Google regularly updates its guidelines for linking practices in order to reduce the amount of manipulation of links for the purposes of influencing search engine rankings. For years Google has penalized brands and websites who have engaged in any paid linking practices involving the exchange of money for the sole purpose of obtaining links. On March 11, Google has expanded their policy in this area to include any instance in which a website/blog receives a free product or service in exchange for a review and/or links even if links have not specifically been requested as part of the exchange.
Google’s updated guidelines should not come as any surprise as they are simply following the lead of the FTC who released their own Endorsement Guidelines in May 2015 outlining when endorsements are and are not required by bloggers/website owners.
Who Does this Impact?
The main target of Google in this change are brands and websites who have essentially been using free products as payment for links back to their websites, but any brand who has engaged in any influencer marketing campaign in which they have provided free samples, products, trial accounts, etc in exchange for reviews from influential bloggers are impacted as well.
Any brand that has used any influencer program in the past where such an exchange has occurred, it is very possible – almost likely – that links have been included in the reviews that have been gained and thus could potentially be at risk.
What You Need to Do
If your brand has implemented any influencer campaigns in the past where free goods have been exchanged, you should reach out to whoever executed the campaign and ask for a list of the websites that reviewed your product/service and have your SEO team audit the list to see which are and are not linking to your website or social channels to assess the level of risk associated with any of these links.
For any questionable links discovered, you should work with the websites linking to you to add the “no follow” tag to these links. If you are unable to contact the website owners in question, these links should be disavowed via your Google Search Console Account. This will tell Google not to count these links to your site and thus avoid any penalties associated with them.
Moving forward, the following best practices have been given by Google for the implementation of such campaigns that abide to their guidelines.
- Use the “No Follow” Tag on all links to your website, social profiles, etc. This tag is placed in the HTML code of the website linking to you and alerts the search engines that the link should not be followed or counted as a natural link to the website.
- The author of the content/review should disclose that they received a free product/service in exchange for the review.
- The review provided by the author should be unique and not influenced by the brand.
In the past, when Google has updated its linking guidelines, it has usually followed up by placing “manual action penalties” – penalties imposed by human reviewers at Google as opposed to algorithmic penalties – on websites who have abused the tactic in question in past. For instance, when Google announced that Guest Blogging with the sole intention of building links could result in penalties, they aggressively targeted several large scale guest blogging networks that were exploiting the practice to influence search results.
With that in mind, it is likely Google will follow suit again with this update by imposing such penalties on a few brands/networks that have egregiously exploited this tactic.
Brands who have implemented influencer campaigns in the past with the sole intention of increasing awareness of their products/services who have indirectly received links as a result likely have less to worry about as any manual actions do require a human review of your links. Brands who have leveraged any large scale influencer networks/platforms that require links back to the brand website, however, should be concerned and proactively review any previous campaigns.
If your brand has used such tactics in the past with or without SEO in mind, reach out to your SEO ASAP to have them assess any possible risks facing your brand.