BlogClub: What bloggers should do with paid links and disclosure

The world of blogging is a fun place to be as you can create, experience exciting events to report on, mould your own digital channel and brand it as yours. However, by having an online presence that grows by the day, there are certain rules and regulations (yawn) that you have to abide by as an online influencer.

Even if you have a small following, you’re still an influence on those who read your blog. It’s your duty to not mislead, lie or be dishonest on your channel. Sure, only a nutso would make up stories and try pass them off as real-life experiences, but I’m talking more about sponsored posts and paid links.

In June, we had a BlogClub session (a lil’ monthly blogger meet-up I help run in Bristol for local bloggers) hosted by the local beauty website, Bath and Unwind. We were welcomed into their spacious and air-conditioned offices (it was on the hottest day of the year) to hold a BlogClub on the do’s and don’ts of paid links and sponsored posts.

I’m from a travel blogging world, but what we discussed applies to all who blog. To be paid for links and given sponsored opportunities is amazing and helps pay the bills a bit, but there’s a ton of things to bear in mind. There is a crap load of conflicting information on the interwebs about sponsored posts and how to do them properly, so it’s time to lay it all out.

Firstly, Google are the all seeing, all powerful being that stalks the internet controlling whatever they decide is law. Alongside Google, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) and Federal Trade Commission in the US (FTC) also pitch in with their two cents on what we should and shouldn’t be doing on our blogs. Altogether, it amounts to huge amount of ‘Say what?!’ and ‘I don’t quite understand what I’m allowed to do’.

What are paid links?

The paid links that I’m referring to are when a company or brand pay you money to include a link to their site/product on your blog. Free gifted products that link to the company’s website are also considered paid links.

And what is disclosure?

Disclosure is when you clearly mark your blog post that it contains paid links or has been sponsored through a brand. If it’s a free experience, a free product or a free meal, you must disclose these posts and not just with an asterix or a mention in your ‘About Me’ page.

Your readers must be aware that it is a sponsored post, and so must Google. And with Google, remember that it is basically an online robot crawling HTML so they cannot read ‘I was sponsored to write about XXX’. You need to get a bit tech savvy and include HTML disclosure which Google will be able to read.

Why should I care?

Firstly, as a publisher it is your online duty to not mislead your readers. They’re not stupid – you can fool them a while but they will guess if they’re being misled as everyone is more aware of sponsored content these days.

Secondly, you don’t want to mess with Google. Like I said, they’re basically the internet gods who can crush you if they feel you’re stepping out of line. You may think you’re safe to do one sponsored post and hide the fact that it was sponsored, but if you’re one in a group of a hundred bloggers who are doing similar posts that aren’t disclosing correctly for a big brand, you may be lumped in with all the other bloggers and penalised if Google takes notice.

If you’re not doing disclosure right, Google can throw you down the page rank into the far off depths where no one cares to go. Or they can remove you from their search engine completely which is pretty much death to your blog. You can think that it will never happen to you, but just remember that there are plenty of case studies where the brand and/or bloggers involved have actually been punished e.g. KMart did a bunch of sponsored posts – they got away with it but the bloggers did not.

Google tracks the use of links manually and through complex algorithms, but people can also report them. You might have someone with a bee in their bonnet who might want to dob you in – so make sure there’s nothing awry in your blog for you to be punished for.

Google’s Stance

Google want disclosure and good intent, but also HTML stating disclosure as this is what’s crawled.  They champion trustworthy content and can mainly tell through HTML so don’t try to deceive them as they are mighty clever. They want to see ‘No-follow’ links.

How to disclose according to Google, FTC and ASA:

  1. Make your readers aware that it was sponsored. This can be in the title or briefly in the introduction linking to more detail at the end. Do not place the disclosure at the bottom as links to the sponsoring brand will be clicked on before the reader realises it was sponsored.
  2. Use appropriate hashtags in Tweets, Vines, YouTube videos and Instagrams. The hashtags #sponsored and #ad are great, but don’t use #sp as those who aren’t down with internet-speak won’t grasp the meaning.
  3. USE “no-follow” links.

No-Follow links:

Matt Cutts from the Google Spam team has a heap of great tips and YouTube videos to educate you on how Google works. He recommends the use of ‘no-follow’ links when doing a sponsored post.

“If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. “ – Matt Cutts.

The no-follow code tells search engines “Don’t follow links on this page” or “Don’t follow this specific link” to avoid the search engines increasing the page rank of the brand’s website. This is confusing as some brands want to increase their page rank and that’s why they’re doing blogger outreach, but it will still send visitors and traffic to their page (if your readers are interested enough to click the link). The traffic will boost their ranking, but so will SEO.

SEO should be the aim of brands and companies. Do simple SEO work in your collaborative post and it’s more valuable in the long term, plus you’re not in danger. Google LOVES great content.

So this is what a no-follow link looks like:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>My Awesome Sponsor</a> 

It tells google that you were paid for the link or that you’d don’t necessarily want to endorse the link.

The Paid Links Checklist:

So you now know that you must disclose and do it correctly for sponsored blog posts. But it can be a lot to take in! We complied the ultimate checklist which you might want to bear in mind on your next blog post. Some points you may wish to not bother with, but the ones in bold are simply a must:

  1. Only go with a reputable brand/company that you genuinely like/support.
  2. Make sure details are ironed out and you know exactly what they want e.g. links etc. It works both ways: Let them know your terms and conditions. Make sure they know upfront if you’ll be using no-follow links and how you’ll be disclosing.
  3. NEVER work with a brand who doesn’t want disclosure. Ignore any agency or brand who want to avoid the word ‘sponsored’ or ‘disclosure’.
  4. Perhaps have a signed agreement that outlines your agreement e.g. the deadline, payment, T&C’s etc.
  5. Stick to the agreement.
  6. Make your readers aware that it was sponsored on the actual post – not just in the about me part or sidebar.
  7. Use appropriate hashtags in tweets, vines, instagrams and YouTube videos e.g. #sponsored or #ad in same tweet (not #sp) – preferably at the beginning of the copy!
  8. Don’t fill your blog solely with sponsored content as it might lose you readers and Google might notice if they take note of one incorrectly disclosed post.
  9. Don’t write about a service/product if you haven’t tried it.
  10. Don’t make claims about a product with no backing e.g. health benefits.
  11. Link to brands/companies who are relevant to your content and link on the brand name, not random SEO words (if they ask).
  12. Keep an eye on the Advertising Standards Authority website/blog, Google’s Matt Cutts (webspam team) blog & Google’s Webmaster posts.
  13. Use no-follow links!!

If you’re worried that disclosing will deter your readers from reading your content, you’ve got to ensure that the companies and brands you work with work well with your content. If it’s authentic and you genuinely support the brand, then it will appear natural and interesting. Remember folks, Google loves credible content that’s authentic and if it’s not, they will crush you if you’re not careful.

A big thank you to Bath and Unwind for hosting our BlogClub and providing us with the space, cupcakes and refreshing drinks on that sweltering day! 

Bath and Unwind is an online beauty store. They source the best beauty products from all over the world, focusing on quality and unique products. It’s brought together on one site so you can shop for all your beauty needs and get your favourite products shipped to you wherever you may be in the world!

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