Brain Solis and Techcrunch Blatantly Wrong About The Consequences Of Sponsored Reviews With Google

Google does not penalize for paid or sponsored reviews but can penalize for paid or sponsored links that pass PageRank – Brian Solis & Techcrunch are blatantly wrong.

As Techcrunch now has 2 million readers, many of them corporate, you would think they would be a little more careful publishing statements that are false, misleading or could seriously damage not just a single company, but a whole growing business sector, even if they clearly hate it. Opinion is one thing – stating facts that are wrong is in a totally different territory Here is an excerpt for the recent fluff piece for Brian Solis on Techcrunch

Seems simple enough, except two things are going to prevent this from effectively promoting the sponsoring brand over time — 1) disclosures read like warning signs; 2) Google is downgrading any blog or site that actively publishes paid content.

Sarah Lacey’s recent piece was fluff as well

Google has no stated problem with paid or sponsored reviews – with Google it has always been about machine readable disclosure of paid links i.e. use some way to block the links from counting such as rel=”nofollow”, javascript, block with redirect + robots.txt etc

I stated that Brian’s article was a fluff piece, because it is very easy to research, but here are a few choice articles.

Matt Cutts Interviewed By Eric Enge

More on Matts own blog

Paid posts should not affect search engines

Two search tidbits

Official Google Statements

Information about buying and selling links that pass PageRank

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Why Fluff Piece?

You would expect Brian to have mentioned something relating to nofollow or PageRank passing links

Techcrunch Make No Mention of Nofollow or PageRank Within Their Article

Techcrunch Make No Mention of Nofollow or PageRank Within Their Article

Paid Links From Techcrunch

Techcrunch for as long as I can remember have sold PageRank passing links as part of their advertising packages.

It isn’t something that is mentioned within their advertising material, but being a Techcrunch sponsor of one kind or another has its benefits, and Techcrunch despite repeatedly being nudged about it whenever they mention paid reviews, has never addressed the problem.

This is search spam


Our friends at the LeWeb conference, in Paris on December 9th and 10th, are going to be giving away one ticket to the TechCrunch reader who leaves the best comment about why they want to go (and includes a contact e-mail address). We are also excited that LeWeb’s organizers are offering TechCrunch readers a <a href="http://www.lewebparis.com/techcrunch.html">20% discount </a> Thank You LeWeb

Without our sponsors TechCrunch would not be possible. Accordingly, we want to thank the following sponsors for their support.

<a href="http://www.clarion.com/us/en/top.html">Clarion</a> is a leading manufacturer of car audio and video systems, marine audio products, navigation systems, and other multimedia products.

<a href="http://www.rackSpace.com/">RackSpace</a> a provider of managed hosting solutions

<a href="http://www.mediatemple.net/">MediaTemple</a> TechCrunch’s exclusive hosting provider, and a worldwide leader in managed hosting solutions across all major platforms

<a href="http://www.ebuddy.com/">eBuddy</a> a web and mobile instant messaging client with over 18 million users.

<a href="http://www.ironscale.com/">IronScale</a> the world’s first fully automated dedicated managed hosting solution

<a href="http://www.perflect.com/">Perflect</a> the makers of PSD2HTML and other solutions to turn design documents into W3C compliant XHTML

<a href="http://www.seesmic.com/">Seesmic</a> the video micro-blogging service that powers video commenting on TechCrunch

<a href="http://www.conduit.com/">Conduit</a>, the makers of the <a href="http://techcrunch.conduit.com/">Crunchbar</a>, and other toolbars

<a href="http://www.ServePath.com/">ServePath</a> the maker of GoGrid, the world’s first multi-server control panel that allows you to deploy cloud server networks in minutes

<a href="http://www.mpronto.com/">MailPronto</a> a hosted e-mail solutions provider

TechCrunch also is happy to announce two new sponsorship opportunities. First, <a href="http://www.crunchgear.com">CrunchGear</a> is publishing a <a href="http://www.crunchgear.com/tag/300-2008/">Holiday Gear Guide</a>, which is the perfect way for your company to reach people as they research their purchases this holiday season. Second, we are now offering a full banner (468×60) on TechCrunch’s RSS feed, which has over 1.2 million subscribers. If you are interested in either of these opportunities, please e-mail <a href="mailto:dan@techcrunch.com">Dan Kimerling</a>

It makes Google look stupid

How many of these articles (Techcrunch Search) thanking sponsors use nofollowed links?

Just Advertorials?

Techcrunch coverage always concentrates on paid reviews being advertorials or purchasing opinion, thus I would like to highlight 2 of my own paid reviews which totally fly-in-the-face of that theory.

WordPress SEO Masterclass – whilst this post needs to be revamped, as many of the topics discussed have now been borrowed, or expressed inaccurately by others, it still stands as one of the most in-depth tutorials on WordPress SEO.
It has been linked to by SEO experts, syndicated, and stood the test of time for 2 years… yet it was a paid review, written as a form of consultation.

Volusion Review & Suggestions – The suggestion by Brian Solis is that paid reviews are somehow biased – in reality, paid reviews can be anything but biased, or even less biased, because a reviewer with any integrity will ensure that their review is thorough and accurate, because it will be heavily scrutinized.
In many ways that is to the detriment of the site asking to be reviewed, if their are any holes a detailed review might uncover.

Fluff reviews are in my experience are frequently caused by:-

  1. Blogger receiving a press release
  2. Blogger spending 30 minutes glancing at a site
  3. Rewriting the press release with a few screenshots to make it look pretty
  4. Offering a flimsy opinion that they can easily reverse if put on the spot

Time = money – to write detailed reviews that have real opinion and give valuable feedback from an expert, often there needs to be some level of payola.

p.s. Brain did you and Techcrunch really pay $750 for the Forrester report?
p.p.s. Does Techcrunch pay for Comscore? (I have always wondered why they predominantly quote Comscore in posts)
p.p.p.s The nofollowed home link on Techcrunch is funny

Despite the headline, this article hasn’t been primarily SEOed to rank for either Brian Solis or Techcrunch (e.g. the title is spelt wrong, first link priority, optimized meta title etc)

Update

One of the biggest problems Google faces in its battle against paid links and PageRank passing links in sponsored reviews, paid posts, or whatever methods people come up with to gain an advantage in search engine rankings is knowledge and public awareness.

The feedback I have received from Brian Solis certainly suggests he was unaware of the intricacies of the paid link situation, both the technical aspects, and the specific statements from Google.

Michael Arrington, Techcrunch editor also left a comment looking for clarification which I am including below as a reference point.

I am going to address each paragraph in turn as a separate section of this update.

just twittered this as i think it’s a debate worth having. I wish you were a little less emotional about it but your arguments are interesting.

If Google isn’t downgrading sites with paid content I didn’t know about it. Am looking into that now. IMO they should be.

On the links on TechCrunch, you make a pretty aggressive statement “Techcrunch for as long as I can remember have sold PageRank passing links as part of their advertising packages.” Please show me evidence of that.

Having a link in an ad to MediaTemple, or whoever, that links to MediaTemple, isn’t a search scam. It’s just linking to an advertiser. Now if the keyword was “hosting” or something like that I’d agree that it would be inappropriate. But its just a site name being linked to a site name. A search for Media Temple on Google that shows Media Temple’s site is a good thing, and I don’t think our ads are designed to create any deception there.

If i’m missing something please let me know. Would be happy to continue the conversation. I’m at editor at techcrunch, please email me if you follow up here so I can come back.

I really want to have a constructive conversation on this issue.

Emotional?

just twittered this as i think it’s a debate worth having. I wish you were a little less emotional about it but your arguments are interesting.

How emotional are people about the current financial crisis and losing their jobs, and ability to put food on the table?

Whilst I haven’t written any form of sponsored review for probably close to 18 months, that doesn’t mean I have abbandoned the option – I have a lot less time available to blog, and more refined goals partially enabled by the clearing up of a number of issues around the treatment of paid links, and more specifically affiliate links.

That being said, hundreds of thousands rely in part on the income they can make writing paid reviews. If inaccurate coverage of Google’s treatment of paid links is left without challenge, that could be harmful to their income.

If job losses in the Tech sector or auto industry are something people get emotional about, you can bet a reduction in income, either part or full time, is something people will get emotional about.

However in this post I am effectively just a mouthpiece for those whose voices would otherwise remain unheard.

Downgrading  Sites?

If Google isn’t downgrading sites with paid content I didn’t know about it. Am looking into that now. IMO they should be.

Google have “downgraded” sites for paid reviews purely due to PageRank passing links. Most believe the downgrading is purely cosmetic (reduction in the toolbar pagerank displayed).

I have data which strongly suggests that Google can target both whole sites and individual pages, preventing them passing on PageRank both internally and externally.

That in itself may not reduce site traffic significantly, but it can certainly unbalance efforts to control PageRank flow and indexing within a large site.

I have no data to suggest that companies buying paid reviews have seen massive downgrades in their rankings – it is hard to isolate the data if they are also undertaking other marketing efforts.

Google has mainly penalized those selling PageRank passing links in one way or another, though even 18 months after they had the first major clampdown (Oct 2007), they are still not amazingly good at detecting paid links – even with the human element of the penalty process I have seen claims of false positives, and I am sure the process is labour intensive.

Techcrunch Selling Links

On the links on TechCrunch, you make a pretty aggressive statement “Techcrunch for as long as I can remember have sold PageRank passing links as part of their advertising packages.” Please show me evidence of that.

Firstly that isn’t the statement I made, as there were words which followed.

Techcrunch for as long as I can remember have sold PageRank passing links as part of their advertising packages.

It isn’t something that is mentioned within their advertising material, but being a Techcrunch sponsor of one kind or another has its benefits, and Techcrunch despite repeatedly being nudged about it whenever they mention paid reviews, has never addressed the problem.

I need to clarify that statement as I am sure someone will try to pick holes in it.

In December 2007 for at least one post, Techcrunch did nofollow links when thanking sponsors. It was such a notable event that I blogged about it and I am pretty sure I was the first to blog about it.

It was also mentioned by Michael Gray, and both posts were linked to from the Search Engine Land 2007 Roundup on Paid Links

The Search Engine Land Roundup is a good birds-eye-view, and notable because it was written by ex-Googler Vanessa Fox – whilst she had been out of Google for a while, I am sure she still had a good measure of the “pulse”.

Whilst it is possible that Michael Arrington didn’t read any of the above, or the 10s, possibly 100s of blog comments that mentioned it on the Techcrunch blog, repeatedly, every time he attacked paid blogging services in one way or another, that is just plausable deniability.

To get some idea of how many advertisers think, you only need to read a few blog posts about buying links, and how to do it under the radar. The fact that it is under the radar doesn’t mean it isn’t buying links.

Linkfluence: How to Buy Links With Maximum Juice and Minimum Risk

How to: Buy Links Without Being Called a Spammer

8 Ways to Buy Links Without “Buying Links”

What percentage of a purchase decision, or just some purchase decisions revolves around the added benefit of links from “sponsor thanks” posts, increased chance of editorial mention (possibly just due to increased brand awareness) is impossible to quantify, but it would certainly be part of the thought process for some brands.

It would probably be exactly the same though process as people contemplating paid blog reviews with a look to gain not just increased awareness, maybe a little traffic, but also a bit of long lasting link juice.

No Anchor Text

Having a link in an ad to MediaTemple, or whoever, that links to MediaTemple, isn’t a search scam. It’s just linking to an advertiser. Now if the keyword was “hosting” or something like that I’d agree that it would be inappropriate. But its just a site name being linked to a site name. A search for Media Temple on Google that shows Media Temple’s site is a good thing, and I don’t think our ads are designed to create any deception there.

This has to be a little geeky, but the short answer – anchor text is just one of hundreds of factors

Even links without any anchor text at all have value

Here is a link to the old “Ranking Factors”  compiled 2 years ago and due for an update

http://www.seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors

Some SEOs would state that the proximity of words to that URL would have an effect, that the keywords in the URL have an effect, and none would argue that that link passes PageRank, various authority traits, temporal traits etc.

The link has real value.

Here is a link that possibly doesn’t have value. It is an affiliate link to Stompernet’s excellent SEO Training Course which you can get for $1, in the hope that you also remain a subscriber to their Net Effect magazine which is full of great cutting edge training.

https://stompernet.infusionsoft.com/go/S2SL/SN347

It is obviously an affiliate link, it passes through a 3rd party tracking link, it does a 302 redirect rather than 301 (not always a factor) – most of the time I “nofollow” affiliate links when I remember, though Google have stated at conferences that they don’t have a requirement to do so.

Best Practice

  • In content – Use tracking links such as those provided by OpenX – the links get blocked by robots.txt, but you should always still nofollow them, or you create hanging/dangling pages
  • Sidebar Advertings – Use tracking links such as those provided by OpenX – the links get blocked by robots.txt, but you should always still nofollow them, or you create hanging/dangling pages – if you are using javascript, this isn’t an issue
  • The advice is exactly the same for both scenarios
  • Advertisiers get traffic stats
  • You get valuable business intelligence from the click tracking which has value in itself, but also for content choices.
  • No problems from Google, or criticism from the blogosphere

Read Write Web currently do a pretty good job of this after I nudged them about it, and refined the system when they started using OpenX links within the content, though a few links to content still slip through, which should possibly be nofollowed.

There are big problems still within the whole paid link debate

  • Unequal treatment – some blogs seem to be above the “Google law”
  • Grey areas – there still isn’t an official statement I can point to from Google about Affiliate links being ok, and there are “clean” affiliate links with the tracking on the back end. What counts as paid PageRank passing links is never exactly specified, they can’t cover every form of payola.

I am quite confident if PPP bloggers had included a banner in their sidebar for every website they wrote about, even for just 1 week, Google would have still slammed them.

It will be quite time consuming going through 100s of posts adding nofollows to historical advertisers who received a link – I did publish a WordPress plugin that could have handled it, along with complete disclosure and even more advertiser exposure, all fully automatic, but I abandoned the project over a year ago – no matter what the FTC say, nothing will be done to police best practice, and bloggers are not interested in best practice.
I spent $3000 hiring a programmer to create a plugin that no one wanted.

Bonus Tips

Techcrunch have been attacking Last.fm over data sharing, but in many ways bloggers are worse.

  • Subscribe to comments doesn’t comply with Can Spam
  • Data sharing with 3rd party services across borders, including email address and IP (comment spam plugins)
  • How many bloggers have a privacy policy? It is actually a requirement for Google, but should also cover tracking, comment spam, advertisers etc.
  • Content ownership of comments?

There are all kinds of things that in many ways are much bigger issues than whatever the FTC has to say on WOMM

Update 2 – False Information Spreads By Copying Techcrunch

This is just unreal, or the negative side of extremely bad information spread virally.

Businessweek just published an article on paid reviews, quite well researched, but they stole a sub-headline from Brian Solis’ Techcrunch piece.

“Google Downgrades Paid Blog Entries”

http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/may2009/tc20090518_532031.htm

Yes that is a nofollowed link to a very bad article, I really should nofollow the Techcrunch links as well, but Michael did take the time to comment and learn, and hopefully will write some kind of followup.

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Comments

    • says

      I don’t think it was deliberately misleading on Brian’s part, but Techcrunch like to get specific about semantics (e.g. Last.fm) and every one of their writers should know about machine disclosure of paid links, as every time they write about a sponsor in theory, if the playing field was level, they would have to nofollow.

  1. says

    just twittered this as i think it’s a debate worth having. I wish you were a little less emotional about it but your arguments are interesting.

    If Google isn’t downgrading sites with paid content I didn’t know about it. Am looking into that now. IMO they should be.

    On the links on TechCrunch, you make a pretty aggressive statement “Techcrunch for as long as I can remember have sold PageRank passing links as part of their advertising packages.” Please show me evidence of that.

    Having a link in an ad to MediaTemple, or whoever, that links to MediaTemple, isn’t a search scam. It’s just linking to an advertiser. Now if the keyword was “hosting” or something like that I’d agree that it would be inappropriate. But its just a site name being linked to a site name. A search for Media Temple on Google that shows Media Temple’s site is a good thing, and I don’t think our ads are designed to create any deception there.

    If i’m missing something please let me know. Would be happy to continue the conversation. I’m at editor at techcrunch, please email me if you follow up here so I can come back.

    I really want to have a constructive conversation on this issue.

    • says

      Mike, I’m sorry but you’re well past the point of being able to claim ignorance on this issue.

      Google doesn’t say that you should only sell links to good companies, or that you should pass page rank to the site if you don’t optimize the anchor text. If the link is paid for, Google wants it to be nofollowed.

      Also, your author claiming ignorance to Google’s policy on paid posts is unacceptable. Do even bother to fact check the crap you put out? Or do you leave that for the ‘real’ journalists?

      And last but not least, you’ve still not addressed the fact that your blog frequently publishes posts that have been paid for, and yet you hypocritically continue your crusade against paid posts for other bloggers.

      You need to return to reality and realize you’ve allowed your site to take a nose dive in terms of quality & credibility.

  2. bollywood says

    the main motive was to convey Google does not penalize for paid or sponsored reviews but can penalize for paid or sponsored links that pass PageRank

  3. says

    I think you have a point Michael. If you are linking to sites that are advertisers that is fine. That still is passing link juice but not for specific keywords. However, im also sure you do sell so many links per month as part of your advertising package, thus link juice and traffic.

    Most of the time unfortunately you just seem to link website to your own Crunchbase profile, which is more than annoying!!

  4. says

    It doesn’t matter what how google handles things like this today. They can change things tommorrow. I don’t use paid links or blackhats. I am building a business and I understand it takes time.
    But I am from the Netherlands and links and backlinks are not as important as in the US.

    • says

      I don’t actually like having to pay for the links that I have although this is included in most marketing strategies. Like you, I believe that link building takes time and it should be done constantly.

  5. says

    I’ve actually looked into this some what after reading Brian’s article – and it doesn’t appear to me that Google downgrades any paid review blogs.

    However, I kind of get the feeling that they don’t care for them either. Google is going to have to make a policy change if they are going to start downgrading paid reviews.

    • says

      Obviously the only people on the internet allowed to make money are Google.

      Fortunately that is a long way from the truth. If Google downgraded not only the links, but the content as well, they would have to do it with all content that has some kind of commercial intent.

      In theory Google has algorithms that could potentially select content based upon commercial intent, so for different queries they could return information, reviews or purchase options.

  6. says

    Bad to hear that site like Techcrunch has sold links. Google has always discouraged buying and selling links and now they are saying that paid reviews can harm the site ranking in search engines.

    Very strange.

  7. Smart Local Shoppers says

    Is Page rank that important? Isn’t it created by Google? Let’s not forgetting that Google is big, but they are not the only search engines out there.

    Information is already overloaded. For the majority webmasters or bloggers out there, nofollow and do follow don’t make any sense to them.

    The question is this. Will Google change AdSense code to use nofollow, if search engine can index the result rendered by Javascript?

    Regardless paid or not paid link, if the quality of the content is good, the page rank should not matter.

    • says

      Please don’t make yourself look stupid in my comment area trying to make yourself look smart.

      Adsense doesn’t need nofollow, it is javascript that pulls content from a remote site – fundamentally different.

      Nofollow should make sense to Michael Arrington, because Techcrunch has probably covered paid links and paid reviews 50+ times over the last 3 years

  8. says

    I feel sorry the Blogs like TechCrunch had to sell links to earn revenue. Anyways, Thanks a ton for this article. I always thought that Google will penalize me if I write sponsored Articles.

  9. lawofattraction says

    Well i am the live example of this Techcrunch Burst. I bought Links from them for my already-doing-fine Blog in the “Dog Training” Niche.

    In the beginning it boosted my on Google SE, within weeks i even lost my earlier SE position. I was just doomed. Buying links is the most non-sense thing i ever did.

    Though, Thanks Andy to for your post.

  10. says

    In my opinion, there are two sides to the paid link/paid review debacle. Hear me out! If someone is willing to pay on their own behalf to get something out there, it does offer a smidge of legitimacy – scammers typically only push that which is free.

    However, once you build a system entirely around paid links, the power shifts directly to those with the money. It sets a dangerous precedent.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Google navigates these waters.