Native Advertising, WTH?

The concept of “Native Advertising” is getting a lot of attention these days. In some circles, it’s been suggested that it may even “save newspapers.” I blame BuzzFeed for doing such a great job of letting the cat out of the bag.

Native Advertising Buzzfeed

As is so often the case, stick around a while and you’ll learn that “everything old is new again.”

I would like to congratulate BuzzFeed on reintroducing us to the second oldest profession: the corruption of authoritative sources. (Yes, there is a correlation with the oldest profession.) I wonder if the scribes of ancient Egypt had PR operatives whispering in their ear as they scratched out the Pharaoh’s message on their papyrus.

Now, everybody knows they can place content and get eyeballs on their advertisers. What you may not realize is that Native Advertising is also a great hedge against the Penguin slap. Much like our early evangelism of Facebook ads, I fear the secret won’t remain so for long.

So why couldn’t the secret-keepers (or I, for that matter) just STFU, as Rebecca Kelley so famously reminded us years ago on ShoeMoney’s blog? Well, you’re going to hear it somewhere, and that’s okay — there’s plenty of room at the table.

Native Advertising, Advertorials & Content Marketing

In his June 13 article, Michael Raybman attempts to define the differences between Advertorials, Content Marketing and Native Advertising. His view is fairly media-centric, but what we can see is that these are similar concepts differentiated by their transparency and editorial integration.

Advertorial, often thought of as obviously “sponsored content,” is the most obvious. Often seen in in-flight magazines as a glossy, multi-page spread extolling the virtues of places like East Nowheresville, Texas as opportunities for business expansion, sponsored content is open and clear about its “paid for” nature, using phrases such as “Special Advertising Section.”

In our experience, content marketing is either created by the advertiser or by the publication, but in either case content is designed to fit in with the surrounding editorial style. Guest posts are one example of this, where the content may be valuable to the audience and only loosely associated with specific products or services offered by the brand.

Native advertising — as demonstrated by BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and Forbes — is often indiscernible from the editorial content presented by those same outlets. It’s often written by the publication’s editorial staff, though it often has some thematic tie-in with the brand or its campaigns. It is this similarity to the editorial content that makes this kind of advertising both problematic and appealing.

And to an online marketer, this similarity makes Native Advertising manna from heaven.

Native Advertising And The Penguin Smack

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So, what impact does Native Advertising have for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), especially when we have Google warning that “nofollow” needs to be used in advertorial to block links from passing credit, lest the brand get penalized?

If there’s one thing that we have learned in life after the algorithm shift known as Penguin 2.0, it is that Google will continue to reward big brands for doing what Michael King and Wil Reynolds have referred to as real company stuff (though they might not have used the word “stuff”).

What does this “real company stuff” look like, in terms of online marketing? In the post-Penguin world, it may not include a link. It may include a link, but it may only be a link referencing the brand and not a product, service, or — God forbid — a keyword. In many cases, real company stuff may look a lot more like a citation, a brand mention without a link at all.

Native Advertising, even with full disclosure of sponsorship, clearly presents a brand reference. Let us take, for example, a hosted, fully disclosed blog. The reference to business in the disclosure itself satisfies the real company stuff criteria. It is a citation, if you will, that demonstrates a connection to a real company, and I would argue that it is an excellent Penguin hedge.

And I know this may sound a little bit heretical, but I think that, in the world of real company stuff, Google may in fact reward you for sponsored content which follows their guidelines. And yes, all of us SEOs out there who are intent on following their guidelines are nofollowing those links, right?

Sorry, folks, but the Matt Cutts video in which the head of Web spam says advertorials may violate Google’s guidelines, is irrelevant.

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(And complete stinking hypocrisy — but that’s a rant for another day.)

As smart SEOs will come to learn, we can follow the guidelines to the letter and still benefit our clients with Native Advertising.

Native Advertising And The Death of Traditional Media

Print media is having a hard time these days. The Yellow Pages companies are consolidating or being sold off by their telephone company masters. Daily print newspapers are moving to weekly publication or even less often than that. In some markets with multiple papers, they’re even shutting them down completely.

Television and radio are having a hard time competing with always-on digital media. Digital video recorders are making commercials on television less and less relevant every day.

And let’s not forget where the phrase “soap opera” came from. The original sponsors of daytime television were some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies — most notably the purveyors of detergent for the lonely housewife — and the daily dramas were there to help their target audience keep their sanity between loads of laundry.

As those of us who buy online media know, there is a much more economical approach than calling media outlets directly to place your ads on their websites at their requested CPMs. Demand-side platforms and real-time bidding have granted marketers access to demographically and behaviorally targeted impressions on some of the most sought-after publications — typically at a much lower CPM than when buying ad space directly through the publisher.

As often happens, the leaders in native advertising from the realm of traditional media have suffered a few arrows in their backs. Notably, The Atlantic and its advertorials for the Church of Scientology showed how native advertising can go too far. The Atlantic even went so far as to apologize for its less-than-aboveboard presentation of the material and pulled the piece.

The Atlantic’s woes with the Church of Scientology are old news by now. The idea that native advertising would allow such a thin line between ads and editorial is not. Whether a Patch contributor, a Forbes blogger, or a BuzzFeed editor, the line between editorial and advertising has been permanently perforated.

Google, in their usual way, reminds us that this behavior is not acceptable with a post on the Google News blog stating that sponsored content which passes PageRank may risk a news outlet’s inclusion in Google News altogether. In other words, if a news outlet publishes Native Advertising without appropriate disclaimers and without nofollowing links, Google may pull them from the news feed completely.

In conversations I’ve had, news organizations are reacting very aggressively to this. Much of their traffic comes from Google News. So again, Google is using a sledgehammer to enforce rules that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cannot marshal the resources to prosecute.

While it may not be their savior, Native Advertising can certainly help these news organizations. In a world of declining CPMs for owned and operated banner networks, who would turn up their nose at eMarketer’s estimated 2.55 billion from Native Ads in 2015?

Native Advertising And The FTC

Ultimately, truth in advertising is the domain of the Federal Trade Commission and states’ attorneys general. Again, this isn’t new news — there is clear precedent of prosecution in the case of false advertising through the use of ratings and reviews.

Insertion of misleading ads into ratings and reviews or social streams could be lumped into the category of native advertising as well. In his Digiday article, Ben Kunz outlines a few of the ways in which Native Advertising might be inserted into traditional editorial content. And when one looks at ad units such as textbook sponsored stories that are in a “frame” — in other words, they are surrounded by a callout that indicates they are an ad — it is clear how perforated the line between “editorial” and advertising is.

Back in 2009, there was a case in which the New York Attorney General fined the maker of a medical device for plastic surgery for posting obviously false reviews by its employees.

As Laura Brett points out in her Ad Age article, Native Advertising is governed by a clear set of guidelines that have been in place for some time. The challenge, of course, is how one interprets them. Is a small callout at the top of the page sufficient? How about a little tag that says “ads related to” your search phrase? I find it ironic that in one of my references for this article, Google AdWords, was cited as an example of “native” advertising. Bwahahahaha.

Did I mention that “everything old is new again”?

Native Advertising And The Search Marketer

As Google has become less accepting of scalable SEO processes in the past couple of years, search marketers have had to start behaving more like PR agencies. Infographics, featured articles, bylines, and guest blogging have replaced link directories, article engines, press releases, and others as our stock-in-trade.

Until Penguin, we were still pretty fond of anchor text and deep links. The lesson of Penguins 1.0 and 2.0 is that brands win. In one of the industries in which we work, we have seen many of our customers displaced by directories and portal sites. In our analysis, the sites are differentiated by a lack of keyword anchor text and a preponderance of brand mentions with or without a link. This is why I believe native advertising offers such an opportunity for search marketers to help their clients look more like their brands.

Imagine an article about your client placed in Forbes or on BuzzFeed. Do you really care about a link? Isn’t it just as valuable when you have an article that is topically relevant alongside the mention of your brand?

In the world of Local SEO, we have long recognized the value of a citation for demonstration of authority to the name, address, and phone number (NAP). It would appear that with Penguin, Google is going back to the basics. The architectural precedent for PageRank was citations in academic papers. A citation doesn’t need a link. A citation is a reference. How frequently in “real” media do you find a citation without a link?

I would argue that good SEO has always been about content. Sometimes, it’s your content on your site. Sometimes, it’s content you shop around for the purpose of drawing attention to your site.

As media companies rush to jump on the native advertising bandwagon, search marketers have a golden opportunity to help our customers behave like brands. If brand and the appearance of brand-ness is what Google values, how better to demonstrate that than with native advertising content distributed on authoritative sites that looks like editorial?

I would love to hear your thoughts on my theories, both in relation to Penguin’s love of brand and the opportunity around citations.


Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column | Native Advertising | Search Marketing


About The Author: is CEO of Search Influence, a national online marketing firm focused on small and medium-sized businesses, and white label online marketing products for publishers and media partners who serve them. Search Influence is the largest online marketing company on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans’ only Inc. 500 honoree in 2011.

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  • Andrew Shotland

    Thanks for the link Will, but where’s my exact match anchor text?! :)

  • Will Scott

    @andrewsho:disqus You don’t want me to blow your link-text ratio, now do you?

  • Chris Elwell

    Thanks for the piece, Wil. Thought provoking for sure.

    As a media company, our business model is getting paid for exposing “content” from clients (advertisers) to our readers. That content comes in many forms, including banners, whitepapers/webcasts and (gag) “native advertising.”
    Agreed that Google’s “sledgehammer” is effective in enforcing their rules on publishers regarding paid links, etc. Only the most brazen publisher would ignore them and risk losing the traffic that would inevitably result from being dropped from the index.

    I’d appreciate some evidence supporting the conclusion of these questions: “Imagine an article about your client placed in Forbes or on BuzzFeed. Do you really care about a link? Isn’t it just as valuable when you have an article that is topically relevant alongside the mention of your brand?”

    Clearly the answer to the last question is “yes” for human beings. But for SEO?
    And if “yes” for SEO, seems the challenge that agencies have is to convince their clients to actually invest in buying access to an audience on a media site. Clients/agencies are eager to invest in people to write blogs and to syndicate those posts to social networks, but for most investing in paid media is a bridge too far.


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