Ted Murphy raises a great point today on his personal blog in an open letter to Matt Cutts on the topic of Page Rank.
In case you aren’t up to speed on who Ted Murphy is and why Google has called him out specifically as an example of what not to do as a blogger, it all goes back to the first iteration of Ted’s company IZEA – PayPerPost.
PayPerPost functioned on a simple model – bloggers signed up to the program were given a flat fee ranging from a few bucks to as high as a hundred in some cases to write a post that talked about a given sponsor. Sometimes, to qualify for the payment, it was required that the post be positive. Sometimes it was simply asking for an honest opinion.
The crux of the matter, at least for the purposes of this post, isn’t the ethics of sponsored posts, but the manner in which the sponsors were linked to.
There’s something called the NOFOLLOW attribute that can be used when linking to someone. It’s simply there to tell Google’s indexing spider whether or not follow the link, and assign the bit of pagerank to the linked to site from the linking site. PayPerPost didn’t originally have any requirements regarding the NOFOLLOW tag, but now they do, according to Ted:
First I want to point out that we have a strict no-follow policy for all links we provide through SocialSpark.
The reason for this is because Google has talked about how much they hate sponsored posts, and have even penalized their own company for creating blog posts that contained links without NOFOLLOW attributes.
Ted brings up an excellent point about tech blog ReadWriteWeb, though, in his open letter:
I still believe the concept of no-follow is absolutely ridiculous. There is NO WAY Google can possibly determine paid links from unpaid links, even if you could where does it stop? I work for IZEA, they pay my salary. I link back to them solely because they are my employer. Should that be no-followed? What about parent companies linking to subsidiaries and brands? Vendors linking to clients? Bloggers who get “review units”, free trips, tickets, etc.
If you are going to try to enforce rules tied to “paid links” you need to look at the very fabric of all inks and the commercial relationship between sites….and guess what? You can’t.
Not only is no-follow a lost cause, it is also enforced sporadically and unevenly. When I mentioned TechCrunch using PR passing links to you (on several occasions) you reached out them personally, you didn’t penalize them. In your recent post you point out an article on RRW, a PR 8 site. Guess what? RRW passes PR on sponsored posts!!
There is a double standard here. If a blogger is signed up to IZEA and participates in their programs, they seem to run the risk of penalization. Why? All major tech blogs do sponsored posts, without exception.
Sponsorship is a great model for curating content. Don’t believe me? Check out this academic community I profiled today at SiliconAngle. Intel is the sole sponsor of this community. Does it’s existence benefit the company? Yes. Are there greater benefits to all of us for it being there? Absolutely – a new crop of developers and chipset engineers is being groomed there. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be reading this and I couldn’t be writing this.
Even closer to home, sponsorship is paying for my trip to SXSW this year, and is bringing you and several publications the stories and experience of the event that couldn’t otherwise be gotten.
So is it the sponsorship model that Google hates? Is it the lack of the attribute? How do they know when a link is paid or not? How do they know if I simply forgot or if I intentionally left off the attribute?
Ted raises serious questions; questions that deserve answers.