There once was a time when paying bloggers to link to your website was considered a perfectly acceptable thing to do. But thanks to strict algorithm updates introduced by Google in recent years, those days are long gone.
Now we seem to be trapped in an unusual no-man’s-land where it’s unclear whether we’re allowed to pay bloggers or not. On the one hand, paid links are frowned upon and punished by Google, on the other hand, asking bloggers to work for free in exchange for ‘exposure’ can be a recipe for disaster. So… can we pay bloggers or not?
Email: Would you like to write 500 words, lousy with links, and post it on your blog, for exposure?
— Claire (@CMClaire) May 1, 2017
Pay bloggers for their time, not their links
It’s time we stopped obsessing over links. Far too many businesses are preoccupied with the idea of crawling to the top of the search engines, as if this is the only way to boost sales.
When you stop putting links on a pedestal, you open yourself up to a wealth of digital marketing practices that can reap much stronger results. So instead of paying bloggers for links, pay them for their time and influence. You wouldn’t expect a photographer or designer to help your business for free. A blogger should be no different.
Blogger, author and overall digital expert Emma Gannon writes: “Blogging is an industry. “Influencer marketing” is an industry. It makes companies money. So: if you are expecting someone to do some “work” for you, then treat it like work. Pay the creative. Pay the writer. Pay the blogger. Pay the content creator.
“Anyone creating content on behalf of a brand (whatever platform they are using: YouTube, blog, podcast) are within their right to ask for money.”
So stop thinking about links alone and concentrate on getting your brand noticed. Look for ways to make your voice heard. Befriend bloggers who perfectly encapsulate your target audience. Give them a product or service they can rave about, and everything will fall into place.
“Blogging is an industry. “Influencer marketing” is an industry. It makes companies money. So: if you are expecting someone to do some “work” for you, then treat it like work. Pay the creative. Pay the writer. Pay the blogger. Pay the content creator.
You have to pay to play
Influencers have become so powerful in recent years that it’s gotten to a stage where you simply have to pay them in order to get results. And with your competitors falling over themselves to catch the attention of the same influential bloggers you’re chasing, you have to pay to play.
Think of it this way – Alfie Deyes isn’t going to promote your underwater camera out of the goodness of his heart. Carly Rowena isn’t going to show off your fitness tracker on her Instagram if you expect her to post it back to you afterwards. Zoella is not going to promote your beauty products in exchange for a box of free samples when she makes upwards of £20,000 a month from sponsorship deals.
The above bloggers are all big names who command high fees for their time and influence, but even the smaller bloggers – or at least the ones worth working with – are unlikely to promote you for free.
In some niche industries, it’s so difficult to find relevant bloggers that when you do spot one with your target audience, it would be foolish to pass up a sponsorship opportunity due to a frugal attitude or fear of getting on the wrong side of Google.
In an article for PR week, marketer and author Ryan Holiday said: “For blogs, money gets you a seat at the table. It’s the grease that keeps the industry’s wheels moving.
“Abstaining from all this for moral reasons is understandable. PR can be a bit icky; I get it. But your competitors will have no problem taking advantage of these opportunities. And in doing so, they will steal the attention you feel rightfully belongs to you.”
“For blogs, money gets you a seat at the table. It’s the grease that keeps the industry’s wheels moving.”
Does Google really know if money has changed hands?
“How does Google know if a link has been paid for?” is a common question SEOs have been asking for years. Although there are times when paid links are incredibly obvious (avoid link farms, spammy websites and irrelevant blogs like the plague), it becomes a little tougher to determine whether a link has been paid for when quality websites are involved.
In a comment on Moz’s forum, Sha Menz from Google’s web spam team wrote: “I spend my days wading through the unnatural links sewer looking at the mess people have gotten themselves into because they thought they were smarter than Google or had that “how would Google ever know” thought in their heads.
“Google’s reach and ability to mine and interpret data (accurately or not) is so far outside our comprehension that it is probably better we don’t even think about it.
“Reviewers have a habit of unintentionally sharing information or creating patterns in the way they do things that are a clear red flag for orchestrated reviews.”
However, she also adds: “When you have a great product your customers will always be your best sales force! Do things that make THEM want to tell people how THEY feel about you. If you do that enough, even those authoritative sites will be checking you out for themselves and gifting you natural links.”
Although this is sound advice and we should certainly all strive for quality, it still doesn’t tell us how Google actually separates these natural links from paid links, particularly when authoritative sites are involved in both cases.
When disclosure does Google’s dirty work for it
In recent years, bloggers have found themselves under increasing pressure to disclose products they’ve been paid to promote. With many influencers having the potential to convince thousands of followers to spend money on a particular product, disclosing paid posts is an ethical move that can help bloggers maintain trust amongst their followers. Unconvinced? Take a look at this Twitter chat on the importance of disclosure:
It does! As soon as I know I’ve been misled, my view of the blogger gets ruined and they lose my trust! #fblchat
— Daisy 🏳️🌈 (@TheDeeWhoLived) May 16, 2017
definitely! for all we know they might not have even tried the product and they are telling us it’s amazing and to get it! #fblchat
— Jade (@jadeautumn_) May 16, 2017
I think bloggers should always disclose if they’re working with a brand. how can you trust their opinion if they’re not honest #fblchat
— James Garland (@jamesgcookst) May 16, 2017
Although disclosure is certainly a good thing, when a blogger writes “this post about cat flaps was sponsored by Cat Flaps R Us” or “I was paid to review this meatball lamp” at the end of a post, it’s easy to see how Google could put two and two together and come out with ‘paid link’.
Follow or no-follow
If you’re concerned that a blogger’s disclosure will result in your site being penalised by Google, ask them to make their link to you ‘no-follow’. This involves adding a small snippet of code to the link to tell Google to discredit it from search results.
Although this will prevent the link from helping you climb up the SERPs, it help you stay on Google’s good side. You’ll also still benefit from the exposure that comes with working with a respectable influencer. This could still see you receive a boost in traffic, an improvement in brand awareness and even a surge in sales, which is surely the end goal.
If you want to improve brand awareness, boost traffic and increase sales, it’s more important than ever to pay influential bloggers for their time. By collaborating with bloggers to create relevant, valuable and original content for their audiences, you can tap into your target market and run rings around your competitors.
Want to stay on the right side of Google? Stop obsessing over links and make quality your number one priority. Google wants its search results to favour high quality and relevant websites that offer customers an exceptional service. Give it what it wants and success will follow.