Recently, Google webspam and SEO guru Matt Cutts reiterated Google’s position on paid blog entries. Google doesn’t like them. What he was light on explaining was how exactly Google can tell an entry has been paid for, though his example “ Kmarts” recent paid reviews promotion, where the company gave bloggers $500.00 gift cards was easy enough to find since some of the bloggers involved stated the nature of the relationship upfront. So: good or bad? Cutts (and Googles) position is that paid endorsements fill the Web with unreliable, spammy junk content, and he’s probably right. Unfortunately, the situation is really more complicated than that, because the economics of web marketing is about attention, then cash.
The attention economy is obvious when we campaign for quality links, work on guest blogging initiatives, and perform other bread and butter SEO tasks. These things are ultimately monetized, but not at the point of negotiation or action. We don’t use paid links, paid reviews, or anything like that, but clients pay for measurable results from strategic search engine optimization, and collaborators get the attention they can monetize further down the line. There’s payment at the end, but not in the middle.
The process involves barter based on reputation and the search metrics you can call on to back you up and your SEO bank. A huge chunk of the blogosphere is already driven by this kind of payment. This is different from simply linking to something because you think it’s cool. When you have traffic, linking and ranking statistics to back you up, you can reliably predict how to lend and manipulate attention, and there are mechanisms in place to monetize this for end-use, (this is how AdSense works, really) does it really matter whether filthy lucre changed hands during some intermediate step?
Intuition tells me that it really does matter, but it’s hideously difficult to pin down the exact point where monetized attention goes bad. We know bad examples when we see them and know that plenty of attention really is innocent and that the odd bit of paid content is actually pretty good, too. Can we just go by these vague ideas and have it at that?
Unfortunately, the answer is no, because Google doesn’t do vague. One of its basic principles is full automation, so the less defined human guiding principles are, the worse they’ll be emulated by search results. That means we’ll run into situations where poor content gets ranked because it was designed to exploit the attention economy at some middle point where you can’t see the money, while well-paid content (which is admittedly not too common) loses out.
The only decent workaround for this issue is to focus on quality. If you write something worth the sustained attention of human eyes I believe it will outpace any penalty that’s mistakenly tossed on it by an algorithm. So get writing, (or hire us for web copywriting services) because as content enforcement gets stricter, more content will fall through the cracks, unless it’s truly exceptional.