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Strategic insights
Native Advertising, SEO and Google

Written by on January 15, 2014

Last week I wrote a 34 page report about the real power of native advertising. I illustrated how most examples aren't 'native' at all, and how to get it right. It's worth reading.

But almost immediately after publishing it, questions and comments appeared in my inbox about native advertising versus SEO, with many claiming or indicating that using it would be punished by Google.

That is simply not true. Google has nothing against native advertising. In fact, they love content, regardless of who wrote it. Why would Google not want to index an article, published by Dell on the New York Times, when it is already happily indexing articles published on Dell's own blogs?

So what is the problem with native advertising and SEO, if there even is a problem? Well, it's complicated, but let me try to simplify it.

To put it really simply, when it comes to SEO, Google has always had only two rules:

  1. Search results must always be 100% organic. Meaning that you can't pay Google to change how or where your site/page appears in the search results. Sure, you can pay for search ads which appear above the search results, but the search results themselves must be organic.
  2. When it comes to ranking the search results, you are not allowed to use paid-for trickery to influence how something is ranked.

These are two very simple rules.

The way we need to think about this is to think about how Google works. You have two elements: The content and the ranking.

In the old days, ranking was determined only by the combination of different keywords and links, or what we used to know as pagerank. Today, of course, it's much more complicated. Our search results have become personalized and tailored to us as individuals, and are influenced not only by what Google knows about us as individuals, but also about other people and connections around us.

On top of that, the keyword based search of the past has been replaced by an 'intent' based search. This means when you search, Google is looking at both the words you write and their meaning.

Of course, Google has also extended search to be much more than just about finding content, so that it is increasingly about giving answers. So if you search for Seahawks, Google knows that you mean the Seattle Seahawks, an NFL team, and will transform the whole top of the page into a hub just about them.

What's important to know here is that not everyone sees this. If you live in a part of the world where that word means something else (like just the bird), they will see a page without the Seattle Seahawks' score and info boxes

But that's a different discussion for another day.

The important thing to know here, is that it's all 100% organic. The ranking and positioning is all based on what Google's algorithms determine to be truly relevant and valuable to you as an individual.

So when a brand reaches out to a number of newspapers/blogs and offers to pay them for writing an article that links to their site, we have a problem. Now this brand is trying to fool Google into thinking that this link is more popular by paying the newspaper to make it appear to be organic.

Google doesn't like that at all. And the result is that Google will punish both the brand and the newspaper by lowering their rank (effectively making them impossible to be found). And it's this notion that people then apply to native advertising.

Many think Google doesn't like native advertising for the same reason. It's paid for content and publishing it will mean Google will punish them.

But that's not what is going here. Google loves content, any content, even that from brands. It's the reason why Google is happily indexing company blogs and websites. And Google especially likes content that has value and relevance to you.

So if a brand publishes a really good and useful article, as native advertising on a blog, then Google would love to index it so that people can find it.

In my report, I give the example of a camera maker writing a five-step series of articles about how to cover the Burning Man Festival. That would be a wonderful series of articles, and Google would love to include it in search.

What Google is saying though, is that they don't like it when brands try to fool them. So if a brand posts an article for the sake of boosting their organic SEO rank towards another site, like their website, then Google will step in... hard.

So you really have to think about this as two different things:

On one hand we have the content, and Google loves indexing good content. On the other we have ranking, and Google wants that to stay organic at all costs. It must be a real organic rank and not paid for.

So let's look at the New York Times and Dell. The New York Times recently redesigned their website, and in the process introduced native advertising. The first advertiser was Dell, who published a number of good articles (written by Dell), although I'm not sure how the topic of those articles will entice people to buy more from Dell.

The New York Times, however, is one of the many publishers who don't understand how Google sees native advertising. So the New York Times has decided to simply add 'no-index' to the entire page, meaning that it can't be searched for at all on Google.

So if I now go to Google News and search for "Will millennials ever completely shun the office", I won't find that article. Instead I will find a huge number of completely unrelated 3rd party blogs and sites talking about that article.

Is this what Google wants you to do? No, of course, not. Google wants to give you exactly what you search for, in the most relevant and useful way possible. And that includes articles posted by brands on other sites.

They don't want to only be able to serve up mostly irrelevant content that isn't what you are looking for.

Google loves your content, especially if it's content that is worth reading (which native advertising is designed to provide).

What the New York Times is doing is wrong is blocking articles posted as native advertising from Google.

The problem is if Dell were to hide a link in that article that was linking back to Dell, then that link wouldn't be organic. It's a paid-for link designed to influence SEO ranking.

So does that mean you can't link your brand when using native ads? No, of course you can link to your brand or any product that you happen to write about. This is the internet, and the internet loves links.

The only thing you can't do is to use those links to fool Google into increasing your SEO ranking.

What Google is asking you to do is to be honest to both your readers and to Google about the nature of your content and the links within it. So any link from a paid-for article (like native advertising) to any site affiliated with you should be identified as being paid for.

And in the SEO world we do that by adding 'rel=nofollow' to the link.

It's really that simple. Don't block your native advertising from search, but be honest about what it is and the links within it.

Again, we look at New York Times, and here we actually do find a link to Dell in their native ad. But we see that they haven't identified it as paid. The link looks like any other link, and tries to fool people into thinking it is organic in nature.

So the New York Times is doing it completely backward. They are blocking the entire page, thus making it impossible to be found in search, and at the same time the links aren't identified as being paid for.

Note: I do agree that Google needs to get smarter about paid-for content. No-follow is a terrible way to identify paid-for links. Why don't we have a 'rel=paid'?

Google doesn't hate native advertising. They hate people who try to fool them. Be honest about what your content is, and you can enjoy the high-rank that comes from posting an article on the New York Times, but only for that article. Just don't think you can use it to fake your ranking for your website too.

See also: Native Advertising in 2014, a 34 page report about how brands should think about native advertising.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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