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#SEO For Sale?! Exposing Google Loopholes In Light Of @FTC Native Guidelines

Posted in Native Content, SEO

Native content is all the rage, with many online publications launching advertorial programs to capitalize financially.  “Native” means paid content, from social posts and ads to full-on articles, which exist between, and blended in, with editorial content.

Native Advertising & Publishers
There are several areas of concern for publishers selling native advertising.  First, Google has well documented SEO Webmaster Guidelines (search engine optimization) and Google News quality guidelines, which webmasters should adhere to in order to avoid being penalized or even delisted from Google results. Second, the FTC has weighed in on disclosure requirements for ads to help audiences understand what content is authentic editorial versus content purchased by advertisers.

Mashable, a respected global media company focused on informing and entertaining “the digital generation,” was our inspiration.  Mashable has joined the swelling ranks of websites selling native content articles to advertisers.  Initially we were interested in participating in the program and reached out to Mashable regarding their native post advertising, which is called BrandSpeak or BrandLab.

As the conversation progressed, we were curious as to how Mashable native posts show up in Google search results and disclosure verbiage in light of new FTC native advertising guidelines. After we corresponded with a Mashable sales associate and researched BrandSpeak/BrandLab in detail, we were motivated to share our findings with the community as a point of learning about native content.

Those findings surprised (and astonished) us. Aimclear analysts identified a Google SEO loophole, which is perhaps the greatest ranking algorithm gap in years, allowing marketers to literally buy their way into Google search results with paid content.

What Is Mashable BrandSpeak Content?
Mashable BrandSpeak is described various ways in different locations on the Mashable website.  One page describes BrandSpeak as “a program that gives voice to Mashable advertisers’ best content.” Another page describes BrandSpeak as a “Branded Content Sponsorship,” that “Mashable’s Editorial Team Produces Content Presented by Your Brand.” Later on the same page it’s clarified that BrandSpeak is content that is created and bylined by your brand that lives on Mashable,” and cites “Expert” brandsDo these descriptions represent multiple versions of disclosure, a key FTC native ads concept? More on new FTC guidelines later.

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Here are terms of BrandSpeak, as the sales associated emailed. These terms propose line items similar to native content programs we’ve seen from other publishers.

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News Cred’ For Sale?
Because BrandSpeak articles index, meaning they appear in Google News and Web Search results, it’s important to judge whether advertisers write BrandSpeak content themselves, with the editorial team adding finishing touches for voice, OR, does the publisher create original, editorial vetted, custom content for advertiser?  The distinction is crucial because Google does not allow advertorials in News results.  BrandSpeak content appears to be created by multiple methods, advertiser-originated, pure editorial and a hybrid.  We put the question of how content is created to Mashable. Here’s their response:

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While editors may try to insulate Mashable’s news credibility with Google and readers via editorial oversight for some content, BrandSpeak is also offered as a “distribution vehicle” to put “a finishing touch” on brand-written content. Is brand written content actually news, worthy of Google’s trust?

Mashable is aware BrandSpeak native articles index in Google News and Web Search.

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The option of effectually buying Google SEO and News SERPs for keywords, with the authority Google vests in a prominent publication like Mashable, is extremely valuable.  Why worry about scant organic SEO, like rats fighting for a slim piece of SEO cheese, when we can simply buy search results?

Google News Results For Sale?
Among several explanations of BrandSpeak published in various Mashable.com and mashablebrandlab.com pages as of this writing, is a disclaimer explicitly stating Mashable’s “News Department” does not create BrandSpeak posts. So why is Mashable’s native content allowed to index in Google News? That’s a head-scratcher.  Here’s an example disclosure at the bottom of a BrandSpeak post for Capital One, published January 28th, for a post with a byline reading “BY MASHABLE BRANDLAB.”

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That BrandSpeak posts DO appear in Google News essentially makes it possible for advertisers to buy organic news results. This January 21 post is a BrandSpeak advertorial for Shell.

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SHELL is cited as the article author. It is interesting to note banner links above to other Shell BrandSpeak advertorials. The banners are not flagged as promoted internal links. Here’s the Google News result for this most current Shell BrandSpeak post:

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Could serving up paid News content hurt a publication’s credibility with Google News? Maybe. Google is finicky about which publishers and what content is allowed in Google News. Guidelines state:

“Stick to the news–we mean it! Google News is not a marketing service. We don’t want to send users to sites created primarily for promoting a product or organization. If your site mixes news content with other types of content, especially paid advertorials or promotional content, we strongly recommend that you separate non-news types of content. Otherwise, if we find non-news content mixed with news content, we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.”

It’s easy to block Google from indexing pages by discovery from Google Search and Google News using robots.txt, Meta tags and News sitemaps.  Google puts responsibility on the publisher to exclude disallowed content.  We can’t speculate as to how Mashable’s executives view parceling out Google News results, except to say that BrandSpeak paid posts DO index, which could be at odds with Google’s guidelines. Judge for yourself.

SEO For Sale? SRSLY Google?
Whereas Google is clear publishers should exclude paid content out of Google News, big G has barely addressed whether publishers should keep native content out of Web Search.  Google makes it clear it’s uncool to sell “Links or ’advertorial’ pages on your site that pass PageRank.”

When it comes to Web Search results for on-page advertorial content itself, Google doesn’t guide marketers much. Google rules deal with linking from paid pages, with little guidance governing body content in native, paid articles.  It’s confusing to us that Google allows paid content to impact organic Web Search.

Placing content on high authority sites is a big deal to search marketers because free Google results (a.k.a. SEO or search engine optimization) can send lucrative keyword traffic to websites for free.  It’s a huge coup for a marketer to purchase articles and have Google treat copy similarly to regular editorial content.

It’s hard to believe that Google will continue allowing advertisers to pump paid content into Google’s vaunted organic Web Search SERPs. One can argue allowing advertisers to game Google’s organic search algorithm with paid content distorts organic results. At best, allowing paid SEO tilts the playing field, making it even harder for smaller, perhaps more relevant players to compete for free Web Search results.

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines governing native content and Web Search are firmly rooted in 2013. Webmaster guidelines only forbid link schemes including “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links;” and “Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.” BrandSpeak DOES adhere to Google’s SEO rules by using the NoFollow tag on links to advertisers’ sites.  It’s a huge Google loophole, allowing advertisers to buy SEO.

BrandSpeak posts DO index in Google Web Search, similarly to other Mashable content.  That said, the question here is for Google, not Mashable. Should Google allow advertisers to purchase priceless SEO, free organic prominence, for advertising? Judge for yourself. We think not.

Here’s another post, this time penned by SAMSUNG SMARTTHINGS, showing in Google Web Search results.

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As with News, it’s easy to exclude pages from Google listings using robots.txt and Meta tags. We predict that in 2016, Google will direct publishers to remove native content from Google Web Search.

Fuzzy Federal Trade Commission Guidelines
Publications may have deeper problems than  Google News guidelines. Google is a search engine, not the government. Piss Google off and your publication could be removed from Google, bad enough. Anger the FTC and bad things can happen to your business. “For us, the concern is whether consumers recognize what they’re seeing is advertising or not,” Mary Engle, the FTC’s Associate Director of Advertising Practices, told attendees at the Clean Ads I/O conference in New York City last June.

With new FTC guidelines laced with words including “Should,” “Might,” “Potentially” and “likely,” it remains to be seen how the FTC will move forward in protecting the public. To be fair, Mashable’s native program is representative of any number of publications’ native programs.

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Let’s parse recommendations in FTC’s recent publication, Native Advertising: A Guide For Business, and study Mashable’s BrandSpeak product as representative of the publishing industry. The new FTC guidelines state:

  • FTC: “For articles, consumers typically look first at the headline and then browse the content. Disclosures therefore should be placed as close as possible to the headline. In placing disclosures, advertisers also should avoid putting them far above or to the right of the headline, where consumers are unlikely to notice them.” Some publishers place disclosures appear at the bottom of articles.
  • FTC: “If a native ad’s focal point is an image or graphic, a disclosure might need to appear directly on the focal point itself.”  There’s that pesky “Might”-word. Some publishers choose not to impact feature infographics with disclosure any more than tasteful co-branding. Here’s the top of a Capital One infographic:

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And, here’s the bottom:

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The byline, disclosure and infographic branding are all slightly different brand names.

  • FTC: “Disclosures should remain when native ads are republished by others. Advertisers should maintain disclosures when native ads are republished by others in non-paid search results, social media, email, or other media. In non-paid search results, consumers are more likely to notice a disclosure if it’s placed at the beginning of the title tag for a native ad’s search listing.”  This is fascinating. When publishers posts native articles on their social media profiles, often there’s no way for readers to glean the destination content is paid.

Here’s a non-paid Web Search search result for a post “Promoted” by Fiverr:

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It’s interesting to note (above) that when advertisers use native articles to effectually purchase SEO Web Search results, they also might inadvertently purchase search results for republisher sites, like Brandtale and Daily Read List. Some might say that’s more bang for the buck.

Next have a look at representative Facebook and Twitter posts for native articles.  Here’s a January 20th wall post for a January 18th article authored by MARKETO.

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Consider that Facebook wall posts themselves usually index in Google Web Search results, often with with no disclosure the destination article is sponsored.

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We found a tweet for the same Marketo post. As is common, there is no disclosure.

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And, here’s Google’s Web Search listing for a Tweet, again with no visible disclosure that the tweet is for a paid article.

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  • FTC: “Disclosures must be understandable. Technical or industry jargon; Different terminology to mean the same thing in different places on a publisher site; The same terminology to mean different things on a publisher site; Terms that customarily have different meanings to consumers in other situations; Unfamiliar icons or abbreviations; or Company logos or brand names unaccompanied by a clear text disclosure.”  Of course, this is subjective because who’s to determine what “Understandable” means? The term “BrandSpeak” may mean little to some readers. Other readers may have read a press release, sponsorship disclosure version on another page or blog post describing the program. Stating that BrandSpeak “Allows advertisers to share their content with our audience,” may qualify as acceptable discloser.
  • FTC: “Advertisers should not use terms such as “Promoted” or “Promoted Stories,” which in this context are at best ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.” There ARE some recommended disclosure keywords suggested by the FTC, including “Sponsored” and “Paid advertising.” Would the FTC be satisfied with, “Shared by” or “News department was not involved in the creation of this content?” It’s hard to say.  FTC recommendations are fuzzy.
  • Consistency may be important to disclosures. FTC: “In addition, terms might not be sufficiently clear to consumers if used on a publisher site that also uses different terms to label ads. Using consistent terminology to identify ads on the same publisher site decreases the likelihood that consumers will misunderstand a native ad’s disclosure. Moreover, company logos and names on their own are not likely adequate to signal that content is commercial advertising.” BrandSpeak and BrandLab are Mashable brand terms.  What does “Allows advertisers to share their content” mean? Maybe the FTC would consider this clear disclosure.

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As mentioned Mashable also calls some native articles BrandLab.

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The above disclosure reads “Updates about our favorite branded content work on @mashable.” There’s an explanation of BrandLab on another website, http://mashablebrandlab.com/, another definition version.

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One version states, “The Mashable BrandLab helps our clients become content creators and amplify their social media assets. Here, we share some of our favorite work, comment on industry developments and discuss the trends we’re watching”

Here’s another disclosure method, using keyword “Promoted by” DairyGood, verbiage the FTC says publishers Should not use. “Should not” does not mean the same as “Must not.” How will the FTC enforce new guidelines? Time will tell.

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The BrandSpeak Author page on Mashable offers another explanation that BrandSpeak content is paid.

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Would the FTC consider the amalgamate of various descriptions appropriate aggregate disclosure? Only the FTC knows.

As an aside, Mashable also sent us disclosure wording as an attached image, as part of the sales process. The language represents another permutation that, if on the site, might be appropriate disclosure.

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The example banner emailed to us by the sales rep is different than how the disclosure currently appears on the live article.  Below is the actual disclosure on the bottom of Navy Federal Credit Union’s January 12th post, “Hack the car buying process in 5 easy steps.”

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In Conclusion
We hope publishers, Google, agencies, advertisers and executives take notice and adjust. Certainly we can all learn from other publishers.

We expect Google to take action in the near term to ensure publishers prevent advertorials from indexing so posts can’t return News and Web Search results.  Any other course seems to leave the Web Search and News algorithms vulnerable to publishers who (as of today) can honor Google guidelines and STILL sell Web Search SEO so long there are no paid links and pages which house them. So far as Google News, guidelines seem fairly clear as is.

New FTC guidelines may leave publishers vulnerable unless they’re super conservative. Be wary, measure twice and cut once. Thus is the transitional advertising age we operate in today.

  • Gerry

    I’m starting to suspect Google is turning a blind eye to paid, sponsored ads on news sites and knowingly indexing them in their News section.

    There’s a news site in my city that posts sponsored ads that are not even close to being legitimate press releases – along the lines of “Where to get the Best Pizza in “, with only one restaurant being described in great, mouth watering detail.

    A few times, I’ve filled out the form on GN to report the articles as not being news but instead obviously paid for ads, however those and new articles of the same type continue being indexed in GN. I don’t want the news site to be completely kicked out of GN, just don’t index the folder those advetorials are being posted to.

    Nada.

  • Eric Ward

    Marty – Brilliant stuff here! Truth is it’s getting harder to find *any* site that doesn’t have some paid MC somewhere. And while we’re on this topic, are press releases really that much different, and why does Google include press releases in the “news” search results in the first place? Go to Google News and do this exact search including quote marks:

    “press release”

    While some of those resulting press releases contain news, the majority of what I see are pure product pitches thinly disguised as press releases. How are these news? I’ve yelled (literally) for years that Google News should simply add a tab for press releases, sponsored blog posts, etc., and keep those separate from genuine journalism. I guess the problem today is one man’s news is another man’s spam. There’s so little “genuine journalism” happening that Google News would be empty. :)

    • Marty Weintraub

      Eric, great to see you in these threads. The nuttiest part of the whole thing is that it is OK with Google to index paid news in Google organic SERPs, let alone News SERPS. THIS from a Google that gets panties bunched at having a paid page with a DoFollow link!

      WTF man? Sure, the link can influence the algo and thereby SERPs. Paid news injects the content direction into the SERPs. And…yes…if we link build to the paid news, see a lot of social chatter rebroadcasting the paid news, etc. THEN we can [cough] link build from real assets to paid news.

      How long do you think THIS little weirdo moment in algo history will last? :)> Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment, safe travels and hope to see you on the trail.