PR must abide by and overcome search restrictions on native advertising2013-07-31
Developments in the still inchoate world of native advertising have rendered Google’s policies problematic. Initially well-intentioned, Google’s heels-dug-in position could result in keeping people from finding the relevant, valuable content they’re looking for.
Google’s position has been clear for years: Content that has been paid for needs to be nofollowed to keep it from passing PageRank. Articles and posts that violate the policy could lead Google to penalize the site. Google reinforced the policy just last month, though, updating its official policy document to include native advertising (along with guest-posting campaigns).
Google’s intentions are certainly noble. In a video posted in May, Google’s anti-webspam point man Matt Cutts points out that a lot of online advertorials aren’t adequately disclosed, tricking readers into thinking they’ve found original content produced by the site’s writers.
(In the video, Cutts simply defines native advertising this way: “Someone gave you some money rather than you writing about this naturally because you thought it was interesting or because you wanted to.”)
Beyond disclosure, though, native advertising containing links are also violations simply because they were paid for. The idea, Cutts says, is that links in editorial content are votes for the linked material. Paying for those links makes the playing field uneven. Therefore, if links are paid for, those links should not flow PageRank.
That makes sense for the kinds of advertorials that link back to the brand. But the evolving nature of native advertising (aka “sponsored content”) has made it clear that the mere act of paying to have an article placed does inherently diminish its value.
Edelman threw down the gauntlet earlier this month with the release of its native advertising manifesto. Written by chief content strategist Steve Rubel, the document outlines the ethical rules under which Edelman will play. In his keynote speech at IABC’s World Conference in New York last month, CEO Richard Edelman said the PR industry had an obligation to ensure native advertising’s potential wasn’t spoiled by advertisers trying to sell stuff. He elaborated in his July 16 blog post introducing the report:
The PR industry will have journalistic sensibility on what makes a good story and how it fits into the earned stream, then to decide whether it merits further promotion. PR professionals have deep roots in social conversations, understanding the needs of communities. PR folks appreciate the need for unique angles for each publication, with speed and agility to fit into bigger stories.
The Edelman manifesto also requires sponsored content primarily to “amplify that which is owned and/or earned media—not to replace it.” In other words, a discussion that has been started through traditional means can be enhanced or expanded with paid content.
Native advertising that adheres to Edelman’s guidelines represents the kind of substance that enriches a subject. Further, if it contains links to relevant content—not to the sponsor’s site, but rather to useful resources or pages that served as sources for the article, for example—the fact that a company paid to have the article place doesn’t erode that value or flaunt Google’s belief that links are votes.
Consider a native advertisement written by a subject matter expert from the company. It’s a thought piece—not promotional in any sense—and features links to case studies of the situation about which she’s addressing based on her expertise. (Say, for example, Steve Rubel penned a piece on ethical native advertising practices that Edelman paid to appear in, say, The Atlantic.) Should the publication be penalized because Edelman paid to have the article appear?
Rubel also noted that paid syndication, as he labeled it, is just one form of native advertising. There’s also paid integration, which you see when the publisher creates content based on a sponsor’s message, and paid co-creation, where “an advertiser funds the development and staffing of a new site or section…guides the direction but does not necessarily have day-to-day oversight for the editorial approach,” Rubel writes. “It is similar to a brand naming a baseball or football stadium.”
The upshot is that native advertising that plays by the rules can represent a useful contribution to the content stew. There are certainly more ethical hurdles to overcome as the field evolves. David Weinberger outlined his concerns with his customary intellectual rigor in a recent Harvard Business Review post. Weinberger fears that sponsored content “puts partisan work that looks like journalism literally next to actual journalism. Even when it is properly labeled as paid for by a company, the proximity of actual journalism can elevate the seriousness with which the paid content is taken.”
The challenge for communicators, then, is to ensure the content they produce rises to that level, that it contributes serious substance that contributes to and elevates the conversation, that it injects new viewpoints, new information and new analysis that is worthy of its position.
Of course, as with any communication channel, the field will be littered with distressingly huge numbers of players who laugh off ethics and use native advertising to game the system. The opportunities are growing as more and more content companies announce sponsored content plays; LinkedIn is one of the latest to open its editorial doors to native advertising.
Rather than painting every piece of sponsored content with the same brush, Google should find a way to distinguish the wheat from the chaff so that great content that was paid for but plays by the rules can be found via search.
In the meantime, content publishers and those placing sponsored stories need to play by Google’s rules and include the rel=nofollow within links. Since they can’t count on search to surface those articles, they’ll also have to work to boost the content’s visibility through other means, such as drawing influencer attention to the article. After all, if the article really is that good, influencers could drive eyeballs to it and kickstart its amplification.
If we as communication professionals nurture native advertising, it can grow to become just another channel for great content. If we can steward the its development with a focus on ethics and quality, perhaps even Google will one day recognize its value, while continuing to protect readers from the kinds of advertorials that are obvious webspam.
Here’s Matt Cutts’ video on advertorials: