Google blogger penalties: death of the press trip?

May 9, 2016

WildAboutAfrica_elephant

Google recently handed out ‘manual’ penalties (as opposed to those automatically applied as part of the fabled algorithm) to a large number of blog sites for promoting goods or services that were gifted to them without making it clear that the reviews and links were, effectively, paid for. Google’s line has always been reasonably consistent on what it terms to be “unnatural links”, but its advice now is fairly unequivocal:

  • Follow or no-follow. “Bloggers should use the no-follow 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).”
  • Sponsored content. “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.”
  • The creation of compelling, unique content“The most successful blogs offer their visitors a compelling reason to come back. If you’re a blogger you might try to become the go-to source of information in your topic area, cover a useful niche that few others are looking at, or provide exclusive content that only you can create due to your unique expertise or resources.”

What is less clear, however, is how Google will differentiate between a blog and any other media website and if the advice above will be expanded to include sites belonging to all online publications. Will the search engine, for example, start penalising newspaper websites if they include ‘follow’ links in press-trip write ups? Chris McIntyre, MD of Expert Africa, suggests that the “credibility of the source” could be a deciding factor for Google, and the editorial quality of the newspaper site will win out. That may be so but, on the credibility continuum, where would a top-quality blog site and a poor quality newspaper respectively sit? Would the blogger always be lower?

Pot de CreamI’m not sure there’s any intrinsic difference between a press trip provided free to a journalist and a jar of beauty cream given free to a blogger. If Google thinks the same way then we, in the travel industry, will need to start considering how we earn valuable SEO links in the future. A clue to that may lie in the fact that Google’s number two ranking factor is content. But what does this all mean for the press trip – the staple of many operators’ PR efforts? Is it dead or is there life in the old dog yet?

It should be noted that this isn’t a Google algorithm change. Though you’d expect that an algorithm change would come, Mark Hodson, editor of the travel inspiration website, 101 Holidays, suggests “Google …[is] not very good at spotting these relationships algorithmically, so it’s asking webmasters to police themselves.” The issue here is that webmasters will certainly err on the side of caution and make life easier for themselves by imposing site-wide ‘no-follow’ policies so they don’t have to pick and choose which pieces of content are earned, paid for or editorial in nature.

What is odd is that Google still maintains that its number one ranking-factor is links, followed at number two, by quality content – but it seems it will become increasingly difficult to gain the very things for which Google will reward you.

Blogger-iconIt would seem that a strong content strategy will become ever more important, alongside a sharing strategy designed to reach as much of your core-target audience as possible. Sarah Lee – founder of LiveShareTravel and Captivate – says: “The key to working with bloggers, and what drives engagement and action (ie bookings) is content – be that in blog posts …or on social media.” Her point is that any company using bloggers should be focused on growth in social engagement and brand awareness rather than seeking SEO benefits. Further she says, “Bloggers bring targeted, often niche audiences…” and, “When the content they produce is put before that targeted audience it brings value to brands in all manner of ways.”

I wonder if a subtle change is required from the blogging community too? Do they need to start to act more like traditional media and provide earned links (ie not paid for) more readily to the companies which are their potential paymasters?

no-followOn the topic of whether newspapers will simply ensure that all links are no-follow, Mark Hodson comments, “I think it’s already had an effect. Mail Online, for example, routinely adds no-follow tags to links on its travel pages, even when no goods or services have changed hands. I can only assume that’s because the Mail is concerned that Google will see those links as being commercial, rather than editorial.”

I’d stress that bloggers with large social followings are still valuable in terms of branding and audience reach. Also, your brand name and/or URL on a third-party website or social channel will still be visible to Google bots and therefore will still have some incremental search value. Operators focusing too much on links are possibly missing the full picture in some respects. Mark Hodson, again, says, “There are many other benefits to a press trip, from print coverage to social media mentions, and – crucially – building relationships with journalists…”.

I’d concur. A first-hand account of your product by a good writer (providing the experience was a good one), will always be far more emotive, captivating and genuine for the reader than copy plucked from a brochure, and thus more powerful for your brand.

In summary:

  • Google’s messaging manages to be foggy and clear all at the same time but, overall, leans towards rewarding earned links over paid-for, and certainly suggests that it will continue to reward great content.
  • Ensuring that your brand and URL are mentioned on quality and relevant third-party sites will continue to work in your favour, whether links are follow or no-follow and whether they are on blog sites or media sites.
  • Don’t throw the PR baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the cross-over with SEO and social media continues to grow and is baby with bathwaterhugely important, but it would be wise to consider the wider picture too: brand mentions are still crucial, relationships with the media will continue to reap rewards and your potential customers will pick up on those cues and come to you as a result.
  • Press trips are not about to die off. However, the way in which they are perceived by operators should perhaps be tweaked to ensure each trip generates more than just a single article in the weekend travel section. Consider imagery, video, real-time social media, edited versions of the journalist’s piece for your own site and unique pieces for use on your social channels.
  • If your own social reach isn’t great, then investing in a blog trip (as opposed to a press trip), or a more comprehensive blogger campaign, may provide more value in the long run.
  • Don’t panic. Although Google’s frequent tweaks are irritating, just remember its ubiquity means you’ll always be in the same boat as your competitors.