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, GrumpyTraveller.com. 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

16 thoughts on “Why the web needs a new model for sponsored posts

  1. Pretty standard. That model of sponsored post has been dead for a while now, but the travel industry - as usual - is slow to catch on. I like the new type of sponsored post which you talk about doing, it's the same thing we do on Travelllll.com. I think it works really well and is very transparent.

  2. Well, that stance is probably fine by SEOs at the moment. You're still basically offering a paid-for permanent followed link by the sounds of it. And since the Penguin update, they probably don't want anything over-optimized anyway.

    Really, unless you are sending sufficient traffic from that link to warrant it being no-followed, then it's still just old-fashioned link-selling-to-manipulate-google.

  3. No idea whether it's followed or not. I think there might be a old plug-in on the site that makes them all no-followed - I can't remember. But it doesn't matter whether links aimed at humans are no-followed or not, does it?

  4. Well, your advertising page says "all links are follow links, unless set otherwise by WordPress". I guess that's rather vague, but I'm assuming the links you give are in the content and therefore are probably followed. Sorry, didn't look around to confirm, so correct me if wrong. If it's paid for, then as far as Google is concerned, you should ensure they are no-followed. That's the only way of explicitly saying, "this link should not be any robots business"

    I know it's bassackwards, but if you want to do the right thing by Google and make it clear to sponsors that they will only get human benefit, then no-following it is the only way.

  5. I've no interest in SEO sponsored posts and have never done them.

    Charging more and writing a post yourself is the same as one they've written if it contains the same SEO text link. Finding an SEO seller willing to accept no-follow links in a well paying sponsored post is not likely.

    It would be far more preferable to do a "This post was sponsored by travelblather - who's product we recommend". With travelblather exclusive ads running throughout a pre approved post written by oneself. Note Ad's and not SEO links.

    I believe Mashable does something like that. Then again, for that sort of CTR to convert one would really need to have a lot of traffic. So no matter how good you think your content is, without traffic it's a hard sale.

  6. The problem with not doing it for SEO at all. Is you won't make much money. At least I don't think so.

    Sure, Mashable does it - but think about the reach and scale of that site compared to Grumpytraveller. Many many much larger sites (newspapers for example) struggle to make money with ads.

    This whole 'offal' business has sprung up because the SEO agencies saw an opportunity and took it and blog owners suddenly thought they were making real money. But as David says, this business model won't last much longer. Google et al are on to it. In fact I bet they've known about it for ages, but hey the little guys (ie travel bloggers) were earning some cash off the big guys (ie brands and their SEO agencies) - what's so bad about that?

    No SEO agency will buy a sponsored post on your site if the links are no-followed.
    I doubt anyone else will buy just for promotional sake either... But I may be wrong...
    What I think you can do is find a happy medium. Sure, the links are follow links, but that's OK. Just make sure they are totally relevant and appropriate and the piece you publish is a really good piece of content.
    Job done.
    (Peter's first comment actually puts this far more succinctly than me...)

  7. "What I think you can do is find a happy medium. Sure, the links are follow links, but that's OK. Just make sure they are totally relevant and appropriate and the piece you publish is a really good piece of content."

    I think that sums up it up nicely, actually.

    But another important point is that not all advertising has to go through SEO agencies. I suspect there is far more joy to be had in sites and relevant travel companies talking to each other as human beings and realising where there's a mutual benefit.

    I don't think it's too unreasonable to believe there's a way that's agreeable to site owner/ writer, reader, advertiser and Google alike.

    1. What I try to do at iCrossing when we do this stuff is get clients to see it holistically. It SHOULD be about all these elements - that way you maximise the value of your investment. So it's for 100% appropriate links AND it's for raising awareness with your key audiences AND it's for encouraging your potential purchasers to interact, discuss and maybe come close to making a purchase.
      My previous post which you reference at the beginning of this one (Time to fire your SEO manager) expresses my frustration that so many clients these days are stuck in silo-mode. They only see SEO... someone else at another desk does the brand stuff or the loyalty stuff. So it's difficult to get them to do this.

  8. "I don't think it's too unreasonable to believe there's a way that's agreeable to site owner/ writer, reader, advertiser and Google alike."

    There would be one way I could see, meeting all these criteria -

    * You have lots of traffic, so the advertiser wants the link for traffic.
    * You ensure the sponsored link is clearly disclosed and doesn't influence content in the slightest for your readers
    * You no-follow it so Google understands the advertiser isn't trying to mess with their algorithm

    But you know, it's up to you which shades of grey are acceptable. I don't really care whether Google's life is made difficult - they have themselves to blame for this. It ends up being about your own personal ethics, so you have to decide whether it's ok to be a part of that manipulation on behalf of some other company. Or under exactly what circumstances you're ok with it.

  9. Nice new site launch David, kudos. It took me a bit to decide what I felt was write in regards to monetizing/sponsored posts (didn't want to do them at first) and I came up with pretty much the same thing - I first ok to topic, then let them know I will edit to fit in the site, often heavily (they really don't care about that, actually appreciate it). The link has to be of value to a reader, not to something like "marry hot Peruvian girls" - what my old adsense ads used to link to often.

    I enjoy it now (no ethical issues anymore), make some much needed cash, and in addition get content ideas that I never would have pursued, that are fun to publish and I think of interest to my readers. Happy camper for now. Nothing lasts forever.

  10. The guidelines from Google on this are pretty cut and dried. So you're either going to abide by them or not. There is no grey area. Everything else is just waffle.

    If you are going to take money in return for a link (or links) and you want to abide by Google's guidelines, then those links need to be marked "nofollow".

    That's all there is to it really.

    Of course following G's guidelines are optional.

  11. I'm a bit old-fashioned on this, I'm afraid. All strength to David - for whom I've got more respect than just about anyone else in the travel blogging world; he's a genuine innovator, a fine journalist and, on most issues, a blast of fresh air in a submarine of stale farts - but, sorry, I just don't like ads. Sponsor this roundabout, sponsor this stadium, sponsor this event, sponsor this building, sponsor this editorial - there's too much of it. Commercialisation of public space is damaging. Creeping commercialisation of space previously regarded as public is even more damaging.

    Given my income levels just now, I might have to eat my words and go and try to do something drastically commercial myself at some point fairly soon - but until then, I'm going to hold out and say the model of direct payment for independent editorial makes me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable when Grantourismo did it - regardless of the fact they produced outstanding words and pictures without a hint of corruption, credit to them. And, with the same caveat, it makes me uncomfortable now with Grumpy Traveller.

    But me? I'm old.

  12. I've been having fun with an SEO marketing company (a rather big and impressive one). I don't carry sponsored posts but I wanted to find out the kind of copy I'd get from this company for the sixty quid on offer.

    The client was an ambulance-chasing firm of solicitors and the copy was written for a non-specialist audience (the blog in question is a specialist cycling blog) and contained numerous factual errors as well as scare-mongering stuff about the supposed dangers of cycling without helmets. I pointed out the flaws to the SEO chap (including case law mistakes) and he said he's going to get the piece re-written. I still won't run it but it will make a good news story on BikeBiz.com, so I *will* make money from a sponsored post, just not in the way the SEO company intended.

    I have no problem with making money from display ads that disrupt my YouTube videos but would rather not sully my site(s) with "sponsored posts" - unless, I suppose, the supplied prose was stunningly good and added something of value. Is this ever going to happen?

  13. Congrats, interesting discussion!

    I'm going down this path too, in that I try to contact destination management companies ahead of my trip regarding sponsoring opportunities. That's very time consuming and I won't make a living off of that anytime soon, but I get to make interesting contacts.

    Usually I try to stay clear from SEO companies but then again they are the 'only' web savvy people in the travel industry. Hence as a travel blogger you sort of have to deal with them until hotels and other suppliers will catch up.

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