Google penalises bloggers with paid product reviews

At the end of 2014, vloggers were put under the spotlight when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) warned they must make it clear they are being paid to promote products. Whilst there are strict rules that govern television and other advertising, it appeared that there was a loophole when it came to online, videos and YouTube. The ASA ruled vloggers must change their descriptions to make it clear they are paid advertisements – we thought that was the end of it.

No. Here comes Google.

Starting sometime last week, Google began sending out batches of new manual penalty notices hitting blogging websites hard. You may be wondering what this has to do with ecommerce? Much like the vloggers being given free products to review in their videos, it would appear that bloggers have been accepting freebies in exchange for product reviews with a link to the merchant's website.

We all know the dangers of paid backlinks and how quickly Google can wipe your website off the face of the earth given enough evidence of this black hat technique – I'm not sure many of us thought this would stretch to 3rd party product reviews.

Google hates paid reviews

It's no secret that Google doesn't like paid reviews or reviews paid for through free products and/or free sevices passing PageRank. In the past, Google has always penalised the online store meaning those found to be buying links would be hit by a manual penalty or the Penguin Algorithm.

This latest communication however is targeted towards those who enable the merchants to obtain such links – the bloggers. If you're a blogger and want to check whether you've received a manual penalty from Google, you'll need to check the Search Console (previously Webmaster Tools) in the messages section. Those who have received a penalty will receive the following message:

unnatural outbound links google penalty

What does this means for ecommerce retailers?

If you're a good guy with a squeaky clean backlink profile you've got nothing to worry about. In fact, it could potentially have a positive impact on your rankings, if competitors have been paying for links from bloggers in this manner.

If you've previously obtained links by giving away freebies or paid for a blogger to review your products, it is possible Google will review your link profile and contact the blogger directly. Whilst it's unlikely you'll receive a manual penalty, you could find your rankings drop significantly if the blogger is penalised. A blog with a manual penalty will no longer pass PageRank via outbound links.

If you're currently employing a blogger outreach scheme, you may also need to reassess how this is implemented. Whilst still a legitimate marketing tactic, blogging platforms and links to retailers are now very much on Google's radar.

What should bloggers do?

On March 11th Google released best practice guidelines for bloggers reviewing free products they receive from companies. The advice states:

"Bloggers should use the nofollow tag on all such links because these links didn't come about organically (i.e., the links wouldn't exist if the company hadn't offered to provide a free good or service in exchange for a link). Companies, or the marketing firms they're working with, can do their part by reminding bloggers to use nofollow on these links."

Barry Adams, Founder of Polemic Digital commented; "It's all about scale. Blogger outreach has now become such a scalable endeavour – great outreach campaigns can achieve significant success in a fairly short amount of time. Google doesn't like it when any link building tactic achieves scale. Every single time a tactic has become scalable, Google has acted on it."

Keeping your link profile clean

When it comes to link building, there is no quick and easy way. Everything in your backlink profile needs to be a natural link; an editorial choice from a 3rd party website who deems your content to be useful and relevant. If you're not sure what this means, take a look at the information Google provides on unnatural links to your site.

If you're considering paid reviews or any kind of advertisement on a blog or 3rd party website, you need to ensure that all links have a rel=nofollow tag; this will help to make sure you avoid any unwanted penalties when Google reviews your backlinks. Similarly, if you're running an affiliate programme, make sure that your affiliate partners link with rel=nofollow to prevent PageRank flow. 

For advice on how to improve your organic visibility, talk to our digital marketing team today.

Catherine Durham

Catherine Durham

Digital Marketing Manager (Dip DigM)

Digital Marketing Manager at Netmatter, Catherine Durham graduated in Press & Editorial Photography. She has since gone on to work in digital marketing and ecommerce, with experience in SEO, copywriting, design and photography.

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