Business needs, blogger needs, Google’s needs – it can be difficult to marry the three without hiccups. Sometimes, the world of sponsorships is marked with controversies.
I’m sure you are well familiar with the following situation:
- You seek mentions and backlinks to help your website grow in reputation and search engine rankings.
- Your blogger wants money and a bit of safety from the promotional work they do for you.
- At the end of the day, Google penalizes both your website and the blogger’s: theirs for selling links, yours for buying links (thankfully, mentions were still untouched).
It sounds as if blog sponsorships are a dog who continuously bites its own tail, doesn’t it?
But they don’t have to be.
Here is a guide on how to break the sponsorship cycle and win-win (you and your blogger, too).
As most WHSR readers know, I’m not a fan of Google, but I know many businesses out there – like you – need as much traffic as possible to reach a good visitor/conversion ratio, so you can’t give up on Google SEO: you need it in your Marketing basket and you have to stay in Google’s good book to continue getting its slice of search traffic.
But it’s a crazy SEO world out there – the continuous algorithm and guideline changes really make you want to pull your hair out.
Then there are bloggers, who would love to get you a top notch sponsored post, but they want to work with you on their own terms and not be talked down to or given orders. They might even refuse to link back to your website without a nofollow tag. And who can blame them, when they know Google will come after them for selling links?
It’s a mess, but that is exactly why I decided to write this business guide. In four stages, it will help you analyze your approach to blog sponsorships and turn the most common weaknesses into strengths – and keep Google penalties off radar.
Note: I’m an insider of this world, having worked to help clients rank through content and also been a sponsored blogger since 2007, so the advice in this guide comes from first-hand experience.
Stage One: Assess Your Off-Page SEO Needs
Off-page SEO involves all those practices that take place outside of your website. When someone places a link back to your article page, for example, that link will improve the opinion search engines have of it.
When you seek blog sponsorships to help rank your website in Google, it’s off-page SEO that you are doing.
For this first stage, it’s vital that you ask yourself questions:
- Why do you seek followed backlinks from blog sponsorships?
- How many followed backlinks do you really need to help your website rank better?
- Are you willing to also get nofollow backlinks and web mentions for branding and traffic?
- Who comes first in your campaign, search engines or users?
Answer these questions truthfully. This simple action will help you acknowledge and avoid the most common 5 pitfalls in blog sponsorships.
- Come up with and use exact match keywords in the post, as well as repeated keywords with the same link, over-optimized keywords and keywords that make no sense to the human reader
- Force the blogger to add more than two backlinks to your homepage or product page in positions that won’t flow well with the text
- Exclude nofollow links completely
- Exclude the possibility to get editorial links (‘natural links’ in Google’s jargon)
- Care less about the value of the sponsored content for the blogger’s readership and more about the SEO benefits
The image below summarizes the most basic off-page SEO needs for every website:
Web mentions and traffic are more about branding than SEO, but the goal of SEO is traffic and conversions – and thus branding – so it makes sense to include these two factors in your SEO strategy.
Once you assess your SEO needs, you will know how to tailor your blog sponsorship campaigns on the basis of two stances:
- Use blog sponsorships for branding – You can play by Google’s rules strictly and nofollow all outbound links from the blogger’s post to your website. Your links are for human eyes only, not for search engines.
- Use blog sponsorships for both SEO and branding – You will need to encourage editorial links to your website and request nofollow backlinks to specific product or service pages where it is appropriate.
It’s important to know the difference because if branding is your real focus, you don’t need to worry about backlinks that will influence your presence in the Google SERPs and you can run more relaxed sponsorship campaigns that will encounter less opposition on the blogger’s behalf.
On the contrary, if SEO is your primary concern and it’s your presence in Google that you need to grow, you will want to pay special attention to the relationship you build with bloggers.
Sugarrae.com has an interesting SEO checklist for new small business websites you may want also to check out.
Stage Two: Analyze Your Audience
Who is your target audience?
In other words, who do you want to reach with your blog sponsorship campaign?
And is the blogger’s audience right for you?
Don’t just consider a blogger’s traffic and the number of their subscribers and per-post engagement. Those numbers mean little if the audience is not right for you.
Also, analyze your target audience’s needs in relation to your product or service.
- What problem does it solve for them?
- What do they need to know about it?
Answering these basic questions is critical as they are not only helpful to get your campaign on the right track, but also to give bloggers the necessary information to write a relevant post.
I wrote a post here at WHSR on how to understand an audience’s needs – the post is specific for bloggers, but since you will work alongside a blogger to bring your sponsorship to life, it’s vital that you assess your target audience’s needs prior to making agreements with a blogger.
Stage Three: Study Your Approach to Sponsorship
You will base your approach to blog sponsorship on the SEO and audience assessments you have gone through in Stages One and Two, but also on the kind of approach you want to give your collaboration with bloggers.
Do you prefer a keyword-based approach?
Nofollow links and infographics work best in this case. Nofollowed links won’t trigger a Google penalty nor scare bloggers even if you use keywords in your anchor text.
Of course, steer clear of spammy keywords, stuffing an over-optimization, as they would still result in a turn-off for readers.
Do you want to give the blogger freedom to link back editorially?
Personalized outreach is a better approach and you can offer a freebie or a free trial in exchange of an honest review where the blogger can choose what to talk about and link to. I will give you more detailed advice on editorial linking in Stage Four.
According to a 2015 case study by IZEA Corp. the lifespan of a blog post is 2 years, including:
- 72% of visits or impression during the first month from publication
- 28% of impression after the first month
That means the blog posts your sponsorship campaign will generate have better chances to continue being effective way beyond the 30 days following publication if your relationship with bloggers:
- Uses a collaborative approach
- Gives life to evergreen content
The more accurate and collaborative your approach to sponsorship, the more chances to produce a sponsored post with a long lifespan.
What Mistakes to Avoid in the Way You Approach Bloggers?
To break the sponsorship cycle that leads both you and your bloggers to a Google penalty or a loss in traffic and money, avoid the following mistakes:
1. Don’t give harsh, “do-as-I-say” instructions
Bloggers care about their freedom to write posts that match their overall blog theme, as well as to write in order to meet the needs of their readership – nobody knows a blog readers better than the blog owner, so if you want the post to work and get you results, be a collaborator, not a master.
2. Don’t assign verbatim keywords to use as anchor texts
Verbatim keywords rarely make any sense to humans and they are big triggers for Google penalties. Even when you opted for a nofollow link campaign, avoid verbatim keywords for the sake of the blog readers – they will wind up seeing you as the next spammer to avoid instead of the cool business that makes things they need.
3. Don’t forbid disclosures
In addition to being required by law (like FTC in the US), sponsored content disclosure is an act of honesty in front of the readers – your target audience. When you ask a blogger to hide the fact a post is sponsored, you are not just undermining their relationship with their readers, but also your image in front of their readers.
This mom makes it clear in her vent post directed at bloggers (and indirectly, at advertisers):
Do you really think I’m not going to notice the little link that drops chunkily into an ever so slightly contrived sounding post?
Do you really think I’m so blind that I won’t notice the link or the teeny, tiny sponsored post note at the bottom of the page (or the link to your policy on another page)?
But more importantly do you really think I want to read those posts? Especially if you are the eleventy twelfth person to write a post on that exact same product?
Lack of transparency can undermine the effectiveness of sponsored content.
4. Don’t ask the blogger to stuff the post with links
You will not get more SEO (or traffic) benefit from more links within the same post, unless each of those links is justified (for example, one link to your homepage to introduce your brand and two more links to products or services you get reviewed).
Too many links also triggers manual and algorithmic penalties from Google, as well as spam reports from users.
Stage Four: Collaborate With Bloggers To Create Sponsored Content That Converts
Bloggers are your partners in this joint effort to bring your product or service in front of as many eyes as possible and to boost both conversion as a first and search engine rankings as a second thing.
In fact, as Neil Patel rightly says in his post at QuickSprout:
Too many website owners focus mostly on traffic.
But traffic is just a vanity stat. What really matters is conversions.
It doesn’t matter how many people you can get to visit your site if you can’t convince many to subscribe or buy from you.
When does sponsored content convert?
- When it matches the audience’s interest (see Stage Two)
- When it offers something of value
- When readers feel the blogger is behind what was written, not the brand (see Stage Three)
- When the voice of the brand is friendly and constructive, not uncaring and deceiving
The Benefits of Allowing Bloggers To Link Out Editorially
As already mentioned in Stage Three, to make sure links to your website in the sponsored post get clicked and followed by search engines, it is wise to leave carte blanche to the blogger about links back to your website.
Editorial links tell the reader that this blogger thought about what and how to link out to, that those links were not sold “as is” and the blogger is not like a factory worker who simply performs a task they were ordered to perform.
Also, editorial links tell Google and other search engines to NOT penalize the blogger and the linked brand, because these links are clearly natural and were not requested or paid for (in fact, you should pay for the promotion you get via the post, not for the links – do that for marketing purposes, not for SEO).
How to Approach Bloggers about Editorial Links:
Tell your bloggers they are free to link out to whatever page of your website as they find appropriate for the post, while it should be clear that any links you will explicitly request carry a rel=nofollow tag.
Will bloggers give you dofollow links editorially? Maybe, maybe not. But nofollow links, while they won’t give you a search ranking boost, will still work to bring you traffic and conversions.
Remember: search rankings are not helpful per se, but only in relation to how many conversions they bring to your table. You may have the most trafficked website on the Web, but if none of that traffic converts, all of that wealth of visits is useless.
How Much Is a Blogger’s Work Worth?
Co-blogger Gina Batalaty, in her post on pricing and pitching sponsored posts for bloggers, mentions Sue Anne from SuccessfulBlogging.com and her advice for bloggers on how to price their sponsored posts.
Ann suggests that they charge a minimum of $50 per post if they get 5,000 visitors per month. This is also a pretty standard rate in freelance blogging.
If your blogger has a low traffic blog, a rate range of $15-$35 will still motivate them to write a good post.
No blogger will do a good job for $1-$5 sponsored posts.
Ignore Outdated Advice About Google PageRank
Toolbar PageRank (the green bar) is no longer updated and thus doesn’t make a reliable metric to evaluate the strength of a blog in the Google index.
Other factors are way more important:
- Demographics (is this your target audience?)
- Number of subscribers (does this blog have a strong platform of loyal fans?)
- Engagement (comments, social shares)
- Web mentions (is the blog mentioned in other blogs, forums, etc.?)
- Other citations (media, press, etc.)
These factors will tell you the complete story about the strength a blog has in the eyes of its community and other influencers, so it will be most likely to have a strong presence in search engines as well.
How to Deal with a (Temporary) Google Penalty?
To deal with a Google penalty means two things:
- Use all your marketing assets to keep traffic and conversions coming, so the lack of organic search traffic and conversions will not affect you too badly
- Work to remove the causes of the penalty
I wrote a post at my n0tSEO blog and one on link building for Marketing here at WHSR to address the former (with linked resources and interviews), while Neil Patel’s How to Get Out of The Google Penalty Box post and his Complete Guide To Google Penalties (Manual and Algorithmic) will help you deal with the latter.
Google penalties are not permanent if you and your team work swiftly to remove the penalty triggers from your website (or outside of it if you have practiced Black or Gray Hat SEO), but whether you are facing a penalty or not, non-Google sources of traffic and conversion are always more important than SEO itself, so make more room for them in your monthly plan and don’t just rely on Google to help your business thrive.
Ideas From Smart Bloggers
Not every blogger will simply follow instructions for sponsorships – it’s a fruitful collaboration, for both sides, that they seek!
Three smart bloggers shared their ideas on how to make blog sponsorships a win-win situation for both you and your bloggers.
Ann Smarty of MyBlogU explains how ‘quality’ doesn’t equal ‘easy’ and advises businesses to seek collaboration with bloggers, not shortcuts:
Our problem (and I mean both bloggers and businesses) is that we are desperately looking for shortcuts: Quick deals leaving everyone happy. The problem with shortcuts is in turn twofold:
- Shortcuts are easy to replicate by competitors and at some point they become spam (when too many businesses discover the tactic and rush to use it). This is usually what is turning Google’s head towards everyone involved
- Shortcuts usually effect quality negatively. If a blogger agrees to anything as long as he/she is paid, that is a quick and easy deal but usually a sign that you are putting your business in a neighborhood of many other past deals (which might not have been of high quality since the blogger isn’t obviously too much concerned about quality standards).
High-quality deals have no pattern or template. You build a relationship with blogger and gradually come up with the conclusion what he/she may be happy to agree to. Sometimes you bring those relationships offline (sending freebies or paying for a trip to an event). Sometimes you give those bloggers free exposure: Invite them to your site. Sometimes you offer to cooperate in/sponsor another initiative the blogger is involved in (co-writing a book, co-developing a tool)…
This approach is longer, the results are harder to measure but you’ll soon notice those bloggers to mention you in tweets, cover your contests or initiatives on blogs completely for free and just being there when you need them.
A good creative strategy cannot be effectively copied and cannot cause problems with Google.
Laura K. Lauless of Lawless French recommends that brands and bloggers who share common themes – in other words, where your brand’s product or service meets the blogger’s blog topic – work together to integrate the product or service well into the blogger’s site:
I have a blog for people learning French, www.lawlessfrench.com. I was very lucky to be contacted by a company several months ago that offers French quizzes, and we worked together both to add their quizzes to my lessons, as well as to create a co-branded site, progress.lawlessfrench.com. The quizzes add new functionality for my readers and the co-branded site provides increased income for me and my partner, which means I’m now less dependent on advertising income. It’s too early to know for sure, but it seems like my Google rankings are improving as well, so it’s win-win-win!
Christopher Jan Benitez encourages businesses to think outside of the (SEO) box and bloggers to educate their sponsors about best practices:
Lots of businesses think of backlinks and ranking high on search results that they forget the real reason that makes a successful business: fostering real relationships. [Bloggers should] explain to them that guest blogging has taken a hit – refer to Matt Cutts’ post about guest blogging no longer effective as an SEO strategy. In place of this, they should hire bloggers to write for them with the intention of reaching out to more people about this business in mind, not building links. Therefore, bloggers can focus on writing good content that features their site instead of thinking creative ways on how to insert the anchor text in the article without looking conspicuous. This way, businesses can drive more traffic to their site and bloggers can leverage their skill of writing high quality content for good money.