Will Google Start Penalizing Bloggers Who Link to Gifted Products?
Companies are always looking for legitimate, natural ways to earn more links pointing back to their domains. One backlink from a qualified external source can be a significant boost to your domain authority, helping you rank higher for keywords relevant to your brand, not to mention its potential to send referral traffic your way. As Google cracks down on low-quality and unnatural links, we’ve been left with only a handful of legitimate methods to get the job done.
One of these reliable methods, sending complimentary or trial products and services, has come under fire recently as Google has made a major change to its stance on the subject.
The method itself is innocent and fairly straightforward. You have a product, or a service, that you want to get more publicity for. You know there are tons of bloggers out there who make a living by reviewing said products and services. As an example, head to any tech site and you’ll see dozens of articles reviewing products:
(Image Source: CNET)
There’s significant opportunity here. The process goes like this: you make a request to a well-known blogger (the bigger, the better) and offer a complimentary product or a trial of your service in exchange for a write-up on it. Naturally, they’ll post a link pointing back to your domain. The link is important to the review, natural for readers, and valuable for both the blogger and the person receiving the link. Theoretically, it’s a perfect relationship. So what’s the problem?
Google’s Latest Reaction
Earlier in March, Google made reference to this practice, identifying it as an opportunity for unnatural links to develop. Google warns that such an exchange is not conducive to a healthy or valuable network of online resources for users, and cautions bloggers to engage in the following best practices:
- Use nofollow links. Google cautions bloggers to use “nofollow” tags for any link pointing to a company’s website, social media accounts, or apps—pretty much anything that could pass any kind of domain authority. Nofollow tags immediately remove these links from Google’s consideration, rendering them completely ineffective for SEO purposes (despite retaining the value for referral traffic).
- Disclose the relationship. This one makes more logical sense, and bloggers should have been doing this from the beginning. Whenever a company has given you a product for free or has otherwise compensated you or encouraged you to post a review, it’s a journalistic expectation that you disclose such a relationship. You’ll naturally be more biased in your writing, and users need to know what pre-existing relationships you have before writing.
- Provide unique, compelling content. This one should be obvious, but Google wants to clarify that any product review should be a piece that’s wholly original (if not exclusive), and actually important to your users. If it’s just a duplication of something 100 other bloggers have published, it won’t be considered a “good” piece of content.
Are These Links Unnatural?
Taking a look at the first piece of Google’s advice, we can infer that Google views these product review links as unnatural, much like a stuffed link in a blog comment or forum post. In my opinion, comparing these two links is a little strange. Google’s argument is that the link wouldn’t exist if the company weren’t bribing the product reviewer with a free product; however, this doesn’t seem to hold in cases where reviewers review paid-for products. Imagine a scenario where a tech reviewer was planning on purchasing a new phone to review, but the producer comped the device. Is that link unnatural? Since it would exist in either case, the answer is no.
Of course, I get what Google is driving at—if a company uses free things as a bribe to get a free link, that link definitely is unnatural. But the line is blurry, and to instantly mandate that all product review links be nofollow links seems a little extreme.
What Are the Risks?
As for the second two points of Google’s advice—disclosing your relationship with the company and creating unique, compelling content—you should be doing these, no matter what. They’re easy to accomplish and can only reward you. Don’t worry about the consequences of not doing them, and instead worry about the benefits of actually doing them.
As for the first point, and my point of contention, it seems unlikely that Google’s algorithm is sophisticated enough to discern when a blogger’s review is the product of a free gift, and then pick out which links are and aren’t tagged with nofollow. Accordingly, I must conclude that it’s highly unlikely that any bloggers will be formally penalized for neglecting these nofollow tags (unless they’re engaging in egregiously spammy behavior). I’m not saying to ignore Google’s advice here, but I don’t think there will be stiff penalties for continuing to pursue and post backlinks in product reviews.
Even though Google’s warning comes without a significant threat of penalty, it may be wise to heed its advice at this juncture. Remember, even nofollow links are inherently valuable—they’ll earn you referral traffic proportional to your audience size—and brand visibility and reputation are always good areas to improve. In short, even if you’re only getting nofollow links out of the deal, it’s probably still a valuable investment to distribute free samples and trials for the extra visibility—as long as you’re working with the right bloggers.
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