How Rel=Sponsored Affects Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing is estimated at $8 billion in 2019, with expected growth to $15 billion by 2022, according to the Influencer Marketing 2019 report from Business Insider Intelligence. If you aren’t actively engaging in influencer marketing, you’ve probably at least thought about it, in the sense that your competitors might be. But have you considered the impact, positive or negative, it could have to your SEO? After Google’s September 10th announcement about new link attributes, including rel=“sponsored,” now is a great time to consider how influencer marketing and SEO could be, but probably aren’t, working together

How the FTC and Big Tech Manages Influencer Content

The FTC has been struggling to ensure that this growing advertising trend isn’t taking advantage of consumers with sneaky advertising. While the FTC has endorsement guidelines for these types of partnerships, getting influencers to stick to them hasn’t been easy. Instead, the big tech companies are accomplishing this for the FTC, usually with some advantage to said tech company. For instance, Facebook has rolled out branded content partnerships on Facebook and Instagram to give brands more visibility into the influencer’s post metrics (brand benefit) and the ability to put ad dollars on that influencer’s post (perceived brand benefit, but huge boon for Facebook advertising).

FTCs sample letter to marketers
A portion of the FTC’s sample letter to marketers

While many of the FTC’s actions have been around social media posts, influencer campaigns do go beyond social platforms; influencers will often partner with sponsoring companies on their own blogs and websites as well. 

Arguably, smart influencers and marketers would be looking to do more campaign deliverables within their owned properties to avoid platforms finding ways to take a cut. These sponsored blog posts are where back links are of concern to SEO. If the blog post doesn’t disclose the partnership or use a nofollow link attribute, Google could see these campaigns as unnatural links to your site and give you a penalty.  However, when an influencer’s content is particularly interesting, it could result in other publishers sharing about it, which might become a treasure trove of backlinks if the brand is credited in those mentions. SEOs can help influencer marketing teams prioritize campaigns by providing the influencer’s backlink profile, to determine what exposure that influencer has received in the past.

As mentioned, the big tech companies are doing the FTC’s job now, probably at a much greater scale and efficiency. If the FTC can determine that a post should have been mentioned as sponsored, you can bet Google has identified a pattern too, such as use of terms dictated by the FTC to define partnerships or tracking parameters on external links. Google doesn’t NEED you to put in a rel=“sponsored,” because it has probably already determined that a post is sponsored.  Thus, many SEOs think there is no perceived benefit to executing this new link attribute. If Google is saying everything remains the same really, then why change? Some are pointing out how more tech-savvy bloggers will see the announcement and begin coaching other influencers on implementing the attribute themselves — a way for the original influencer to earn clicks (and in some cases even course money) for their coaching services.

What to Consider When Deciding to Use Rel=Sponsored or Not

So should you get ahead of it or wait it out? Consider the pros and cons of implementing rel=“sponsored” between your SEO and influencer marketing teams.

Pros

  • Speaking in terms that are known to influencers. Using “sponsored” might make it easier to get influencers to implement than “nofollow,” which is likely unknown to them.  Although you probably want to keep nofollow (using multiple values is okay!) for other search engines too.
  • Defining what deliverables are part of a campaign. Should organic mentions come from the influencer outside that scope (ex: they later interact organically with the brand and mention that on their blog) or from other publishers, those links wouldn’t be ignored as possibly sponsored as well.
  • Helping Google confirm what it is probably already considering to be sponsored and providing assurance that you won’t get a penalty or fined by the FTC.

Cons

  • The level of effort in coaching influencers on how to implement, when most influencers are already failing to simply disclose a partnership.
  • The unknown and highly debated impact this will have on future link valuation. This could be a pro, in that if Google is only taking these attributes as a “hint” then links that were traditionally thought to be ignored by overzealous “nofollow” publishers, might affect ranking. However, with added insight, could Google start seeing “earned mentions” on higher seed pages about a paid campaign as just another part of that sponsorship and devalue those backlinks?  Cyrus Shephard’s post on Google’s valuation of links indicates how Google understands the distances between seed pages, so now it could start better understanding those relationships too.

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