Mark SimonMark Simon

On Friday, March 11, Google published an advisory warning bloggers who review products in exchange for compensation that they must disclose the paid nature of these relationships. Google wrote:

Users want to know when they’re viewing sponsored content. Also, there are laws in some countries that make disclosure of sponsorship mandatory. A disclosure can appear anywhere in the post; however, the most useful placement is at the top in case users don’t read the entire post.

Google also warned that any links in review articles must be "no-followed" (i.e. they will not pass PageRank to the site of the reviewed product):

Links that pass PageRank in exchange for goods or services are against Google guidelines on link schemes. Companies sometimes urge bloggers to link back to:

1. the company’s site
2. the company’s social media accounts
3. an online merchant’s page that sells the product
4. a review service’s page featuring reviews of the product
5. the company’s mobile app on an app store

Unless both requirements -- disclosing and no-following -- are met, Google may consider all parties involved -- including the agency, the blogger, and perhaps even the sponsor -- to be engaged in what Google calls a "link scheme." The penalty for engaging in such a link scheme can be very severe, involving a loss of ranking and perhaps even a Manual Penalty, which basically wipes out all SEO visibility for a lengthy time.

How Does This Change Digital PR?

Many U.S. PR and marketing agencies enlist "influencers" -- popular reviewers, online celebrities, or other people with large audiences -- to review products or tout brands. Compensation to the blogger may be in the form of cash, a free product, or other valuable good or services. This practice has become so popular – and lucrative -- because it’s a win for all parties concerned: the agency (who can report great engagement metrics for the client), the blogger (who is often richly compensated), and for the client (whose message -- because it’s ostensibly “organic” -- can make it through ad blockers and bypass the reflexive “banner blindness” of users).

The missing beneficiary here is, of course, the user (or “consumer,” as the Federal Trade Commission puts it), who is most likely unaware that the “impartial” information he/she is consuming is anything but, thus being deceived. As the FTC notes in Native Advertising: A Guide for Business,

Under the FTC Act, an act or practice is deceptive if there is a material misrepresentation or omission of information that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. A misrepresentation is material if it is likely to affect consumers’ choices or conduct regarding an advertised product or the advertising for the product.

Clear, visible, disclosure -- in the eyes of both the FTC and Google -- is the antidote to this toxic problem. In a March 15th 2016 settlement with Lord & Taylor over an allegedly deceptive social media campaign, the FTC supplied detail about what adequate disclosure looks like:

  1. Disclosures on social media, or via any communication using an interactive electronic medium, such as the Internet, must be unavoidable, clear, conspicuous, using language likely to be understood by the average consumer.
  2. A visual disclosure (e.g. one made on social media) “by its size, contrast, location, the length of time it appears, and other characteristics, must stand out from any accompanying text or other visual elements so that it is easily read and understood.”
  3. Such disclosure must be in “close proximity” to the sponsored message. This means that a disclosure message “is very near the triggering endorsement or representation. “ The FTC noted that “a visual disclosure that cannot be viewed at the same time and in the same viewable area as the triggering endorsement or representation, on the technology used by ordinary consumers, is not in close proximity.”

What Must Be Done

PR agencies whose clients are using product review bloggers or running influencer campaigns need to get out in front of this issue. They must inform their clients about the need for disclosure, and warn them that no direct SEO benefits will accrue from product review bloggers or from influencer campaigns. (Indirect SEO benefits, however, may accrue, if enough people seeing the paid-for-post decide to link to the sponsor on their own.)

Agencies must also include in their contracts with review bloggers the requirement that disclosure and the no-follow rule be obeyed. Finally, agencies must monitor the reviews which result to ensure that the blogger has complied – both with the terms of the agency contract and the dictates of Google and the FTC.

The good news is that many product review bloggers are fully aware of the FTC’s guidelines, and conspicuously disclose their paid relationships. But Google’s additional requirement – that links to the sponsor’s site be no-followed – isn’t so universally respected. For example, when Didit surveyed 50 prominent review bloggers in the "Mommy Blogger" review space, it found that while 82 percent of them provided disclosure, only 46 percent of them have no-followed their links. Spot checks of other popular review blog segments yielded similar results. It is likely that compliance would improve if PR agencies made the no-follow rule an explicit contract provision.

Most agencies will have no problem adjusting to this new, more intensively-policed environment. Again, most product review bloggers understand and incorporate disclosure, believing (correctly) that more transparency equates to more trust from their user base. And most clients will understand that the real value of a prominent review comes from the content of the review and its exposure to a large, relevant audience – not from hyperlinks passing PageRank.

Furthermore, links embedded in reviews will continue to function as navigational shortcuts that will allow people to click through to the destination site – a valuable benefit in its own right. Only search engine spiders will be blocked from doing so (and search engine spiders don’t buy products).

As long as these new, but fundamentally simple and intuitive rules are understood, transmitted, and adhered to, no agency need fear any blowback in the form of a lawsuit, a rankings downgrade, or from users accusing them of deception.

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Mark Simon is executive VP at Didit, a full-service online advertising and marketing services firm.