Google issued a stark warning in March about articles that have come about as a result of a writer receiving something for free. More recently, it handed out manual penalties to sites carrying content that didn’t fall in line.
People use links in web content, and there are two types that can be used- Follow and No Follow. No Follow does not count as a hit for the page, or impact on search rankings. This is what should be used for ‘non-organic’ links- when a link is placed because someone has paid for it to be there. In contrast, Follow links do impact on search rankings and hits, and should only be used at the discretion of the publisher when they want to neutrally link something.
In the PR world there are certain ‘offers’ directed at publications. It could be tickets to a gig in order for them to review, a book that might get a mention in a research-heavy feature, or even flights and accommodation for two if a resort is looking to generate editorial. Needless to say, there are potential ethical issues surrounding this and these have been discussed, at great, length, since what feels like the beginning of time. Nevertheless, this is the reality.
As editorial budgets are increasingly squeezed you could argue support from outside the newsroom/publication office/bedroom desk has never been more in demand. There simply isn’t enough money to send every staffer everywhere, if there’s any money to send any of them anywhere. Freelancers are increasingly used, but if they earn 25p per word, which isn’t the worst rate out there by a long stretch, and an average feature is 1,500-3,000 words long, that doesn’t leave much in the kitty to cover travel to Delhi. Even in economy.
Hence a lot of travel content people read being a result of organised press trips. In other areas, for example music, every album reviewed almost without exception was heard (if not received to keep) for free, and every performance attended is the same. None of this (should) impact on neutrality- the idea is to see what these writers think of the record/show/resort. And the system works. But Google apparently begs to differ.
Or at least it does in the case of bloggers. New guidelines have been issued which aim to clarify the search engine’s stance on content resulting from any kind of freebie. This includes only using No Follow links, which could have a significant impact on the way the travel industry operates digitally (to name but the most obvious sector), and also clearly stating that something is in effect sponsored- i.e. the content wouldn’t exist if there hadn’t been a freebie.
This has been the case for some time when it comes to paid-for content on any site- publishers are not allowed to pass off advertorials as editorial. If that page was ‘bought’ by a sponsor, and that sponsor had a say in its content, the public should know about it. But when it comes to things being given for free, we get into much greyer territory.
Throw into the mix that eternal question- what is a blog- and you can’t help but feel as though there’s a quagmire forming underfoot. When does a blog become a news site, or an online magazine? What about bloggers who have a blog on a national newspaper website? Is the line drawn in terms of readership or something less easy to quantify- quality of content, perhaps?
The biggest concerns of all should be the impact on reader-publication relations and perception. One of the key reasons editorial is so desirable to brands of any kind is the fact it isn’t an advert. People form a bond with their chosen websites, or magazines, or newspapers, and that’s based on values, interests, and lifestyle. As a result, what the writers have to say carries more clout than any ad ever could. You could even argue this is intensified when it comes to blogs- the whole idea is that anyone can have one/publishers don’t need to live in the media ivory tower. So, imagine that the same writing appears on a page that follows Google’s latest advice to the letter. Suddenly the content doesn’t quite seem so persuasive, trustworthy, relevant, or valuable, regardless of whether the free price tag actually altered what the words said or not.