Forrester Report on Sponsored Blogs Draws Google's Ire

Search Giant Insists That Marketers' Paid-for Posts Carry 'No Follow' Tag

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A report by Forrester Research this week talking up paid blogs left out one guideline that is religion for Google: Paid posts with sponsors behind them not only need to be disclosed as such but also must also bear "no follow" tags so as to not fool the Google spider that crawls the web for ranking purposes.

The "no follow" tag indicates to the spider that a post shouldn't count toward a site's search ranking on Google. In an effort to keep companies or websites from buying links to increase their search rankings and to maintain its organic-search results, Google requires any web page that has been "paid for" to have this tag. For example, a paid post about Kmart, if tagged with "no follow," would not count as a vote toward Kmart's popularity in the search-engine ranking.

Chief enforcer
Following the release of the Forrester report, Matt Cutts, chief enforcer of Google's web-spam team, reiterated on his blog in no uncertain terms that those who fail to comply with Google's rules will face punishment, though he didn't state how the offenders would be punished.

Mr. Cutts reminded bloggers of precedents in which the all-powerful search engine has taken "corresponding action" against those who violated its sacred rule.

For his part, Forrester's Sean Corcoran, who authored the report that set off Mr. Cutts' finger-wagging, said he would follow up with a blog post that deals with Google's demands, including spelling out the need to include "no follow" tags in paid blog entries.

The debate over paid posts is not new, and the Forrester report was inspired by one incident in particular. Last year, a firestorm erupted around Chris Brogan, a popular blogger who had written a blog post sponsored by Kmart on his Dadomatic blog. The retailer had given him a $500 gift card to spend at one of its stores -- and then blog about it. In this case, the argument that erupted was over whether the sponsored post damaged his credibility as a social-media strategist and blogger. He had, actually, clearly identified it as a sponsored post in the headline, while noting that the opinions of the post were his. (Mr. Brogan said today he has added "no follow" tags to his Kmart-sponsored posts.)

Forrester's report makes a case that marketers should pay bloggers to write about their experience with the brand; after all, sponsored posts are a subset of the advertising and PR activities that marketers pay for, Mr. Corcoran argues. He said as a matter of market forces, there was no turning back with paid posts: Bloggers want to be paid, and marketers want to pay them.

Some big brands have already gotten in on the act. Forrester cites Walmart as having signed on bloggers to write reviews of products it sends them, while Ford gave Jessica Smith of "Jessica Knows" a Ford Flex to try for a year so she could write about her family's adventures with the vehicle.

Forrester's Mr. Corcoran said the paid-blogging market is real and vibrant. Many major brands engage in the practice, and the number of people reading blogs has grown 50% in the past year, so now one in three Americans online is doing so at least once a month.

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