Just over a month ago, Google issued a blog post on best practices for bloggers reviewing products, which caused a furore in the digital marketing world and sent some SEOs into a frenzy as to what this meant for the future of ‘offsite SEO’. This week we saw Google take this a step further, issuing the first mass unnatural outbound link penalties to bloggers that it deemed to be attempting to artificially “boost other sites’ ranking in Google search results.”

Once again, the advice from Google to bloggers facing these penalties or working with brands is to:

  • Use the rel=”nofollow” tag when pointing users to the brand’s sales, product or social media pages if you have received a free product or service in exchange for the coverage
  • clearly state when you have been gifted a product or incentivised in any way for producing a post

What seems to have been missing from the industry discussion over the past month, however, is the fact that these guidelines are nothing new; they basically reiterate what Google has had on their search console help page for quite a while.  The only difference this time was that Google’s advice wasn’t aimed at brands or agencies, but at bloggers themselves, who potentially were still unaware of this policy. With Google now penalising influencers who ignore these guidelines, this looks set to change – and fast.

The End of Digital PR?

The practice of sending products for media to review is age-old. In my previous life as a journalist, I witnessed the daily mountain of freebies and event invitations landing on editors’ desks. The arrival of the post was swiftly followed by the eager phone call from an optimistic PR, hoping that the product or event in question might have caught a journalist’s attention and lead to their client being featured in the pages of a glossy magazine.

While I’m sure that this practice is still commonplace in the offline PR/magazine world, when we take this simple PR technique online, it becomes much more complicated due to the widely acknowledged – albeit, oft misunderstood – relationship between offsite coverage, good quality backlinks and SEO.

Offline, brand mentions and a moment of glory for the product or service was enough to demonstrate PR success. Online, however, the focus has been on the coveted backlink from the influential (high DA, please) blog pointing to the specific product or category landing page with relevant anchor text. This spurs organic rankings, which many brands see as the ultimate goal of online PR.

A couple of weeks ago, we shared with you the latest confirmation from a Google representative that “links pointing to your site” is among the top 3 highest ranking factors. Messages like this, when read by a brand eager to climb the organic SERPs ladder, might well be misconstrued as an argument for new-age ‘link-building’ practices.

However, as our Head of SEO Ruth Attwood explained, “The best citations – and the ones not likely to also earn you a penalty slap from Google for bad behaviour – are those that arise naturally from good content, good brand presence and generally holistic marketing and common sense audience engagement.”

This is the approach that we take at 4Ps, encouraging our clients to invest in a user-focused content strategy that puts great content and smart distribution at the helm.  Frequently, this involves working with influencers on campaigns to help spread the brands’ message to new audiences, but the foundations are built from the onsite content first and collaborations with influencers are focused on creating engaging content for a shared audience and mutual gain.  Often, this will involve providing influencers with products in order to produce campaign content, and therefore a ‘nofollow’ link is expected and encouraged.

is influencer marketing still effective for SEO?

Google cracking down on ‘artificial links’ is nothing new. The Penguin algorithm update back in 2012 significantly changed the way that site owners and SEOs approached offsite content for the better, shifting the focus from spammy link-building techniques to link-earning through good content and engaging campaigns.

Things had to change, but the ‘me want links’ mentality of building backlinks for SEO benefit never fully went away.  This feels like potentially another boom or bust moment, where SEOs need to change their approach to working with online influencers – should we once and for all give up on striving for backlinks?

In many ways, yes. What we need is to shift our focus – influencer marketing today is so much more than just another SEO tactic.  The benefits of working with online influencers are felt more widely than organic visibility alone, with survey data suggesting that non-celebrity bloggers are significantly more influential in driving purchases than celebrity endorsements.  If a brand wants to reach new and relevant audiences, increase brand awareness, drive referral traffic, encourage social shares and conversations, then influencer marketing is more important than ever. In the grand scheme of search marketing, encouraging no-follow links is therefore a pretty insignificant change.

As Michael O’Shea, content specialist for our Tech & Professional Services team, puts it: “Receiving products for review is not what will incur a penalty – it’s the incorrect usage of do follow/no follow links that will get you. When strategising, consider how to garner legitimate, organic links and improve your offsite SEO profile more creatively.”

The blogger game changed a long time ago, but much of the digital marketing world has been slow to wake up.  Maybe now it will?

4Ps isn’t just another SEO agency. To discuss how PR and content are evolving together in order to keep pace with new developments in search engine algorithms and advertising legislation, give us a call on +44 (0)207 607 5650 for a no-obligation coffee and chat about data, marketing and technology across all inbound channels.