ASA guidelines, the law, and Google: How bloggers can please them all when writing a sponsored post.

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately regarding an ASA article and the law that requires sponsored posts and advertorials on blogs to be declared, and the clashing requests from marketers, SEOs and brand. This post will, as best I can, explain what the importance of understanding the ASA, the law and the role of Google in sponsored posts. I will also provide steps to sponsored post success. 

I don’t want to sound patronising to anyone and to sound like I am pigeonholing all bloggers into one level when it comes to knowledge.  Because am not. I appreciate that the knowledge of SEO varies greatly from blogger to blogger and I am trying to keep this as simple and speak generally as possible with the aim to help bloggers who have little or no knowledge of the subject.   I work in the SEO and Social department of an advertising agency and hope to share my knowledge to help fellow bloggers. Some of you may know me and have worked with me before! 

It is the law to disclose a blog post, YouTube post, Facebook post, Tweet and any other form of digital communication that has been sponsored in terms of money or a gift has been given in return for  a review. They are all forms of advertising. The Advertising Standard Authority is a ‘self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry’ but is a ‘non-statutory organisation and so cannot interpret or enforce legislation’. Their guidelines and recent article titled ‘Blurring Advertising and Blogs – why it pays to know the ad rules’ released last week ‘reminds’ bloggers to clearly disclose any advertisements which will stop them from ‘potentially breaking the law’.   Many have found these guidelines helpful and have no issue with sticking to the guidelines and avoid breaking the law but some don’t realise the complications that come with declaring posts and making money through sponsored posts and reviews.

The ASA cannot interpret or enforce legislation, they can only advise on the law and make recommendations or create ‘guidelines’. Basically, the information is there to guide you but it isn’t the actual law. I recommend reading the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code which clearly sets out the rules for abiding by the ‘Recognition of marketing communications code’.  Again, the CAP can’t enforce the law but they, along with the ASA do have the power to take you to court. However, the chance of this happening is slim as they will target big companies first, not the bloggers, and this only happens if the advertiser refuses to comply.  If you keen to find out exactly the scope of the Code, then read this article.  If you actually read the law, it is a bit fuzzy and definitely not clear cut. However, that is not to say you should disregard it, but it does depend how you interpret it.  I, of course, recommend reading the ASA guideline and the CAP Code and then stick them. That way you shouldn’t go wrong.  

The ASA cannot interpret or enforce legislation, they can only advise on the law and make recommendations or create ‘guidelines’. Basically, the information is there to guide you but it isn't the actual law.

That all sounds easy, right? So why all the fuss? 

Well, those SEOs, brands and marketers who gave you that money or gift in return for the post in most cases, want a link back to their website within your post. They want that so their website has a better chance of ranking higher within Google. They need that link to be a ‘do-follow’ link so that it passes the value that is required to get their site ranking better. In simple terms a ‘do follow’ link acts like a vote for the page it is linking to. A ‘no-follow’ link wouldn’t do the job. A ‘no-follow’ link tells Google not to take the link as a vote.  The issue here is that Google do not allow ‘do- follow’ links that have been paid for or have been exchanged for a gift to review.  It is against the Google Webmaster guidelines.  If Google detect that you have been paid for a link then you are at risk of being penalised.  Chances are your PageRank will drop.  This penalisation goes against both parties involved, so the client’s site will be affected too. The odd one won’t cause a problem for brands but cumulatively it makes a difference.  Some of you may have received requests from SEOs, marketer and brands to remove the links they previously paid you for. This is because their site has received a warning, or worse, a penalisation from Google.  SEO is a game of cat and mouse meaning the work an SEO does today may need to be deleted tomorrow. This is usually dictated by Google updating their algorithms which can happen without any warning.  

Although the law and Google are having nothing to do with each other they both have everything to do with how the effectiveness of a blogger’s sponsored post.  

So the big question is; how can a blogger abide by the law AND make money from selling links? 

There is no definite answer to this because, after all, the law is vague and SEO is based on educated guesses.  However, from the knowledge I have gained at work which was developed from extensive research, testing and analysis , I can recommend the following steps for a post that abides by the law and ensure a blogger can make money from selling ‘do-follow’ links that are not (or at least not very) detectable by Google.

Steps to sponsored post success

1) If you want to make money you will, more often than not, need to put a ‘do-follow’ link in your post for your client (some SEOs ask for ‘no-follow’ links but these are few and far between). So the first thing you need to accept is that you will be cheating Google and violating their guidelines. Fundamentally, that’s what is SEO is; manipulating Google’s algorithms and bots to get a site to rank higher in search results. 

2) Make your post sound as natural as possible.  Write the post in a conversational tone and avoid putting too many keywords in it. The client (in most cases) will want a post that sounds like it has been written without any dictation and isn’t biased. Obviously readers want the true your honest opinion on the subject or item you are writing about.  It is best to put the link for your client in after you have written your post as this will make sure you pick a natural looking place to put it rather than revolving your whole post around specific keywords and anchor text. Sometimes SEOs will give you a keyword. If they do, just makes sure that is included somewhere within the article. It doesn’t have to be the anchor text.

3) Don’t make your post sound like you were paid money or gifted an item. The aim to trick Google, not readers (don’t worry about being honest to your readers – we will get to that bit).  It is believed that using terms such as ‘sponsored’ ‘paid for’ ‘advertorial’ etc. can be detected by Google. Use looser terms such as ‘in partnership with Benefit’ or sentences such as “Benefit asked me what I thought of their latest bronzer”. 

4)  Disclose your post to abide by the law, but in a way that Google can’t detect. The best way (at this point in time) is using an asterisk * to indicate which products have been gifted and which posts have been sponsored. Place a disclaimer either at the bottom of your post, or on a separate page explaining what the asterisk indicates. Make it obvious for your readers to ensure they understand that you have been paid for the post or item.  In your disclosure use the terms discussed previously; ‘in association with…’ or ‘in partnership with…’ not ‘sponsored’, ‘advertorial’ etc. 

These recommendations are, just like the ASA articles, just guidelines.  If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of cheating Google then you can’t offer sponsored ‘do-follow’ links. Just offer no-follow’ links which is allowed by Google. The issue here is that there are very few SEOs, marketers and brands who will pay you money for a ‘no-follow’ link. It is more common for brands offering gifts in return for a review to be happy with ‘no-follow’ links.  

I really believe in the importance for bloggers (who monetise through sponsored posts) and SEOs, brands and marketers, to get along and understand each others requirements as they need each other equally. Sadly, not all SEOs respect bloggers and try to manipulate them in order to get what they want and this causes animosity among bloggers which in turn widens the gap between both parties. Not all SEOs are like this though, so please give them a chance! However, bloggers can stay one step ahead of them by making sure they understand, as best they can, the law, Google’s guidelines and the main principles of SEO. I hope this post will help those bloggers who aren’t so clued up on these things, to get in the know and feel more confident about producing a legal, money making and SEO proof sponsored post.

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PS. If you have any questions I am more than happy to help.

By Jenni Tulip

I'm a bright-haired, hill walking, magpie whispering, skull collecting, tree hugging, money saving, bird watching, happy campervanning, ferret fanatic, woodland dweller sharing my stories and passion for the outdoors to inspire you to immerse yourself in nature.