Getting travel/leisure into the national papers has always been expensive, requiring expensive junkets at very least. And frankly, you can’t blame the papers. The cost of sending someone to review somewhere is exorbitant, at a time of falling revenues. So it’s the lesser of two evils, for the papers to accept the trip but remain impartial and post details of who paid at the bottom of the page.
But things have taken on a new twist. It’s come to State of Digital’s attention at least one of the nationals has realised that links from their highly credible, well ranked sites are, in search terms, gold dust. The rumour mill has it that at least one has offered link exchanges.
Outside of travel, supplements produced by third parties will offer links as part of your sponsored but independently produced and authored content. These need watching with an eagle eye anyway, as often the URL they are placed on isn’t the same as the main paper, but it’s an issue that flies in the face of Google guidelines.
Accepting link exchanges and paying for links through the back door is a Faustian pact. I realise the pressure to do it: if everyone else is doing it, and getting ranking benefits, then playing clean but sitting on page two of the SERPs is a tough pill to swallow. Moral superiority doesn’t pay the bills.
The trouble is, long term harm is being done to both our sites and the sites we are dealing with. Perhaps it’s a risk worth taking, on the understanding that at some later stage you’ll have to clean up your act, (probably) pay for the link removal, apologise profusely and disavow, or whatever system is in place at the time, maybe even rebrand.
But for the national papers, whose very appeal is the trust vested in their content, having been written by properly trained journalists, passed through editors and legal teams, the strategy is even riskier.
In light of tapping scandals, the Leveson Enquiry, and the trials of high profile editors and journalists, trust is no longer automatic for the Leviathans. Getting themselves in trouble with Google is probably not smart (but rather depends on whether their revenue model depends on Google’s goodwill or a paywall/similar).
Either way, it’s a dilemma facing many of those responsible for sites’ rankings. PR earned media can be slow. Valuable, valued, but slow to generate.
So what does Google say about links?
Quoted and paraphrased from Google’s official quality guidelines:
All links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behaviour that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. The following are examples of what Google considers ‘link schemes’ which will negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank, including paying money for links, or the posts that contain them exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.
Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
And lastly, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page that pass PageRank, otherwise known as unnatural links – text advertisements, advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links, links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites, low-quality directory or bookmark site links, keyword-rich and hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that get distributed across various sites, widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites, and forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature (Google’s example is “Thanks, that’s great info! – Paul paul’s pizza san diego pizza best pizza san diego)
That’s all very clear, but even with earned media throws up some difficulties. If you fly a reviewer to a luxury resort, where they can write what they like, of course, is this a free product? If you send someone a chocolate bar to review, is that a free product? It’s a judgement call.
Companies often want to direct visitors to articles where people have said nice things about them (of course). So they link to the articles that have already linked to them. On any kind of scale, that looks like a link exchange, even though it’s entirely genuine.
Thought leadership pieces have often been a mainstay of PR campaigns, especially where topics are complex and subtle nuances can change meanings, so that ‘owning the message’ is desirable. I’ve experienced this mostly with security technologies, green developments and management issues. For PR people, not being able to post articles widely is a nightmare, so the warning has to be about sensible linking practises.
Which leads me nicely to my conclusion.
In the case of nationals offering paid links, I can’t be ‘po-faced’ about anyone who says yes, although I should be, and really the paper should be called out for it. But Google’s not the law, and if the papers don’t make money, where does the funding for serious journalism come from?
It strikes me that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ link. Today’s normal may become tomorrow’s poison as even the cleanest of links can become tomorrow’s scapegoat through the ‘wrong-doing’ of others. There are only a well advised ones.
So whilst I often tell PR people to make sure the search teams working with their clients understand the PR implications of their actions I also suggest that search teams make sure that clients’ PR teams aren’t working on outdated information or, worse still, are completely unaware of the consequences of their actions when linking. (A recent CIPR report indicated a shocking lack of digital skills in PR).
How you choose to behave when offered something dodgy is a matter for your own conscience. If you take risks, you should do it knowingly and with senior management and (if you are agency side) with clients well appraised of the risks. Ensure that you have a strategy. And include checking that any PR consultancy personnel are properly trained as part of it.