Google’s guidance on linking has just been updated to include free gifts among the factors that might count against a webpage’s ranking.
The guidance on link schemes now includes “sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link” as an example of “link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results”
Google has for many years penalised sites that pay for links and those that sell those links – called ‘linkspam’ - including newspapers.
Extending the guidance to include what is effectively ‘payment in kind’ makes sense – particularly in those countries where products are not normally kept by journalists (i.e. the US).
But enforcing it seems problematic.
I’ve written before about similar, wider ethical and legal issues with regard to prizes-to-post being offered. But in those cases, at least, you have either an evidence trail (legal) or shared awareness of the tactic (ethical). An algorithm has neither.
If a blogger is reviewing a product, it is natural to link to the product in the review, regardless of whether or not a link was required as part of receiving the product, or indeed whether they were given the product or not.
Will Google think every product review with a link to the product itself is linkspam? How will the search engine know whether if blogger was given the product, and what terms were imposed as part of that?
The question doesn’t apply if the reviewer includes a ‘nofollow’ tag in the link – but I suspect many won’t know what that is.
Tweaking the content management system so all links are ‘nofollow’ isn’t a great idea, either, as it would deprive everyone else of deserved ‘Google juice’ from your links.
Online marketer Laura Louise writes that “Brands may be scared to send [bloggers] products now as a seemingly natural link may cost them dearly in the Google rankings.” Of course, if a brand is really interested in your review, rather than your Google juice, then it shouldn’t matter. But the question is: how will Google know?