Like Me? Follow Me.
Matt Cutts, Google's spam cop and chief PR blogger posted a response yesterday to an article about "sponsored" blog posts. According to Cutts, paid blog posts are fine - as long as they don't pass page rank. Simply put - if someone pays you to review their site/product/service you have to add a rel="nofollow" attribute to any links to their site or Google might penalise you - if they find out.
So, here's the scenario. WidgetWorld is a new e-commerce site in need of exposure and good press. WidgetWorld does a couple of online press releases, submits themselves to a few key directories but still isn't bringing in much traffic.
WidgetWorld needs links to compete with his competitors WidgetKing and WorldOfWidgets and other, older, sites but can't get links unless he's ranking in search engines - unless he goes begging for them. Most webmasters, however, aren't going to take the time to look at his website, much less put up a link for no reason.
So instead he starts emailing bloggers asking them to review his site or his products - except all his emails get ignored. Finally, he thinks he's found a great idea - he asks a couple of bloggers if he can sponsor a post about his site.
One of the bloggers, from WidgetBlog, takes him up on his offer and when the blogger starts looking at WidgetWorld, he finds it's a really great site with good content, a nice range of widgets on offer and at really good prices so he provides a great writeup - wholeheartedly recommending the site - and gets paid as well.
Then the owner of WidgetKing gets annoyed because WidgetWorld is moving up the rankings and taking some of his business, so he reports both WidgetWorld for buying links and WidgetBlog for selling links without using rel="nofollow". Google penalises both sites. WidgetWorld goes bust and WidgetBlog's readership drops massively.
Is this really fair?
Ok, yeah, some paid reviews are ridiculous - the examples Matt Cutts' cites in his post are particularly nefarious. But on the whole, if I, as a blogger, choose to review a site and get remunerated for it and I recommend that site to others because I think it's a good site - why should I be penalised? Why are good bloggers and legitimate businesses who are just trying to market their sites effectively being punished for the actions of a bunch of spammers?
If Google's algorithm is really that good, why can't it tell that a site that does a post on colonic irrigation one day, debt relief the next and brain surgery the day after is probably a splog whereas a blog that writes solely about widgets - and sometimes reviews widget-based shops or products - is a legitimate site?
And, where does Google draw the line? Is it ok for gadget bloggers to receive free products to review but not ok for for a gadget shop to sponsor a gadget blog and get the occasional plug? Michael Gray makes a very convincing argument that any form of "freebie" is, essentially, payment so pretty much every review on the internet should not pass link weight.
While Google has a right to decide which sites appear in its index, it needs to stop dictating how the economy of the web should work in order to cover up a flaw in their own algorithm. By doing so they are affecting the ability of small businesses to compete effectively and of webmasters to decide which websites they believe are worth a "vote."