[Posted by Sean Corcoran]

Clearly there is a lot of passion and discussion about our latest research piece on sponsored conversations. But one thing is clear: whether you like it or not, sponsored conversation is happening and growing. I still believe that marketers have an opportunity to work with bloggers in an above board fashion under very specific conditions (transparency, authenticity, relevance, commitment and the addition of "no follow" links). I want to address two specific issues: Google "no follow" and Payola.

Let’s start with the Google issue as discussed in AdAge. Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team recently posted on his blog that "paid posts should not pass Page Rank." This essentially means that Google does not want paid links within their organic search listings. I agree. According to Matt some of the bloggers in the Kmart sponsored conversation example were somehow punished in their search rankings because they violated Google’s quality guidelines and Google "took corresponding action." He then goes on to ask his readers to report other sites that they suspect of paid posts so Google can review. However, I think there are some challenges with their policy in regards to the type of marketing we are encouraging – which is blog content created for compensation that is disclosed, authentic and relevant. For one thing, as Ted Murphy points out, it’s virtually impossible for Google to police this. How do they identify what is paid and what is not? And where do they draw the line? Is it any type of sponsorship within the editorial stream? is it strictly a cash transaction? What about those who receive product samples which could range from a $2 bag of chips to a $30,000 car? What about writers who get all expense paid trips and free meals? What about a celebrity blogging about an endorsement deal? At one point can they determine compensation was exchanged or are they just guessing? And finally what is the punishment for bloggers? It seems as though this type of policy rewards those who don’t disclose their compensation and those who do.

I reached out to Matt on Tuesday and we are going to speak early next week to discuss these issues. The bottom line for marketers and bloggers is that the type of sponsored conversation we advocate won’t (and shouldn’t) have the benefit of improving SEO rankings. Because of Google’s position, we strongly recommend that you include a "no follow" tags in your sponsored conversation until (and if) Google creates a better way to deal with this issue.

The second issue I wanted to tackle is our position on "payola." I think there is some misunderstanding on exactly what Forrester advises marketers in regards to paying bloggers to post. The term "payola" as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary means "undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey) for a commercial favor (as for promoting a particular recording)." In NO WAY do we support this form of undisclosed sponsorship or advise marketers or bloggers to get involved with it. We are very clear that the first condition of working with sponsored conversation is transparency (i.e. disclosure of the sponsorship to the blog readers).

As Jeremiah Owyang points out in his blog there are many different types of sponsored conversation. Some of it is "in the editorial stream" meaning it’s within blog content and some of it is "out of the editorial stream" meaning it is outside and/or around the blog content. Here are some examples and whether or not they are acceptable forms of sponsored conversation:

In the Editorial Stream:

  • Guest writers such as ReadWriteWeb does (disclosed and acceptable)
  • Thank you posts such as TechCrunch and BlogHer do for sponsors (disclosed and acceptable)
  • Disclosed sponsorships such as Robert Scoble’s Seagate videos or the Kmart example (disclosed and acceptable)
  • Undisclosed sponsored posts or "payola" (undisclosed and unacceptable)

Out of the Editorial Stream (essentially advertising so acceptable):

  • Banner Ads
  • Sponsorships
  • Text links (e.g. AdSense or Chitika)

At the end of the day, if everything is above board and disclosed between the blogger and the readers then it should be up to the market to decide if this is a sustainable practice. In the meantime there is an opportunity for marketers to work with bloggers to sponsor conversation in ways that are ethical and that no do not violate Google’s rules as long as they follow these five rules:

  1. Transparency (disclosure of sponsorship)
  2. Authenticity (the blogger’s freedom to be genuine)
  3. Relevance (don’t talk about car tires on beauty sites)
  4. Commitment (don’t talk and walk away, marketers should continue the conversation)
  5. Add "no follow" links and follow Google quality guidelines