The SocialChorus Lesson: Use “Nofollow” In Native Ads, To Avoid Google Penalties

SocialChorusBrand building service SocialChorus has learned a lesson that other native advertising players should also know. Even when you’re focused on building awareness through social media, you can’t ignore Google and its rules, not if sponsored posts and links in native advertising are involved.

The company’s platform came under attention this week after an agency working on behalf of Microsoft used it to launch a campaign designed to raise buzz about Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

Mistake number one was trying to involve TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington with a cold-call pitch that failed to recognize he’s hardly the type of blogger to be attracted to such a campaign, especially when he’s written against sponsored posts.

Mistake number two was bigger, not realizing that sponsored posts, if they involve any linking to a brand’s site, could get that brand penalized by Google.

Sponsored Posts & Buying Google “Votes”

The short story is that Google effectively looks at links like “votes” for good content. So if someone provides a link to another site, and payment or compensation is involved in any way, Google may consider that a form of buying votes and respond with a penalty.

To avoid problems, Google has recommended that people make use of the “nofollow attribute,” a mechanism that prevents a link from passing along credit to the page it points at. Google sees these links but doesn’t count them as votes.

SocialChorus: Now That We Know, We’ll Nofollow

Until now, SocialChorus hadn’t even been up on the nofollow requirement.

“The bottom line is that we were not really was focused or aware of this stuff until now,” said SocialChorus founder and CEO Gregory Shove, in an interview with Marketing Land.

Shove explained that the focus of his company’s campaigns are about creating social media awareness by working with bloggers, not to increase search rankings.

“They’re not being paid to include links. They’re being paid to create content and drive social awareness for the brand,” he said.

The situation with Internet Explorer has now caused SocialChorus to understand that even if the bloggers aren’t paid to link, any links generated by sponsored posts will potentially violate Google’s guidelines if not blocked with nofollow or other mechanisms.

As a result, SocialChorus is making changes. The company tells me after talking with the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, it has now altered its software platform so that any links provided to bloggers will use nofollow. Presumably, bloggers will also be given better guidelines, as well.

Penalties Unlikely

Potentially, some of the big name clients that have used SocialChorus — companies and products like Heinz, Progressive and Target — could find themselves in hot water over past campaigns that have generated links where nofollow wasn’t used.

Google itself wouldn’t comment on this or the situation at all, when asked.

Realistically, it would be hard for Google to pin down exactly which campaigns were involved, at this point. More likely, Google will take a “looking forward” approach to ensure new violations don’t happen.

As for Internet Explorer, while it doesn’t rank in the first page of results on Google for “browser,” that’s probably not because of some penalty — nor would I expect one would be applied, as the SocialChorus campaign hadn’t even started. Microsoft has also now canceled it. FYI, Safari also doesn’t rank on the first page of results.

It’s also pretty clear that SocialChorus wasn’t aiming to do campaigns for link building purposes. The company has plenty of guidance for bloggers about following US Federal Trade Commission rules for paid content, so it doesn’t seem like it was somehow trying to slip things past without disclosure.

Rather, the FTC guidelines don’t require the use of nofollow. That’s a Google rule. And if you’re a social company, focused on social, you just might not be up on Google’s rules about SEO and how a social campaign might interfere with those.

Ironically, Google had to penalize its own Chrome browser for the same situation. In 2012, Chrome was involved in a social promotion, one that inadvertently violated Google’s SEO guidelines. Even though it was fairly clear there was no attempt to game Google’s search results with the campaign, Google still placed a penalty against the Chrome home page that lasted for 60 days.

If you’re involved in social or native advertising, nofollow is an essential you should understand. We’ve got just the resource on that: What Is The Nofollow Tag; When & How To Use It. Check it out.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Legal: General | Native Advertising | Top News


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Jenny Halasz

    “nofollow is an essential you should understand.” Or, you could just go on living your life the way you did before Google came in and made a mess of the internet and a mockery of free expression.

    I know we have to play by their rules if we want to be on their search engine, but honestly, when is enough enough?!

  • Danny Sullivan

    If you’re only doing work for yourself, enough is enough whenever you want to declare it’s enough.

    But if you’re an agency doing work for others, you don’t have that option, unless your clients tell you they don’t want to play by Google’s rules.

  • Jenny Halasz

    Since I’m in the latter group, you can understand why this frustrates me.

  • Tony N. Wright

    I like this article Danny – simple for non-SEOs to understand the concepts. As Native Advertising becomes more prevalent (see the kerfuffle over Outbrain in the UK yesterday) we’re going to see a lot more followed links that, by Google’s standards, should be nofollow. We all know that ignorance of the rule isn’t an excuse that will get you out of Google Jail, but I don’t think that nofollow is enforceable in the long-term. It’s a bandaid for a broken part of the algorithm – namely link signals. I don’t have a better answer, that’s for people much smarter than me. But I do know that as advertorial and native advertising proliferate and become more popular, there’s going to be the same risk/reward behavior we saw with other link buying techniques. If Google can’t enforce it, and the competitors are doing it, many will take the risk. To your point, recently I’ve come across several large companies where the SEO, Social and PR teams are siloed. They each have their own “turf” and don’t communicate with each other. Organizations that run on this type of “specialist silo” philosophy are the ones with the most risk. And these types of organizations tend to be large companies. So as we see more advertorial and native ads becoming popular with the big companies, I suspect we’ll see more penalties down the road. Not because of malicious intent,but because of ignorance of the guidelines.

  • soman

    Funny part is…. I came to know that New IE is launched from this issue. Even i don’t know what the version it is. If you guys haven’t write it about. like me most of people won’t aware that IE is still doing its Upgrade. :)

  • Michael Martinez

    Search marketers created this problem with their incessant demand for links because they misinterpreted how much the search engines rely on links. Now everyone is stuck on this treadmill. We can’t undo the past. We can only go forward.

  • Jenny Halasz

    “We can’t undo the past. We can only go forward.” So you agree with me then. ;-)

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