Why the web needs a new model for sponsored posts

The sponsored post model is dying - it's time for proper content that's not just about links. Guest post by David Whitley

As promised, here's a second guest post - this one from travel writer David Whitley - he's taking a meat cleaver to certain practices in the SEO industry. Do you agree with him? 

The offal trade
Imagine, for the purpose of an overly extended metaphor, that you are a butcher. You know a shady character who will sell you discarded offal from the abattoir on the cheap. It’s not fit for human consumption, but you convince a few gullible restaurant-owners they can sell it as steak.

The restaurateurs  make a profit as a result of your offal, but are eventually fined heavily by trading standards or shut down by the police. So you suggest they  at least try to make the offal look like steak by hiding it inside other poor quality meat. And – even better – you’ll do the hiding for them. Customers soon realise they’re not being fed steak and leave in their droves. The restaurants get a reputation for poor quality which is passed on to the supplier – you.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going to happen – the restaurants are either going to struggle to survive or get shut down. And if the same doesn’t happen to you, then the police are going to keep such a close eye on you that you may as well give up too.

The Trojan horses of SEO
This, I think, is where we currently stand with the web advertising industry. Or at least the SEO/ linkbuilding sector of it anyway. First they tried disguising links as adverts in the sidebars, and Google slapped down the sites that were buying such links. Now they’re trying to fill the web with sponsored posts written entirely for the purpose of squeezing in a link disguised as a feature. And if a website owner is really lucky, the SEO agency will supply a guest post that just about scans but is in no way readable. Again, the guest post is a Trojan horse for a link aimed at boosting Google rankings.

Jeremy’s previous post  - and several excellent comments – addressed this topic. The crux is that search engines (most pertinently, Google) want good quality content. Instead of continually finding ways to sneak around Google’s ever-increasing menagerie of toothy guard animals, SEO spivs are going to have to start attaching their links to that good quality content that Google wants. And that doesn’t mean looking for ever more sophisticated ways to dress the offal up as steak.

The dying sponsored post model
Here’s a prediction. The ‘sponsored post’ model that both marketers and owners of insipid blogs are so eager to cling to is dying. You can keep pumping it with ever more elaborate drugs, but it is fatally flawed. The ‘sponsorship’ in the term is closer in spirit to that in “state-sponsored terrorism” than “The FA Cup, proudly sponsored by E.On”.

That doesn’t mean that sponsored posts can’t work, however. In fact, done right, they’re probably far less obnoxious to the reader than flashing display adverts. But the sponsorship model needs to be more along the lines of sponsoring football clubs or roundabouts than sponsoring industrial sabotage. SEO people shouldn’t be thinking: “How can I sneak this by?” They should be thinking: “What would I be proud to attach this to?”

Let’s go back to the butcher’s shop. As it turns out, the cost of buying edible offal from the abattoir isn’t much more than buying the unfit stuff from the shady trader. There’s some more good news too – there are some restaurants in town that have good chefs. Chefs who have really good recipes which the offal can fit inoffensively into. They won’t pretend that the offal is steak, but they will make excellent sausages or meat pies that have small bits of your offal in them.

These restaurants can get a strong reputation and loyal customer base, while your butcher’s shop can bask in the glow of that reputation by boasting that you’re a proud supplier. Just let the chefs add the offal to their own recipes in a way that they know is best rather than trying to supply your own recipe book and forcing them to pretend it’s steak.

Launching the new model
Last week, I relaunched my website, With it, I put up an advertising rate card and details of advertising I will and won’t accept. The basic gist is that vetted advertisers are allowed to sponsor posts on the site for a fee, but that the topics of said post will be of my choosing. Alongside the post, they get a banner advert and a 75 word blurb at the bottom with a maximum of two links. That blurb needs to be aimed at humans rather than search engines – more a “we’re proud to be associated with this content and we’d like to tell you about what we do” than a desperate exercise in link stuffing. I’ll reject anything written as search engine bait. But once it is right, that ad and blurb stays with the post forever.

“We can supply a guest post…”
This is all pretty clearly explained, but I’ve already had queries about sponsored posts from SEO agencies who clearly can’t read. They’re wedded to the idea of providing guest posts stuffed with links. Frankly, if the guest post was any good, they’d be running it on their own site and attracting links organically from people who want to share and draw attention to it. It’s like when Gary Barlow writes one of his rare good songs, he saves it for Take That whilst churning out tons of mediocre ones to give to former X Factor contestants.

I’ve no doubt that I’ll also get a few unimpressed marketers who’ll tell me that what I’m charging is more than other sites charge.

Cheap audiences?
Fine by me, chaps. Go and sneak your links onto other sites where owners are happy to fill up their great web toilet with as much faeces as they can get paid for. When that toilet overflows and everyone involved comes out stinking of effluent, then the pariah status will be richly deserved.

I’m proud of the content on my site. It’s not just OK – it’s really good. I sincerely hope the readers of that content think so as well. I sincerely hope they trust its integrity and read it with the thoughtful intelligence that the comments (both on-site and via Twitter) suggest.

That’s not a cheap audience, and I won’t give them cheap content funded by cheap advertising. Want cheap and mediocre? Then there are plenty of other avenues. Good luck to you staggering down those increasingly dangerous alleys.

What advertising should be based on
The web needs an advertising model based on fairness, honesty and mutual benefit rather than deceit and desperately trying to resist arrest. One of human beings employing their brains, taste and judgement to think about what is a good fit. It needs something along the lines of sponsoring a small football or cricket club – you’re helping to fund something you’re proud to be associated with, whilst taking the opportunity to explain what you do to a distinct audience. Nothing sneaky, nothing nasty, nothing borderline dishonest.

It’d be sad to think that this idea is too revolutionary to stomach, but I suspect it will be for a while yet. Still, when the crushing realisation dawns that it’s far better to play well than search for gaps in the rule book, I’m happy to talk. I suspect a few other site owners will be too.

Image by: bunchofpants

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