Google Warns: You Better Adequately Disclose Paid Content

    May 30, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Google has been enforcing its policies on paid links for years, but the search engine is really cracking down on advertorials and native advertising these days. Google’s Matt Cutts has been talking about the subject a lot lately, so if your site offers any advertorial content, you better make sure you’re doing it the right way, under Google’s guidance, or you just might find yourself slapped with a harsh penalty independent of any black and white animal-named algorithms.

Native advertising is rising in popularity on the web. Do you think Google can enforce its guidelines on this well? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Earlier this month, Cutts put out a video talking about a bunch of big SEO-related changes Google is working on, and that webmasters could expect to see over the coming months. The video discussed the most recent Penguin update, which we’ve already seen take effect. One of the other things Cutts mentioned was the use of advertorials and native advertising. He said Google would be “looking at some efforts to be a little bit stronger on our enforcement” on that stuff.

Now, Cutts has a new video talking for five minutes specifically about Google’s policies on advertorials and native advertising. Yes, they’re taking this seriously, so you should too, if you’re at all concerned about your Google rankings.

“Well, it’s advertising, but it’s often the sort of advertising that looks a little closer to editorial, but it basically means that someone gave you some money, rather than you writing about this naturally because you thought it was interesting or because you wanted to,” says Cutts. “So why do I care about this? Why are we making a video about this at all? Well, the reason is, certainly within the webspam team, we’ve seen a little bit of problems where there’s been advertorial or native advertising content or paid content, that hasn’t really been disclosed adequately, so that people realize that what they’re looking at was paid. So that’s a problem. We’ve had longstanding guidance since at least 2005 I think that says, ‘Look, if you pay for links, those links should not pass PageRank,’ and the reason is that Google, for a very long time, in fact, everywhere on the web, people have mostly treated links as editorial votes.”

The video links to a Webmaster Central blog post from 2007, written by Cutts and Maile Ohye.

“Such links can hurt relevance by causing inaccuracies (false popularity and links that are not fundamentally based on merit, relevance, or authority and inequities (unfair advantage in our organic search results to websites with the biggest pocketbooks.”

“In order to stay within Google’s quality guidelines, paid links should be disclosed through a rel=’nofollow’ or other techniques such as doing a redirect through a page which is robots.txt’ed out,” they wrote.

“Other techniques” in that sentence linked to Google’s page about Link Schemes.

“Well, there’s two-fold things that you should think about,” says Cutts in the video. “The first is on the search engine side of things, and search engine wise, you should make sure that if links are paid – that is if money changed hands in order for a link to be placed on a website – that it should not flow PageRank. In essence, it shouldn’t affect search engines’ rankings. That’s no different than the guidance we’ve had for years, and years, and years.”

The video, again, suggests using rel=”nofollow”.

“Likewise, if you are doing disclosure, you need to make sure that it’s clear to people,” he adds. “A good rule of thumb is that there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case that people have to dig around, buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out, ‘Oh, this content that I’m reading was actually paid.'”

The video suggests using text like “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” to make advertorial content clear to users. In other words, it’s not enough to just slap a rel=”nofollow” on the links. You need to make sure it’s clear to users who aren’t necessarily (and most likely aren’t) looking for that.

“So why are we talking about this now?” Cutts continues. “This isn’t a change in our search engine policy. Certainly not in the webspam team. Well, the reason is that we’ve seen some people who have not been doing it correctly. So we’ve seen, for example, in the United Kingdom, a few sites that have been taking money, and writing articles that were paid, and including keyword-rich anchor text in those articles that flowed PageRank, and then not telling anybody that those were paid articles. And that’s the sort of thing where if a regular user happened to be reading your website, and didn’t know that it was paid, they’d really be pretty frustrated and pretty angry when they found out that it was paid.”

Back in February Google slapped a major UK flower site, Interflora, for the issue at hand. While Google itself didn’t specifically call out the company by name, right after reports about it came out, Cutts put out a “reminder” about selling links on the Webmaster Central blog.

“Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or ‘advertorial’ pages on your site that pass PageRank,” he wrote. “Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”

“So, we’ve taken action on this sort of thing for years and years, and we’re going to keep taking strong action,” says Cutts in the video. “We do think it’s important to be able to figure out whether something is paid or not on the web, and it’s not just the webspam team. It’s not just search quality and web search results. The Google News team recently published on their blog, and said that if you don’t provide adequate disclosure of paid content – whether it be native advertising, advertorials – whenever there’s money changing hand, if users don’t realize that sufficiently because there’s not adequate disclosure, the Google News team mentioned that they might not only remove the paid content, but we’re willing to go up to and including removing the publication from Google News.”

We covered what the Google News team had to say about it here.

“Credibility and trust are longstanding journalistic values, and ones which we all regard as crucial attributes of a great news site,” wrote Google Sr. Director of News and Social Products, Richard Gingras. “It’s difficult to be trusted when one is being paid by the subject of an article, or selling or monetizing links within an article. Google News is not a marketing service, and we consider articles that employ these types of promotional tactics to be in violation of our quality guidelines.”

“Please remember that like Google search, Google News takes action against sites that violate our quality guidelines,” he added. “Engagement in deceptive or promotional tactics such as those described above may result in the removal of articles, or even the entire publication, from Google News.”

Interestingly, despite Google’s long-standing policy, native advertising spend is on the rise. It’s expected to reach $4.57 billion in 2017, compared to $1.63 billion last year and a projected $2.36 billion this year.

Cutts did say in the earlier video, “There’s nothing wrong inherently with advertorials or native advertising, but they should not flow PageRank, and there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure, so that users realize that something is paid – not organic or editorial.”

In case you’re still not convinced that Google is cracking down on this stuff, a couple weeks ago, Cutts tweeted that Google had just took action on thousands of linksellers.

Be warned.

Do you think native advertising is a good direction for online ads to be trending in? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • http://tillison.co.uk Mark Tillison

    Where it’s blatant, I understand the point Matt is trying to make and what Google is trying to achieve, but there are grey areas here.

    Is a publication more likely to feature an article about an advertiser that also spends advertising budget with them?

    Do bloggers blog for free, or because a company sent a free sample?

    If we pay to exhibit at an event and we’re listed on the web site with content and a link, we’re not directly paying, but it’s part of the deal.

    I wonder where Google will draw the line and how can it fairly police such a policy.

  • http://www.bant-shirts.com Duncan

    Well, Google likes to make everything automated, but they found something they haven’t been able to automate, and that’s weeding out sites that sell links that pass their page rank. And they find that frustrating. So they clamp down on websites that may not knowingly be doing anything wrong. And what’s the big deal about PageRank? Haven’t google being saying for years that PageRank doesn’t matter any more? Who cares about page rank?

  • John

    Google going too far and hope they end up in court

  • http://anchortab.com Justin Westbrooks

    This is going to be interesting to watch as it unfolds. I believe it’s important to be upfront with people, but where is the line for regulation and whatnot? Thanks for sharing – looking forward to staying tuned in.

  • http://rankingedge.com Elizabeth Crane

    Making the links no-follow is sure to cause an uproar in many companies that seek out articles written about their products in exchange for money or free products. There are so many small scale bloggers out there that make a meager income from this.

    Where is the line drawn? Is Google the only one that is allowed to make money? Is this all to just increase Google’s Adsense bottom line?

    • Kevin

      Bottom line, google wants every webmaster to buy adwords… my budget goes to yahoo and MS. I will never do anything that earns google 10 cents

  • Kevin

    Kiss my ass google, I get my traffic elsewhere. My sales jumped when I stopped worrying about you and concentrated on other sources, so goodbye, and good riddings

  • http://reallygooglereally.com Brill

    Wow. When is the DOJ going to do something about this? Perhaps the small businness (sba.gov) doesn’t understand that when the recesession hit in 2006 thousands of people lost their jobs and started their own businesses. That is why the unemployement levels are as low as they appear now. When Google drops more of these algoryth updates it kills off the small business that don’t have the fat pockets of the major companies. Those thousands of people that lost their jobs are soon going to be losing their businesses, if they haven’t already. These crazy updates need to be overseen by a governement agency looking out for the better good of their citizens.

    • Denise

      Agree except for the government getting involved.

  • paul

    Makes me Laugh, OK for us to place adsense on our sites, the sooner people avoid google the better, i,m not being ruled by them.

  • Chris

    I think it’s long past time that we stop caring what this extremely arrogant company thinks.

  • JoeG

    No algorithm for intent, huh? I will continue to allow my visitors to gauge a post by the content it contains and my overall reputation. I will not spend any time worrying about whether I’ve been financially transparent.

  • http://www.toolsoft.uy Lalo

    I will mark as sponsored, but nofollow, come on.

  • James

    Very simple. Get the Guru’s at google to actually adjust the algo to NOT pass off pagerank. Wow what a novel concept that is.

    Until the ones that created the mass PR craze (who are the ones that are actually being hurt now) stop USING google and move on to Bing or another engine and actually PROMOTE it to their users, they can continue with this.

    They are the biggest bullies on the NET today.

  • http://www.projektwww.com/ martin

    I think that, guided by the principles of around 40% shopping sites should get slapped, including chinese shopping sites. If google wants to do Chinese companies …….
    BTW. Many major sites use words sponsored above Google Adsense ads. Is this fair in google eyes?

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BKt99Akdhg Samantha

    Like all corporations Google is trying to squeeze out every last cent they can, the problem is they have grown so big there’s not much you can do about it.

  • Kevin

    This is what happens when a company goes public. They lose their soul and the ONLY thing that matters is making that squiggly line go up to appease their investors

    I no longer trust Google. I will never use any of their products, and won’t even buy another android powered device. They have way to many reasons to violate my privacy, and deep enough pockets to pay the fines

  • http://bestmoviesevernews.com/ Curt

    This is the type of actions that are going to keep people running over to Bing and Yahoo again.

    Every company that becomes a 500 lb gorilla winds up pushing people a little too far with requirements that just become too much and then wonder how they lost market share.

    I can understand wanting to avoid spammy sites that sell links, but didn’t they say that they were already on to sites doing this a year or so ago?

  • http://www.josecarrilhofineart.com Jose Carrilho


    If everyone stopped clicking on Google ads, things might change.
    But people aren’t able to realize that the power is in their hands, just as they let the banks rule their lives.


    • http://www.antill.net Robin Antill

      I never click on a Google ad. If I see something in one of their ads I type in the URL manually. A bit of a pain but it’s worth it to stop Google bank account getting any bigger. Also I feel that Google should pay their fair share of tax in the UK rather than shipping their profits out through Ireland.

  • http://www.gardentoolstation.com Steve

    Keep at it Google, hope you realise that you are slowly but surely digging your own grave. As the people stop getting what they want others will fill the void.
    Only today you invited me back to Adwords with a $100 voucher, it went in the bin.

  • http://www.sportsfandecor.com Larry

    All I have to say is GOOGLE Who in the hell do you think you are? You are a search engine PERIOD. You don’t own the fucking internet and you never will. Keep up your tyrannical bullshit and see what comes to you. You have been warned.

    • http://www.realmenreviewed.com RMR

      Amen – I couldn’t have put it better myself. If someone were new to this planet they would assume that Google is in charge of the internet, judging by their hypocritical authoritarian bull****. Go back to being a search engine and shut the f**k up!

  • http://www.greyolltwit.net/ Grey Olltwit

    quote “A good rule of thumb is that there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case that people have to dig around, buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out, ‘Oh, this content that I’m reading was actually paid.'” unquote.

    Oh right so we shouldn’t do what that search engine does on the first page of every search i.e. very, very, lightly shade the background of the top 3 or 4 results down to the fold with pink/white and put ‘Ads’ in tiny print above it and on the skyscraper next to it and a tiny ‘sponsored’ well away to the right of a huge block of paid for image adverts covering the right side of the page. In fact there is hardly any content on the vast majority of Google’s no.1 search results page that isn’t paid for. Smacks a tiny, tiny bit of hypocrisy, doesn’t it?

    • http://www.proedgelabs.com Pro Edge Labs

      Exactly. But does Google ever do anything that DOESN’T reek of hypocrisy? All of their guidelines fall under the old adage – “do as I SAY….not as I DO.”

      Every aspect of Google is about advertising and monetizing – yet when websites do something wrong we get a finger-wagging from Google. I hope they all burn in hell.

    • http://hotcosta.com Pete Clark

      Try searching on Yahoo nowadays, and see how they hide their ads.

      Does anyone have recommendations for a search engine that can be trusted?

  • http://www.proedgelabs.com Pro Edge Labs

    Once again, Google acts like they are God and should be able to dictate to any webmaster how to operate their website and/or business. Ironically, we supply the information/websites that allow them to even exist – and make their billions of dollars. Something is drastically backwards here.

    This is the case of a corporation that has gone mad with power, and some government body should be investigating this company to the ends of the earth. The saddest thing is that we have the power to drive Google into the ground. All it would take is for everyone to stop using Google – even for a month or two – and their world (and profits) would come crumbling down.

    Most people still use Google only because of habit – not because they offer something magical or unique. Bing works just as good – people just have a hard time breaking old habits.

    The sooner we all wean ourselves off this self-interested evil corporation, the sooner the online world will be a better place!

    • Pat

      The arrogance and hypocrisy of Google is unbounded, did you remember how people used to criticized Microsoft because they tried to force everybody to use IE? Well Google is doing even worst! Google said: do not sell links, but selling links is their thing, Google said: disclose paid content, but look at any google search results and the ppc results are difficult to discern from the other ones, what they are trying to do now is crystal clear they are culling any potential competitor, small or not so small. Do you use Google’s Analytics? well you are being stabbed in the back, they are stealing your customers, your data. What happens to: Google’s “Don’t be evil”, well it looks like that does not pay…

    • paul

      We need a good webmaster to start a campaign via facebook ” google can’t block that” to get people to avoid google!

  • http://www.edsfreeware.com/splat-me-2.html Grey Olltwit

    If like me you feel like splatting that oh so smug Cutts guy with a custard pie then you can at this site

  • http://www.realmenreviewed.com RMR

    I’m a fairly peaceful person – but I know that I could watch him die with a smile on my face.

  • Don Eade

    I recall that when Bill Clinton was boss, the US Government tried to control certain aspects of the Internet and the whole world slapped them down in no uncertain terms. Increasingly now, Google is not just trying, but succeeding in doing just that, all in the name of imposing on all of us their vision of what the Internet should be.

    History has proven two facts over and over again. Firstly, the public is not stupid and, when any power tries to take over the world, after a while the world stands up and starts to take action. Just take a look at most of the comments preceding this one if you need proof of that fact.

    Secondly, when any country or entity grows so powerful that they take over control of anything they can get their hands on, they eventually go down and then out. Want proof? Look at the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or any other empire in history. Look at Hitler, Stalin, Mao, even Alexander the Great.

    Don’t think that Google isn’t in their league. It has already proven quite conclusively that it is more powerful than any of our governments.

    As a search engine, Google has already helped shape a new world, just by doing the job it was originally designed to, and doing it better than any other entity. It should do what it does best and leave general consensus to decide what the world should or shouldn’t become. Otherwise it will suffer the same fate of every other dictator in history.

  • http://www.reiki-chiang-mai.org koko san

    Google is trying to be the Internet Police/God, they are more and more disgusting. I have seen increasingly relevant content getting behind irrelevant content, at least in the field I work. I know my town and who offers what and I have to say (even I am not a fan of Microsoft) that results in Bing/Yahoo are far more accurate, the main problem is most people use Google and if you have a small business you have to fold to Google’s dictate to have a decent presence on the net.

  • http://www.graciousstore.com Gracious Store

    Unfortunately Google is the internet police that has to dictate the rules and norms of what webmasters can or cannot do. The best way to get out of trouble is to play by the rules. There is no need trying to be smart to get around the rules so as to get ahead of others in the search results.

  • http://dyslexiaglasses.com John Hayes

    I don’t get the controversy about Google’s decision to not give value to paid content in its organic search results. It seems a reasonable way to keep people from buying their way into the results which doesn’t seem fair to those with less money but better content. The argument that ” I have been making money putting out paid content and I need to continue to rank well in organic results for that even if it degrades the quality of Google’s search results seems to miss the point of Google’s right to make efforts to produce a quality product.”

    I don’t buy or sell any ads and only have outgoing links on my site that may be helpful to my visitors . I also normally rank # 1 in for my relevant key words. Granted my niche is a small one but I think that my # 1 ranking is due to my content and incoming links from other relevant sites that like my content .

    • http://hotcosta.com Pete Clark

      The controversy is very simply, because Google say that webmasters should not buy advertising from other websites, they should buy it from Google.

  • http://www.realitist.com Robert

    I think Google and the FCC have wandered too far down the nanny state trail. If Google meant what they say, MSN dot com would not have a Google listing as everything on the home page is an ad, eventually leads to an ad or another page(s) covered with ads. Heck even gov sites are usually selling something. Why doesn’t Google focus on their phantom search results, where your search request appears in the results text as being part of a site’s description, yet isn’t on the site when you visit. Or Google can’t or won’t find a site because title and domain is what the site is about. Hint to Google: We want to find what we’re searching for, your opinion of what we really want, not so much.

  • Randy Fox

    Why don’t those pinheads at Google just name their algorithm Gestapo! Or Hitler maybe Stalin. These out of control overpaid geeks are on a power trip. Control freaks at warp drive.Just be a search engine. Because Bing Yahoo and others are starting to look better everyday. Google you are not the Internet Police even though you give private information about us to the government and spy on us. As a liberal company that cheats on it’s taxes your power trip is only exceeded by it’s hypocrisy.

  • https://www.facebook.com/Upyoursgoogle paul

    Facebook says NO!

  • http://michaeltaylorauthor.com Mike

    Because I live in the centre of England (that is, England within UK) when I search why do I get pages from USA that are of absolutely no interest to me? It’s about time Google focused its search results on the country from which the search enquiry is being made, rather than fart about with all these punitive algorithms that cock up everybody’s legitimate businesses. I would love to get search results that actually give what I am looking for, and not bombard me with video clips on You-Tube etc.

  • http://mccworkshop.com Michael Corder

    I use, or used to use, google quite a bit searching for technical documentation. The funny and ironic thing is, in the last year or two it seems virtually ANY search ends up with advertising or sales related content. IT is near impossible to find actual information without wading through 10 gigabytes of promotional sites. And, for me, the worst are the “free” document (pdf) sites, which NEVER have what you are looking for, are anything but “free” to even look for it, and fill the first 5-10 results pages with their garbage.

    I now use Bing. Google has SOLD OUT. If you are not looking to buy something (IE:Shopping) it is now worthless- IMHO 8^)

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  • Dan

    When you look at the way aol spotlights their top news stories on thier home page it appears every one of them are independently produced news articles. They all appear in the rotating spotlight section. But if you look close, real close actually, you’re see that some of these spotlighted “articles” are actually paid content that is written in a way so that they appear to be independent content. The placement of these advertorials, combined with a very similar look and feel to the legitimate news stories posted in the same section is intended to mislead the reader – no doubt about it.

    The “sponsored content” identification is almost invisible. But you have to ask yourself if they way Google handles sponsored ads on top of legitimate search results – slightly greyed out – is this any better? I think not. Hypocricy? You bet. Their guidance is like the fire hydrant pissing on the dog.

  • clarkg

    Substitute the word “Quality” for “Thievery,” and then the article is accurate. Really LOL funny that they think they can spell out all those specific “reasons,” and not the only actual reason. LIARS. The only reason for these changes is that they want to be paid for every single click on every single Website that makes money, and if you are selling links, that’s money they want. Period. Google’s days are numbered, this is the HUBRIS before things start moving in the only direction Google can go – and that’s DOWN.

  • Roger M

    Matt Cutts makes one more confession that Google link based ranking algorithm fails miserably in detecting website relevance.

    Sell, sell, sell……. sell…….

  • http://www.bing.com Bill

    Its no wonder that a ompany that threatens webmasters, also now makes a product called Google Ass.

  • http://www.antill.net Robin Antill

    In this article it states “A good rule of thumb is that there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case that people have to dig around, buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out,’

    What about Google ads?

    Yes, it does say at the top ‘Ad Related to xxxxx’ But it is NOT apparent how many ads at the top are Ads as the background colour is the same as the main page colour. This is certainly not clear and conspicous in my opinion.