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Can you be punished for selling paid posts?

Credit: ErnestDuffoo

Credit: ErnestDuffoo

While at Fincon, I remember talking with a few people about the dangers of posting sponsored posts. I’ve long believed that selling sponsored posts, labeled or otherwise, is not something that can hurt your site. At worst, your links may not pass any more link juice but your search results won’t be adversely affected. When we were talking, that’s exactly what I told them.

Sell posts if you want, get the money, and don’t let fears of Google and other external factors influence you. It’s your business, don’t let someone else tell you what to do.

Personally, I think paid posts are a short term way to make money with your blog. I think you’re better off pursuing other avenues but sometimes you need to do what you need to do. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and these particular birds are unlikely to hurt you.

You might be penalized for paid posts

That said, in doing more research, I discovered that there is a small probability you would get hurt for selling posts. There is a set of “manual actions” that Google can take if it believes you’re doing something against its guidelines and the one that may apply here is “unnatural links from your site.”

To find out if you’re affected, you need to log into Google Webmaster Tools. Go to your site, then look in the left sidebar. Click on Search Traffic and then Manual Actions. If Google has taken a manual action against your site, you’ll see something here. If not, you’ll see “No manual webspam actions found” and you’re in the clear.

How likely is this manual action? I’ve never talked to anyone who has told me they were penalized for linking out. I’ve talked to people who have been penalized for incoming unnatural links, but never penalized for outgoing links. (what’s funny is that in most of the cases of unnatural incoming links, almost none of them were “paid” in the traditional sense) If you’ve heard of someone who has been penalized for outgoing links, I’d love to hear about it.

I suspect the sites that they want to take down are blog networks and sites that only publish paid content. We’ve all seen those kinds of sites where every post is a Guest Contributor and the template is an ugly theme made in like 2001. They stick out like a sore thumb and it doesn’t take a genius intern sitting in Mountain View to figure out the site deserves a manual action.

How can you sell links safely? The only safe way is to nofollow your links — good luck finding an advertiser willing to do that (not impossible, but rare).

As for hiding it from Google, there’s no answer to this but I work off the principle that if I look at the post and it looks paid, someone else will think it’s paid. It looks paid when the article is written by a guest author with no Authorship, on a subject that isn’t related to the blog, linking to a page on another site for a commercial term (this is especially true if you link to the homepage with a commercial term that isn’t the brand name).

That said, guest posts that don’t have authorship, are on a subject unrelated to the blog, and link to another site for a commercial term are almost as dangerous because they look like a paid post (except you don’t get paid!).

How to respond to an unnatural link action

Google has decided you have unnatural links out so start with any paid guest posts and remove them or add rel=”nofollow” to the links inside. Next, do this for any other guest posts you’ve taken. Then, do it to any link exchanges or other artificial linking schemes you participated in. Then ask for forgiveness.

Google has always said that selling links that pass PageRank is against their guidelines and this is all because it messes with the algorithm. They are growing increasingly sophisticated in being able to detect paid links, usually starting on the advertisers’ side (rather than publisher), but they’re still not 100% sure, that’s why you see more mentions of “unnatural links” instead of paid links. In the end, it’s all the same. Do something Google doesn’t like and you get penalized.

Unnatural linking might get you in deep trouble but it’s not the exchange of money that makes it unnatural.

Will this knowledge change what you’re doing right now?

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Jim

In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog (Bargaineering.com) that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

6 responses to “Can you be punished for selling paid posts?”

  1. Steve says:

    I’ve seen people lose PR for allegedly selling links in posts, but their search rankings were unaffected. I suppose the drop in PR was Google’s way to keep them from selling links in the future (no PR = no advertisers).

    Personally I think if the site is one you want to keep and improve on for years to come you should probably tow Google’s line and avoid selling sponsored posts. If you aren’t concerned about the possibility of a manual action though then there’s no reason not to sell sponsored posts – unless it goes against your own ethics of course.

    • Jim says:

      I’ve seen the exact same thing, which makes me think that the site was “punished” by having its link juice passing ability removed. But is that really punishment? I’m not sure… in fact, I know a lot of linkbuilders who don’t even look at PR. They look at traffic, as reported by third party systems like Compete and SEMRush, as a measure of whether a site has been punished.

  2. Thanks for tracking this down, Jim. There are lots of urban legends about the omniscient Google police, but it’s difficult to find hard data.

    During the year that I was running my blog on Bluehost, I sold a half-dozen links for $100-$125 each. Five were natural for the blog, and a couple of them I would’ve linked for nothing if I’d thought of the idea on my own. One link stood out a little for the subject matter, but I followed up with a few more posts on the topic.

    During this period my site stayed on the first page of search results for its niche (mostly in the top five listings). It also went from PR2 to PR3 with the usual growth in traffic. AdSense income was rising smartly. Today (three months after the new owner took over) it’s PR4 and setting new monthly records for both traffic & AdSense income.

    Readers could also tell that all of the blog’s revenue was donated to charity, which is technically a violation of AdSense’s TOS. AdSense never said anything either way, whether they never noticed or were officially ignoring it.

    • Jim says:

      They probably never noticed because for a lot of bloggers, like yourself, it still has to look legitimate and relevant. If it fits, no one will be the wiser. It’s the irrelevant stuff, the stuff that stands out to a human reviewer, that’s the stuff that gets you in trouble.

      Also, like in your case, the money is nice but isn’t everything.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Doug!

  3. MoneyAhoy says:

    Jim,

    This was a great read. I just hit PR4 and got my first paid sponsorship request. My blog is about money saving, money making, and investing. A gambling site wanted to put up a paid post for $100 a year.

    I thought we could probably do an article about investing vs. gambling, but I thought it was pretty close to a grey area in terms of being applicable to my topic. It sounds like I really need to give it more thought before just selling posts that aren’t 100% relevant to the blog’s main topic.

    -Thanks!!!

    • Jim says:

      Yeah, it’s the off topic stuff that carries the greatest risk, tread carefully. If Fidelity wanted an advertorial on your site, you’d be 99.99999% safe.

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