In an interesting development that could have wide-ranging repercussions for UK linkbuilders, the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has taken action against a company (Handpicked Media) that paid bloggers to write promotional blog posts, comments, and tweets.
While writing promotional material is not misleading in and of itself, what the OFT did have a problem with was that these posts/comments/tweets did not include a statement that they were paid for. The OFT concluded that this was misleading and against the Consumer Protection Act.
In the press release, Heather Clayton (Senior Director of OFT’s Consumer Group) states:
“The internet plays a key role in how people purchase products and services and the importance of online advertising continues to grow. The OFT has bolstered its expertise in this area and is taking targeted action to ensure that the law is clear, increase business compliance and empower consumers.
“The integrity of information published online is crucial so that people can make informed decisions on how to spend their money. We expect online advertising and marketing campaigns to be transparent so consumers can clearly tell when blogs, posts and microblogs have been published in return for payment or payment in kind. We expect this to include promotions for products and services as well as editorial content.”
This OFT judgement has an additional side-effect in that it could suddenly make many forms of paid links illegal in the UK. Genuinely illegal, as in against the law.
Links embedded in articles and blog posts have been a favoured tool for linkbuilders for years. Spending money on this type of linkbuilding is a common practice in the SEO industry as it’s generally a well-performing tactic.
However, this new OFT judgement casts paid links in articles and blog posts in a different light. A link embedded in a blog post could be seen as a form of promotion, and could thus be subjected to similar rules. It might be entirely possible that paid links will have to be explicitly declared in articles and blog posts, which would make detecting them all the easier for search engines.
Whether or not paid links fall under the promotional banner is as of yet still unclear – the OFT has not made any specific statement on that issue yet, but they are obviously looking closely at what is happening online. We shouldn’t be surprised if paid links could come under OFT scrutiny in the near future.
Should paid links be interpreted as online promotion and thus require a statement, a clever SEO could easily cloak this statement so that it would be visible to users (and this legal according to the Consumer Protection Act) while hiding it from search engines (thus making it harder to detect it as a paid link).
This solution might seem unethical, but it definitely would not be illegal. After all, activities that go against Google’s guidelines usually aren’t against any law. Until the lawmakers catch up, that is – as they’ve done in this particular case.