spend most of their time trying to define the links that fall outside the grey area.

Dec 28, 2007 11:30:11 AM

Ghosty said...

Why can't you tell the difference between a paid post on my blog, and a post on this one? Are you saying there isn't a difference?

Matt tells you something, your first step is to wonder if Google really means what's said?

Nope. They're lying to you. Wanna borrow my tin-foil hat?

Dec 28, 2007 11:55:58 AM

larrytheliquid said...

If makes sense to require no-follow for required links in sponsored posts. This is similar to taking money for an adsense link or banner ad, where you agree to put content on your blog that is created by someone other than yourself.

However, any other links in the post were created by the blogger at their discretion. The blogger's choice to include the additional links is reason enough to not require no-follow on them. Search engines should not control what bloggers choose to write about or link to after the initial sponsorship requirements are filled. If a blogger feels that the additional link has was affected so much by the sponsored post that it also does not deserve search results, they can make the decision to add no-follow... it is there choice and there is no problem with that.

But for the sake of argument let's say that the original post's sponsorship origins is significant enough to control what else they write on their accord. It is true that the links may not have been thought of without the original sponsored content, but going down that route is a slippery slope.

For example, say you are writing a post and a commercial plays on television that gives you an idea to write about and link off to something, should that require a no-follow as well?

People are influenced by everything around them. It would be a major burden for bloggers to contemplate if no-follow is required for every link they come up with on their own, based on possibly distant sponsored origins.

Another problem with requiring no-follow on otherwise organic links in sponsored posts is the idea that a post is an atomic thing. Say you write a sponsored post, and then decide to write another unrelated post. Something in the previous sponsored post inspires you to link off to something in the new organic post. Now lets fast forward days, weeks, months, or even years later. The later writings would be less affected than the links in the original post, but affected nonetheless. If this is the case, where you mandate the cut off point to be in the no-follow chain of influence is pretty subjective.

Dec 28, 2007 2:45:53 PM

Mrs. Mecomber said...

I stand with the other bloggers:

THUMBS UP: Nofollow for advertiser's links.

THUMBS DOWN: Nofollow for all links in post.

Google's call for nofollow is a bit controlling and very presumptuous. SOMEBODY has to say NO to these guys. Now they want to control our content?! (Besides, isn't PPP TOS that bloggers can't link to other sites for those sponsored posts anyway?)

Ted, either go with Google all the way and obey their commands, or run your business without them. Straddling the fence is just going to make things very hard in the future.

As a side note, I like the idea of giving discounts or incentives to advertisers who will not ask for PR when submitting opps. Since PR is purely subjective and can be purchased now in some circles, why not wean ourselves off it rather than looking for a pacifier?

Dec 28, 2007 5:09:42 PM

Cyn said...

First, I'd like to get off my chest what I think about the oft- repeated plaintive cry," How will readers know it's a sponsored post?"
My response is that if a person is really so thick that he or she cannot take a moment to read my well-labeled blog Disclosure Statement, then quite frankly I don't care if they know if it's sponsored because they probably don't have much of a clue about a lot of what they read on the 'Net. Sorry if that's harsh. It's true.
And when did it become my job to police my content, including links for "potential readers"? Aren't adults able to make up their own minds? Why am I beholden to Google's standards?

The right thing to do, the courageous thing to do is to face down Google. All of us as a group--including the search engines in this post title.

It seemed that Social Spark's implementation of mandatory nofollow on required links would be enough concession to Google. Now this.
If we continue to ask "How high?" each time Google says "Jump," they'll not stop until they control all blog advertising on the 'Net.

For the tally, my votes are YES to nofollow on advertiser's required links, NO to nofollow throughout the post.

Thank you for asking!
Caprica

Dec 28, 2007 8:19:44 PM

CyberCelt said...

I do not think that one search engine should have the power to dictate how and when our links are tagged. I am a do follow blogger.

If you are looking for a new search engine and a new ranking system, you may want to check out my post about Earthfrisk.org. Click my name to go there.

Boycott G@@GLE.

Dec 28, 2007 10:27:34 PM

Matt Cutts said...

I don't see any other search engines commenting, so it looks like it's just me, search-engine-wise. Sorry I didn't comment earlier; as I replied when you emailed me the link to this post, I was trapped on a plane at the time. Note to self: flying through Denver in winter doesn't always work out as well as you'd want it to. :)

I approached you at PubCon because I wanted to talk more beyond the conversations we've had over email, and I thought that discussing it in person might help. As I recall, you were interested to hear whether Google was consistent in taking action on sites, so I mentioned several of the larger sites that Google had taken action on to demonstrate that we were willing to respond to PageRank selling by big sites.

Then we talked about PPP's policy on nofollows. While it's great that in the future, required links will be nofollow'ed, I mentioned that I fully expected people to try to use "recommended, but not required" links as a another way to try to buy PageRank-flowing links. That view appears to echoed by some of your own advertisers, e.g. http://boards.payperpost.com/viewtopic.php?t=9722&start=12 mentions "I've been active as both an advertiser and a postie for several months. As an advertiser, I really only see value in PPP as an SEO tool..."

I think quoting me as saying "ALL links inside of any sponsored post should carry the no-follow tag period, regardless of whether they are required, not required or even link to the advertiser paying for the post" is different than our conversation. I believe that I said that adding nofollow to all links in paid posts would certainly be safe. Then I asked if you were going to require nofollow on required links, why not put them on all links in paid posts? I think you replied that your business model didn't support that, but I may be misremembering.

As a company that does paid posts (or as a postie), I support your right to do whatever you want in your paid posts and on your site. But in turn, Google reserves the right to protect the quality and relevance of search results. And this is not a Google-only stance; every major search engine has come out against selling links that affect search engines.

Regards,
Matt Cutts

P.S. I'm not sure if you noticed, but it looks like in its recent "thank you sponsors" post, TechCrunch did nofollow their links: http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/12/21/techcrunch-sponsors-5/
And as we talked about earlier, Google does a pretty good job of recognizing banner ads, even those 125x125 ones.

Dec 30, 2007 2:42:17 AM

Igor The Troll said...

Matt Cutts do you follow or nofollow what we have to say to you?

Dec 30, 2007 3:24:12 AM

Ted Murphy said...

My response to Matt here:

http://community.izea.com/blog/2007/12/matt-cutts-reps.html

Dec 30, 2007 12:09:09 PM

Janna said...

I like the idea of nofollow for advertiser's links.
As for other links within paid posts, isn't that a moot point? Aren't we prohibited from including third-party links in our paid posts anyway?

Dec 30, 2007 6:21:44 PM

FearlessRick said...

Ted,

This may sound a little bit presumptuous, and I don't kno whether you'll even read this, but I think you should sever any and all connections to Google and disregard anything they or Matt Cutts offer. It's pretty obvious that your business goals and Google's do not mesh well. Also, it's obvious that Google is working in their own self interest and also has a vested interest in seeing your company fail, as you (and any other businessperson that doesn't automatically bow to their demands) pose a threat to their business.

The internet is still very young in terms of a medium, and many years from now, people will probably wonder what all the fuss was about over using non-standard html to identify paid links.

In terms of using nofollow tags, I believe you should be neutral and leave it up to the advertisers' and bloggers' discretion. By bowing to Google's demands, you are effectively allowing them to dictate the terms of YOUR business and weakening your competitive position.

And what will happen the next time Google discovers something else they don't like? Will you once again bend to their will? You have opened a can of perpetual worms by including PageRake (a horribly flawed, easily manipulated and soon to be discarded "standard") in your segemntation. Cut off all reference to PageRank and allow bloggers and advertisers the freedom they deserve.

Matt continues to spout the nonsense that the other search engines agree with him, though that evidence is scant to non-existent. I would presume that the other search engines would prefer to see Google die an ugly death as soon as possible, so any form of defiance may actually engnder some unseen support.

Let Google figure it out for themselves. You can nofollow, follow or you can lead. The ball is in your court.

Dec 30, 2007 10:44:35 PM

google said...

"Under Google’s policy all of the content I create on behalf of IZEA should carry no-follow tags, regardless of whether there has been actual payment for any individual link."

please fill out the remainder of your google profile, including the employment section, so we at google can then devalue the remainder of your paid links you evil ass spammer.

Dec 31, 2007 1:36:05 PM

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