I started blogging in 2010, a Golden Age of not long ago when bloggers could make money from their sites in a number of ways. Sponsored posts, sidebar adverts, paid-for links, it was all gravy. Then belts got tightened, laws were passed and it got harder for us to make a buck from our sites.

Google got wise to companies who were buying their way up the search results and decided to crack down on it – you all know about the Interflora scandal right? And I bet you all know a blogger who’s had their page rank stripped because of these types of links?

The rules are simple:

1. Paid for links MUST be no-follow

2. Advertising of ALL FORMS (so, if anyone has paid you to add a link in any form) must be declared as such and explicitly so.

The first rule is decreed by Google. Kings of T’Interwebs. It’s not ‘The Law’, but it’s their way of saying “If you value your site, don’t fuck with our algorithms”. I get it, I mean it’s not fair to consumers who are innocently Googling something and the first link they find is not the most popular, just the one that’s splashed the most cash about (a bit like Google’s own sponsored links at the top of any search…*ahem*).

The second rule was decreed by the Advertising Standards Agency and as such IS THE LAW. You can be penalised with fines or prosecution and call me a harbinger of doom if you like, but these guys have already started to make examples of people so no-one is immune.

The problem is this – SEO companies don’t like these rules. People who ‘do’ SEO have an agenda and that’s to get their client to the top of those search results. Don’t confuse them with PR people – these guys tend to use their noggin a bit more and come up with creative ways to get bloggers writing about stuff.

I get a lot of emails from SEO companies, some of whom are happy with full disclosure and no-follow links as they just want their client’s name in as many posts as possible. Many, however, are trying to baffle bloggers with bullshit to get their way. This is a snippet of an email I received from an undisclosed source, after I informed them that I would have to disclose the post as paid-for:

“Thanks for letting me know. Unfortunately I cannot allow this, as paying for links is actually against googles terms, therefore if google came across a post on your site marked in this way, then your site could get penalised, as would the brand.

I could allow this to be marked as ‘guest’ ‘feature’ or an ‘associated’ post, but ‘sponsored’ is something that google has picked up on, therefore risks you losing your page rank.
Let me know whether this would be possible at all, as I couldn’t agree to it otherwise.”
My response:
That’s not quite accurate –  It is not Google that stipulate whether something can be labelled, they only give guidelines on follow and no follow. In terms of labeling, the law states that all paid-for content must be labelled or I could be prosecuted.
If you need any further info, I’ve found this very useful: GO HERE
Let me know how you wish to proceed.
Their response back to me:
Would it be possible for you to label this as featured or guest post? It isn’t actually advertising that we are looking for – it is SEO. This is why we request that the links are very subtle and discreet, as if not, google can penalize blogs, in a similar way to what happened with the Interflora situation. This may be helpful to you – http://www.linkresearchtools.com/case-studies/interflora-penalty/

I just want to let you know that what we require is for a link to look natural, as if you have placed it without being asked, as I wouldn’t ever want your website to get penalised.

My last email:

The whole point is that Google require paid-for links to be explicitly labelled and no-follow, otherwise I stand to lose my page rank so I’m not quite sure how you’re trying to help me to not get into trouble.
The other, bigger issue (because although I love my blog, I value my freedom and finances more highly) is that the ASA could prosecute me for placing PAID FOR links, which are advertising regardless of how you gussy-up the language, without letting my readers know that I am endorsing a product or site for money.
The ‘natural’ links you talk about are exactly the problem and while I don’t want to be personal, this is exactly the problem that bloggers are facing when dealing with SEO companies at the moment because you dangle cash in the hope that it’ll blind us to the jargon you use.
I’m not a millionaire, I could use an extra few quid here and there like the best of us, but I’m not willing to lose my blog or get into serious trouble for the sake of cash.
Thanks again.
Do you know what I think gets me the most? The fact that these people are willing to lie to us to get their way and the assumption that I’m stupid enough to go along with it. I think I was very patient to begin with but how can I go on communication with someone who clearly lacks scruples?
Enough is enough.
(As a footnote, I want to add that I make no judgement of people who accept posts containing follow-links etc., I know that times are hard and people want to make some extra money and that’s the personal decision of each individual to make, so please don’t think I’m attacking other bloggers for their choices.)