Posted on February 3rd, 2016
Native contentÂ is all the rage, with many online publications launching advertorial programs to capitalize financially. Â â€œNativeâ€ means paid content, from social posts and ads to full-on articles, which exist between, and blended in, with editorial content.
Native Advertising & Publishers
There are several areas of concern for publishers selling native advertising.Â First, Google has well documented SEO Webmaster Guidelines (search engine optimization) and Google News quality guidelines, which webmasters should adhere to in order to avoid being penalized or even delisted from Google results. Second, the FTC has weighed in on disclosure requirements for ads to help audiences understand what content is authentic editorial versus contentÂ purchased by advertisers.
Mashable, a respected global media company focused on informing and entertaining â€œthe digital generation,â€ was our inspiration. Â Mashable has joined the swelling ranks of websites selling native content articles to advertisers.Â Initially we were interested in participating in the program and reached out to Mashable regarding their native post advertising, which is called BrandSpeak or BrandLab.
As the conversation progressed, we were curious as to how Mashable native posts show up in Google search results and disclosure verbiage in light of new FTC native advertising guidelines. After we corresponded with a Mashable sales associate and researched BrandSpeak/BrandLab in detail, we were motivated to share our findings with the community as a point of learning about native content.
Those findings surprised (and astonished) us. AIMCLEAR analysts identified a Google SEO loophole, which is perhaps the greatest ranking algorithm gap in years, allowing marketers to literally buy their way into Google search results with paid content.
What Is Mashable BrandSpeak Content?
Mashable BrandSpeak is described various ways in different locations on the Mashable website. Â One page describes BrandSpeak as â€œa program that gives voice to Mashable advertisers’ best content.â€ Another pageÂ describesÂ BrandSpeak as aÂ “Branded Content Sponsorship,”Â thatÂ “Mashable’s Editorial Team Produces Content Presented by Your Brand.”Â Later on the same page it’s clarified thatÂ â€œBrandSpeak is content that is created and bylined by your brand that lives on Mashable,â€ and citesÂ â€œExpertâ€ brands.Â Do these descriptionsÂ representÂ multiple versions of disclosure, a key FTC native ads concept? More on new FTC guidelines later.
Here are terms of BrandSpeak, as the sales associated emailed. These terms proposeÂ line itemsÂ similar to native contentÂ programsÂ we’ve seen from other publishers.
News Credâ€™ For Sale?
Because BrandSpeak articles index, meaning they appearÂ in Google News and Web Search results, itâ€™s important to judge whether advertisers write BrandSpeak content themselves, with the editorial team adding finishing touches for voice, OR, does the publisherÂ create original, editorial vetted, custom content for advertiser?Â The distinction is crucial because Google does not allow advertorials in News results. Â BrandSpeak content appears to be created by multipleÂ methods, advertiser-originated, pureÂ editorial and a hybrid. Â We put the question of how content is created to Mashable. Hereâ€™s theirÂ response:
While editors may try to insulate Mashableâ€™s news credibility with Google and readers via editorial oversight for some content, BrandSpeak is also offered as a â€œdistribution vehicleâ€ to put â€œa finishing touchâ€ on brand-written content. Is brand written content actually news, worthy of Googleâ€™s trust?
Mashable is aware BrandSpeak native articles index in Google News and Web Search.
The option of effectually buying Google SEO and News SERPs for keywords, with the authority Google vests in a prominent publication like Mashable, is extremely valuable.Â Why worry about scant organic SEO, like rats fighting for a slim piece of SEO cheese, when we can simply buy search results?
Google News Results For Sale?
Among several explanations of BrandSpeak published in various Mashable.com and mashablebrandlab.com pages as of this writing, is a disclaimer explicitly stating Mashableâ€™s â€œNews Departmentâ€ does not create BrandSpeak posts. So why is Mashableâ€™s native content allowed to index in Google News? Thatâ€™s a head-scratcher. Â Hereâ€™s an example disclosureÂ at the bottom of a BrandSpeak post for Capital One, published January 28th, for a post with a byline reading “BY MASHABLE BRANDLAB.”
That BrandSpeak posts DO appear in Google News essentially makes it possible for advertisers to buy organic news results. This January 21 post is a BrandSpeak advertorial for Shell.
SHELL is cited as the articleÂ author. It is interesting to note banner links above to other Shell BrandSpeak advertorials. The banners are not flagged as promoted internal links. Hereâ€™s the Google News result for this most current Shell BrandSpeak post:
Could serving up paid News content hurt a publication’sÂ credibility with Google News? Maybe. Google is finicky about which publishers and what content is allowed in Google News. Guidelines state:
â€œStick to the news–we mean it! Google News is not a marketing service. We don’t want to send users to sites created primarily for promoting a product or organization. If your site mixes news content with other types of content, especially paid advertorials or promotional content, we strongly recommend that you separate non-news types of content. Otherwise, if we find non-news content mixed with news content, we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.â€
Itâ€™s easy to block Google from indexing pages by discovery from Google Search and Google News using robots.txt, Meta tags and News sitemaps. Â Google puts responsibility on the publisher to exclude disallowed content.Â We canâ€™t speculate as to how Mashableâ€™s executives view parceling out Google News results, except to say that BrandSpeak paid posts DO index, which could be at odds with Googleâ€™s guidelines. Judge for yourself.
SEO For Sale? SRSLY Google?
Whereas Google is clear publishers should exclude paid content out of Google News, big G has barely addressed whether publishers should keep native content out of Web Search. Â Google makes it clear itâ€™s uncool to sell â€œLinks or â€™advertorialâ€™ pages on your site that pass PageRank.â€
When it comes to Web Search results forÂ on-page advertorial content itself, Google doesnâ€™t guide marketers much. GoogleÂ rules deal with linking from paid pages, with little guidanceÂ governing body content in native, paid articles. Â It’s confusing to us that Google allows paid content to impact organic Web Search.
Placing content on high authority sites is a big deal to search marketers because free Google results (a.k.a. SEO or search engine optimization) can send lucrative keyword traffic to websites for free.Â Itâ€™s a huge coup for a marketer to purchase articlesÂ and have Google treat copy similarly to regular editorial content.
Itâ€™s hard to believe that Google will continue allowing advertisers to pump paid content into Googleâ€™s vaunted organic Web Search SERPs. One can argue allowing advertisers to game Googleâ€™s organic search algorithm with paid content distorts organic results. At best, allowing paid SEO tilts the playing field, making it even harder for smaller, perhaps more relevant players to compete for free Web Search results.
Googleâ€™s Webmaster Guidelines governing native content and Web Search are firmly rooted in 2013. Webmaster guidelines only forbid link schemes including â€œBuying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links;â€ and â€œAdvertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.â€ BrandSpeak DOES adhere to Googleâ€™s SEO rules by using the NoFollow tag on links to advertisersâ€™ sites.Â Itâ€™s a huge Google loophole, allowing advertisers to buy SEO.
BrandSpeak posts DO index in Google Web Search, similarly to other Mashable content. Â That said, the question here is for Google, not Mashable. Should Google allow advertisers to purchase priceless SEO, free organic prominence, for advertising? Judge for yourself. We think not.
FuzzyÂ Federal Trade Commission Guidelines
PublicationsÂ may have deeper problems than Â Google News guidelines. Google is a search engine, not the government. Piss Google off and your publication could be removed from Google, bad enough. Anger the FTC and bad things can happen to your business. â€œFor us, the concern is whether consumers recognize what theyâ€™re seeing is advertising or not,â€ Mary Engle, the FTC’s Associate Director of Advertising Practices, told attendees at the Clean Ads I/O conference in New York City last June.
With new FTC guidelines laced with words includingÂ “Should,” “Might,” “Potentially” and “likely,”Â it remains to be seen how the FTC will move forward in protecting the public.Â To be fair, Mashable’s native program is representative of any number of publications’ native programs.
Letâ€™s parse recommendations in FTCâ€™s recent publication, Native Advertising: A Guide For Business, and studyÂ Mashableâ€™s BrandSpeak product as representative of the publishing industry. The new FTC guidelinesÂ state:
- FTC: “For articles, consumers typically look first at the headline and then browse the content. Disclosures therefore should be placed as close as possible to the headline. In placing disclosures, advertisers also should avoid putting them far above or to the right of the headline, where consumers are unlikely to notice them.”Â Some publishers place disclosures appear at the bottom of articles.
- FTC: â€œIf a native adâ€™s focal point is an image or graphic, a disclosure might need to appear directly on the focal point itself.â€ Â There’s that peskyÂ “Might”-word. Some publishersÂ choose not to impactÂ feature infographicsÂ with disclosure any more than tastefulÂ co-branding.Â Hereâ€™s the top of a Capital OneÂ infographic:
And, hereâ€™s the bottom:
The byline, disclosure and infographic branding are all slightly different brand names.
- FTC: â€œDisclosures should remain when native ads are republished by others. Advertisers should maintain disclosures when native ads are republished by others in non-paid search results, social media, email, or other media. In non-paid search results, consumers are more likely to notice a disclosure if itâ€™s placed at the beginning of the title tag for a native adâ€™s search listing.â€Â This is fascinating. When publishersÂ posts native articles on their social media profiles, often there’s no way for readers to glean the destination content is paid.
Hereâ€™s a non-paid Web Search search result for aÂ post â€œPromotedâ€ by Fiverr:
Itâ€™s interesting to note (above) that when advertisers use native articles to effectually purchaseÂ SEO Web Search results, theyÂ also mightÂ inadvertently purchase search results for republisher sites, like Brandtale and Daily Read List.Â Some might say that’s more bang for the buck.
Consider thatÂ Facebook wall posts themselves usually indexÂ in Google Web Search results, often with with no disclosure the destinationÂ article is sponsored.
We found aÂ tweet for the same Marketo post. As is common, thereÂ is no disclosure.
And, hereâ€™s Googleâ€™s Web Search listing for aÂ Tweet, again with no visible disclosure that the tweet is for a paid article.
- FTC: â€œDisclosures must be understandable. Technical or industry jargon; Different terminology to mean the same thing in different places on a publisher site; The same terminology to mean different things on a publisher site; Terms that customarily have different meanings to consumers in other situations; Unfamiliar icons or abbreviations; or Company logos or brand names unaccompanied by a clear text disclosure.â€ Â Of course, this is subjective because who’s to determineÂ what “Understandable” means? The term â€œBrandSpeakâ€ mayÂ mean little to someÂ readers. Other readers may have read a press release, sponsorship disclosure version on another page or blog post describing the program. Stating that BrandSpeak â€œAllows advertisers to share their content with our audience,â€ may qualify as acceptable discloser.
- FTC: â€œAdvertisers should not use terms such as â€œPromotedâ€ or â€œPromoted Stories,â€ which in this context are at best ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.”Â There AREÂ someÂ recommended disclosure keywords suggested by the FTC, including “Sponsoredâ€ and â€œPaid advertising.â€Â Would theÂ FTC be satisfied with, â€œShared byâ€ or â€œNews department was not involved in the creation of this content?â€ It’s hard to say.Â FTC recommendations are fuzzy.
- Consistency may beÂ important to disclosures. FTC: â€œIn addition, terms might not be sufficiently clear to consumers if used on a publisher site that also uses different terms to label ads. Using consistent terminology to identify ads on the same publisher site decreases the likelihood that consumers will misunderstand a native adâ€™s disclosure. Moreover, company logos and names on their own are not likely adequate to signal that content is commercial advertising.â€ BrandSpeak and BrandLab are Mashable brand terms.Â What does â€œAllows advertisers to share their contentâ€ mean? MaybeÂ the FTC would consider this clear disclosure.
As mentioned Mashable also calls some native articles BrandLab.
The above disclosure readsÂ â€œUpdates about our favorite branded content work on @mashable.â€ Thereâ€™s an explanation of BrandLab on another website, http://mashablebrandlab.com/, another definition version.
One version states, â€œThe Mashable BrandLab helps our clients become content creators and amplify their social media assets. Here, we share some of our favorite work, comment on industry developments and discuss the trends weâ€™re watchingâ€
Hereâ€™s another disclosure method, using keyword â€œPromoted byâ€ DairyGood, verbiage the FTC says publishersÂ “Should not“ use. “Should not” does not mean the same as “Must not.” How will the FTC enforce newÂ guidelines? Time will tell.
The BrandSpeak Author page on Mashable offers another explanation that BrandSpeak content is paid.
Would the FTC consider the amalgamate of variousÂ descriptionsÂ appropriate aggregate disclosure?Â Only the FTC knows.
As an aside, Mashable also sent us disclosure wordingÂ as an attached image, as part of the sales process. The languageÂ represents another permutation that, if on the site, might be appropriate disclosure.
TheÂ example bannerÂ emailedÂ to usÂ by the sales rep is different than howÂ the disclosure currently appearsÂ on the live article. Â Below is the actualÂ disclosure on theÂ bottom ofÂ Navy Federal Credit Union’s January 12thÂ post, “Hack the car buying process in 5 easy steps.”
We hope publishers, Google, agencies, advertisers and executives take notice and adjust.Â Certainly we can all learn from other publishers.
We expect Google to take action in the near termÂ to ensure publishers preventÂ advertorials fromÂ indexing so postsÂ can’tÂ return News and Web Search results.Â Any other course seems to leaveÂ the Web Search and News algorithms vulnerable to publishers who (as of today)Â can honorÂ Google guidelines and STILLÂ sell Web Search SEOÂ so long there are noÂ paid links and pages which house them. So far as Google News, guidelines seem fairlyÂ clear as is.
New FTC guidelines may leave publishers vulnerable unless they’re super conservative.Â Be wary, measure twice and cut once. Thus is the transitional advertising age we operateÂ in today.