Travel influencers and the brands that use them have been stirring the pot lately with issues of non-transparency. Earlier this year, rap star Pitbull was at the center of a controversy involving Florida congressmen and the tourism board over disclosing how much he was paid for their “Sexy Beaches” campaign. The infamous Fyre Festival had a number of social media influencers promoting their island getaway concert event including Kendall Jenner. However when the festival fell apart, fingers turned toward the credibility of these influencers and the part they played in the festival’s promotion and hype.
Previously, both Lord and Taylor and Warner Brothers were fined for failure for its influencers to disclose a paid relationship in the promotion of a dress and in the promotion for video game: “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.” Most recently the FTC fined two well known YouTubers for promoting a gambling company that they also owned. This also led the FTC to step up and clarify its Truth in Advertising guidelines. The FTC is hoping that the comprehensiveness of the document allows you to understand whether or not you are in compliance, although the answer appears quite simple: when in doubt disclose any type of material relationship whether it was a cash payment, product exchange, or if any other form of compensation was involved. However, if you thought the FTC’s document was the extent of mind boggling guidelines, you might be wrong. There’s one more powerful entity that you have to worry about. And its name is Google.
Google is a powerful search engine because instead of just looking at the content on your page , it looks at how the page interacts with the rest of the web (otherwise, the person who puts ‘keyword’ on their site the most wins). If other sites are linking to you as a reference, then this increases your ‘PageRank’. Along with other complex algorithms, this is the basis for Google search. Thus, many Google searches are topped with Wikipedia, Amazon, and other popular pages that people use as reference sites. What Google hates is when people try to manipulate their algorithms, especially when they pay for extra link-backs to their page to increase their PageRank.
A way to drive more inbound links is through a “link farm” where thousands of links point to the target domain. Typically these “link farms” are filled with dumb links and the content is completely irrelevant to the target domain’s subject matter. A few years ago JC Penney was manually completely removed from Google’s search results when the New York Times discovered they were consistently in the top results of search rankings for nearly everything they sold due to significant inbound links from these link farms. Upon the publication of the story, Google manually sank JCPenney for 90 days, impacting its ecommerce business significantly.
To avoid spammy, low quality link farm links, search analysts wised up and asked relevant sites to link to them. Rap Genius asked its affiliates to post a Justin Bieber code snippet that would link back to them in exchange for traffic. In other words, they were trying to manipulate their PageRank by having contextually relevant sites link to them. On Christmas Day 2013, Rap Genius lost over 75% of its traffic due to its elimination from the meaningful results pages of Google. Likewise, Overstock.com was erased from Google after it was discovered that it was providing discounts to schools in return for links back to their website.
To clarify, neither the FTC nor Google has any issue with paid links. The key to staying compliant with either is to follow their Truth in Advertising guidelines, or in other words, to let them know some form of compensation was involved. In the case of Google, most consumers believe search results to be true, so to manipulate them is a clear violation of this. To let Google know a link was paid for, Google stipulates that a simple “nofollow” tag be provided on the link. This tells the Google web crawler not to put any weight on the provided link. The reader cannot tell the difference between “follow” and “nofollow” links. Thus, the link provides the convenience for the reader to go to the advertiser’s website, and will not affect the advertiser’s search ranking or PageRank in the eyes of Google.
That’s it! That simple. In both cases, it pays to disclose- or rather, as we’ve seen, it can cost heavily not to. The FTC guidelines provide a handful of words that it deems as satisfactory in letting consumers know this was a paid advertisement and for Google it’s a simple “nofollow” tag on all of the links that are paid for.
With Google playing a central role in the Internet traffic landscape, it pays to simply ‘nofollow’ all links if there’s any question as to whether there’s a material relationship. Like the FTC, it is very hard to police this, yet whereas the FTC will hit you with a fine, Google will ensure that you do not exist at all. If it’s challenging to ensure that all of your influencers comply with both, utilize various software platforms that ensure compliance; a few simple characters is not worth a lifetime at the bottom of the Google search pit.
-Roger Wu, Co-founder – Cooperatize
for Cooperatize Journal