One problem faced by business owners who are doing their own SEO and marketing is that they are often tempted by link sharing or pay for content creation schemes that seem legitimate and fair but can quickly land them in trouble with Google and possibly even the Federal Trade Commission. As the FTC notes on their website, “If you advertising online, remember the rules and guidelines that protect consumers also help businesses by maintaining the credibility of the Internet as a marketing medium.” Google’s Matt Cutts recently released a video where he explained how Google determines what is a paid link when determining penalties for deceptive practices.
To explain briefly, the issue is backlinks. Business owners know that generating backlinks are good for SEO so they are often thinking of ways they can quickly increase the number of backlinks they have by paying some amount of money. The problem is that paying for backlinks is against the policies of Google since it’s deceptively trying to influence search results. This brings about the first form of paid link that Cutts discussed, where people pay directly for backlinks.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s abundantly clear that these are links that are being bought and paid and sold and all that sort of stuff,” Cutts said in the video.
For those who are wondering how Google can tell, the answer probably (I don’t work for Google) has something to do with big data. There are patterns to the organic growth of a site that Google is undoubtedly very familiar with. If a site suddenly gains a large number of links from a particular site or if a particular site is giving an unusually high number of backlinks to multiple sites that formerly had very few, it would be “abundantly clear”, as Cutts said, what’s going on.
However, there are other forms of paid links that Google is also on the lookout for. Businesses often give things to bloggers or reviewers in order to sway their opinion or to get them to create content they otherwise wouldn’t create. Cutts video explains what Google is checking for when determining a paid link.
Value of the Item
The value of the item matters a lot when considering what is an acceptable gift. The pens and marketing materials given out by companies aren’t worth enough to sway the actions of people, so they aren’t usually counted. However, a business can’t slap a logo on a HDTV and then call it a marketing material. The value is what matters. Also, how close is the gift, product, or service to actual money?
Loan vs. Gift
Many businesses loan expensive products to reviewers so they can use the product for review without paying for it. This is perfectly fine, but giving the product to the reviewer as a gift would be viewed as an attempt to sway their opinion. Telling a car reviewer to test drive a BMW for 30 days and then give it back is fine, but saying they could keep the car after the 30 days is akin to bribery.
As Cutts explained, “If somebody’s giving you a review copy, and you have to return it, that a relatively well-respected thing where people understand, ‘OK I’m trying this out (I’m a gadget reviewer or whatever) and then see if I like this camera, but I do have to send it back.’ Whereas if someone sends you a camera and said, ‘you know what, keep it,’ that’s something that’s much closer to material compensation in our opinion.
Somewhat surprisingly, Google also checks the intended audience and the intention of the gift. If a product would be marketed to a different group of people, but a large amount of links are coming from trial users who are proxy backlink buyers, that would be something Google watches for.
Cutts noted that there are some circumstances where free gifts are expected. For example, movie reviewers are often given free tickets. However, if a movie reviewer was given something shocking, like a car, that would be a payment by Google’s standard.
All of this speaks to a point made in an earlier article on this blog, that though there are a bunch of creative ways to try to skirt Google’s algorithm, the search giant is onto these schemes for the most part, and they will only work for a short period of time before it ends up getting sites penalized. A good and ethical content marketing and SEO strategy is the only acceptable way to try to increase a business’s search engine rankings.