SEO Guidelines for Sponsored Content and Partner Links

And now a word from our sponsorSponsored content or “native advertising” in various forms is growing in popularity as publishers seek additional sources of revenue. Done well it can be a good fit for both publishers and advertisers, and dare I say even add value for users. However in any implementation it is important to comply with search engine guidelines to avoid negative repercussions for SEO.

This topic has been in the news recently with Google first issuing a reminder that any links within sponsored content should not pass PageRank. This stemmed from the incident in which Interflora and some UK newspapers were penalized for links within advertorials.

Then in a second reminder Google made it clear that they do not want sponsored content indexed in Google News, and sites that mix in promotional articles with their regular news content could be excluded from Google News entirely.

To clarify, the second warning refers to advertorials or articles created entirely by or for a sponsor, along the lines of what BuzzFeed does or the Washington Post article referenced in Search Engine Land’s coverage of the announcement.

It does not apply to instances in which regular editorial content is given a sponsor treatment. For example The Huffington Post is allowing brands to sponsor a section on the site which (in some cases) includes only regular HuffPo editorial content, as opposed to brand-created content. For those articles only the first warning (do not let sponsor links pass PageRank) applies.

Sponsored Content Compliance

How do publishers ensure that sponsored content and native advertising complies with Google’s guidelines?

  1. Make sure that links within sponsored content have the “nofollow” attribute or are coded so that they are inaccessible to crawlers. This includes any links to the sponsor on the template (logos, package treatments, etc.) and any sponsor links within the actual editorial text.

    This applies to all forms of sponsored content, be it specially created content or regular editorial content that is given a sponsor treatment.

  2. For sites in Google News, separate sponsored content from your main news articles if possible (such as hosting it in a separate directory) and exclude it from Google News via either robots.txt or a meta robots tag. In addition, do not include sponsored content in your Google News sitemap.

    As noted above, this only applies to advertorials or articles specifically written by or for a sponsor. Regular editorial articles with a sponsor treatment are still eligible for Google News indexation.

    Also remember that complying with #2 only requires excluding Googlebot-News, not Googlebot. Your sponsored content can still be indexed for Web search, just not Google News. I’d suggest doing this via a “noindex” meta tag vs. robots.txt to avoid creating any dead-ends on the site.

Be Careful with Ecommerce Partnerships Too

Partnering with ecommerce sites is another revenue growth area for publishers. The most typical approach is to incorporate affiliate links within product-related editorial content such as reviews, guides and round-ups. convergence of publishing ecommerce

While Google claims to already discount most affiliate links, from an SEO perspective the safest course is to treat them like sponsored links and make them nofollow or inaccessible to crawlers.

For more on the increasingly blurring lines between editorial and commercial sites see the article I wrote last year on What The Convergence Of Publishing & Ecommerce Means For Enterprise SEO.

What About Partner Links?

Another common practice for publishers is to feature partner links in various locations such as sidebar modules or just above the footer.

I’m not going to provide specific examples to avoid calling attention to anyone in particular, but go to nearly any major news or content site and you’ll see a variety of partner links in use. The modules typically include a link to the partner home page plus a few recent headlines.

Such links are not technically sponsored links because they are not paid for. But there is a business relationship involved so they are not editorial links either. Basically it’s the big brand version of an old fashioned link exchange.

Most publishers utilize relationships like this as an important part of their audience development and traffic building mix, not specifically for SEO. But crawler-accessible partner links do bring an SEO benefit as well, although the headline links appear on partner sites for only a short time before being replaced with fresh ones.

In reviewing examples on a number of major news brands, the partner links sometimes have the nofollow attribute and/or are inaccessible to crawlers, but many are regular, accessible links.

Google’s guidance on link schemes doesn’t specifically address these types of partner links, which don’t really fit the mold for “excessive link exchanging.” But it wouldn’t be surprising to see them defined as a form of sponsored links. At a minimum the links may get devalued regardless of how they are set up.

So publishers will need to decide for themselves how to define partner links, how to code those modules on their own sites and what they want their partners to do.

For clarification, I’m not talking about things like Outbrain modules, for which there is a financial component and thus Outbrain is already using a combination of JavaScript modules and nofollow links to ensure they are compliant. So no SEO concerns there, and Outbrain is a solid traffic source for a number of publishers.


  1. says

    I’m already at the stage of wondering just how important backlinks are to Google’s SERPs formula (in terms of the % value to your ‘score’) given all Google’s recent moves on semantic content etc.

    Each time I see one of these ‘clarifications’ on what are accepable links and which are not I wonder even more. (Just for the record, if I could think of a better signal I would love to ditch the whole ‘backlinks give value’ situation completely). I would certainly prefer it if backlinks only formed a VERY small part of the ‘signals’ process and we could do away with the whole ‘buying backlinks’ industry that has been built up completely.

    From both a professional point of view (as an SEO) and a personal point of view (as an avid reader of the articles/blogs etc on the internet) I would love it if the SERPs were purely based on content and not at all on backlinks. As, from the personal point of view, I would spend much less time having to click back from rubbish sites and from a professional point I could spend more of my time working with clients on generating truly good content to help them be found (and convert!).

    Spending time working with clients on content and looking for places to place links that WILL DRIVE TRAFFIC is much, MUCH, more rewarding than having to find ways to generate the ‘valuable’ links for SEO purposes that the customer believes they must have! (And that the industry, and the SERPs results, seem to back-up)

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Kevin. It will be interesting to see how things continue to evolve over the next several years.

  3. says

    Ηi Adam,

    A large News Media Group has a News Vortal, 3 magazines (for kids,health,fashion) and one Newspaper. All those different mediums have their content in independent websites (since the branding of all 6 Medium is very strong).

    My question is how to crosslink them editorially for seo purposes? Is it OK if I put a news box at every magazine site? Do links from unrelated sites dilute your rankings for your key phrases?

  4. says

    John – cross-network linking (for more than just SEO reasons) is a common practice among publishers with multiple titles, and done appropriately it is helpful thing for both the sites and users. You are right that topical relevancy is something that you should consider. For instance, including a module with hard news headlines in the sidebar of the kids magazine template doesn’t seem like a very natural fit. But when there is some reasonable overlap in subject matter, highlighting content on your other sites does offer value.

    Eilidh – thanks, glad you liked it!

  5. says

    Appreciate your thoughts and information. Concerning link building today I found (as in the “old” days – before Google appeared) that (sorry for the simplified expression) links are losing importance. I have always been a fanatic on page SEO and since the last pe… and pa.. updates I see a rising for client pages almost without link building involved.

    It is/was always my first advice to clients to get the on-page factors, navigation and site structure right, waiting then for results and gain links then, and only then, very slow and very targeted. This worked well in the past and seems to work now day after day even better, often achieving top spots for competitive KWs in weeks while I hear many seo firms whining about their countless new difficulties.

  6. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Klaus. With SEO in general, it makes sense to to take an holistic approach and not focus too heavily on any one thing.

  7. Ariana Wilkinson says

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for the advice. I wonder if you think the volume of these links can have a bearing on SEO value, be it negative or positive. One of largest media organizations in the UK, who have a number of websites in several niches, currently employ branded anchor text links pointing to their other websites in the same niche. These are nofollowed on every page other than the homepage. However, say one of these websites has 500,000 external links, the above tactic means that its likely 499,999 of these links will be nofollowed partner links. Surely, whilst providing improved UX, this tactic isn’t leveraging the organizations potential opportunity for SEO?

    Thought appreciated.

  8. says

    Ariana – that’s a good point. Within the same organization cross-network linking in various forms is similar in strategy and tactics to partner links, be it for awareness, traffic or SEO.

    Each case is different, but generally speaking cross-network links to other sites in the same niche, with branded (as opposed to specifically optimized) anchor text, is a legitimate practice that has user value as well. So making those nofollow is perhaps being over cautious, though it’s not unusual to see organizations do that just to be on the safe side.

    What crosses the line is when companies do things like create large extended footers with links to all of their sites, even those that are not topically related, using specific keyword phrases in the anchor text.

  9. says

    Referring to Arianas comment – my experience with a client site where the client did not follow my advice and performed a heavy cross linking between his five different sites (all the same target “yacht charter”) lead to a serious penalization with the first Penguin audit! It did cost me 9 months of hard work to get tat resolved and made his sites ranking well again.

  10. says

    I am curious to know what are the ramifications of scaling the distribution/promotion of content by means of Native Advertisement platforms like OutBrain on SEO from Google’s standpoint?

    Guest Posting is great but one has to cater to large egos and also wait for sometimes several months for the blog post to be live.

    Honestly I’d rather focus on creating great content for my blog that answers the questions of my potential customers and then find a scalable way to distribute/promote it and that is why I am investigating the Native Advertisement platforms.

  11. says

    Owen – Outbrain’s content discovery platform takes the form of related and suggested link modules as opposed to native advertising/sponsored content of the type I discuss in this post. Outbrain codes its link modules to be in compliance with Google’s guidelines for sponsored links (i.e. they use JavaScript and nofollow to prevent them from being crawled and passing value), so that does not cause any problems.

  12. says

    Hi Adam,
    we decided to follow an aggressive strategy with cross linking. We have cross linked all all the 6 different brands just above the header of the News Portal. You could see what i mean here Do you think that i should enable the nofollow. We tend to use the same cross network linking (in the header) for all other sites.

    Thought very appreciated.

  13. says

    Hi John – sorry for the slow reply; holiday break. If I’m looking at the right thing, it looks like you’ve got nofollow on most of those now. It’s certainly a safer approach, particularly since the other sites don’t appear to have a strong topical relation to

  14. says

    I’m working with a large number of bloggers through All of the bloggers are high quality and are placing disclaimers at the top of their posts, but does this mean that they should all utilize the no-follow attribute? How about if I have them remove the disclaimer and use follow links? Does Google really know if content is sponsored or not?

  15. says

    Hi Daniel – for something like that I would include both a disclaimer and make any links to the sponsor site(s) (in this case your site) nofollow. Google can and will go after specific networks and services like that if they choose to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five − 3 =