Sponsored 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.