Sponsored Content Scandal: How Bloggers Lie and Break the Law

Sponsored Content Scandal: This Can Ruin Your Writing Career. Makelivingwriting.com

When you read a blog, do you think the blogger is focused on delivering useful information to help you? They may not be. I’ve recently become aware that the world of sponsored content — a/k/a native advertising or sponsored blog posts — has gotten a lot shadier.

To sum up, some bloggers are lying to you about their relationships with sponsors. Worse, they don’t see a thing wrong with it.

Today, I’m ripping the lid off the growing problem. It’s secret collusion between some link-seeking companies and unethical bloggers to deceive their readers and pass off paid promotions as their unbiased recommendation.

When I started looking into this, I could hardly believe it was real. But it’s a growing problem that threatens the reputations and livelihoods of every freelance writer who works online.

Here’s how this scam works:

Sponsored content explained

To begin at the beginning, let me show you what legitimate sponsored content often looks like. There is some identifier within the content that indicates who the sponsor is, as with this example from Forbes, compiled by the Native Advertising Institute:

Note how it says “Forbes BrandVoice” at the top, and then “SAPVoice” on the lefthand side? That indicates this is a post sponsored by SAP. This is clear disclosure of sponsored content. There’s even a link where you can learn more about their sponsored content relationship with advertisers.

When you see a blog post laid out like this, you know that what you’re reading is much like an advertorial in a magazine. The content is useful, but ultimately designed to promote SAP. It is essentially like sponsoring a ball team, or a concert. The sponsor’s name gets mentioned on the shirts or in the program, and you know they paid money for this ad space.

At least, this is how sponsored content is supposed to work. Increasingly, the way it really works on many blogs is more insidious.

When sponsored content goes underground

I first became aware that not all sponsored content is appropriately disclosed when I received the emails below, asking me to stuff secret links on my blog. The key parts of the discussion are in bold:

I hope you are having a wonderful day, My name is _____ and I’m the head of outreach for ____ Digital. We are a digital marketing agency based in London, UK. I came across makealivingwriting.com and I’m impressed with the quality of your site.

We work with many clients who look for influencers like you to promote their brand naturally but effectively. I wonder if you will be interested to collaborate with us on our clients work? I believe you will be perfect for this.

We can provide you non-promotional articles, or you can write them if that’s more comfortable for you. Our only requirement is that the link to our client’s site is permanent and do-follow. In addition to that, we also prefer that the posts not be tagged as “sponsored” or anything similar, especially because the article will not be promotional in any way.

Can you please let me know how much you charge for this? Please also consider that this will be a long-term partnership with multiple projects along the way.

We’re serious to make this work for our mutual benefits. I hope this will be of interest to you and that you’ll provide us an attractive offer.

Thanks and speak soon!”

This email came fairly soon after I received the email below:

My name is ________ and I am a freelance writer hoping to contribute my writing to makealivingwriting.com. I would be willing to compensate you for publishing.

For my posts, I require one related client link within the body of my article, as well as no “guest” or “Sponsored” tag on the post. I am willing to offer $50 per post published on the site as compensation for these things. Please let me know if you are interested and/or if you have any questions.

Thank you, NAME

As you can imagine, I was horrified.

These companies were asking me to lie to my blog readers. To take their money, but pretend they hadn’t purchased their exposure on my blog.

I sent some hotly worded responses to these emails. But as time went on, I wondered why anyone would ask a blogger to do something so patently unethical — something that would endanger the bond of trust the blogger has so carefully built with their audience, often over many years.

I soon found out why they ask — because some bloggers say yes.

Bloggers are confused about what’s legal

After one of these emails, I went on a Facebook writer group to vent about it. I expected everyone else to be similarly outraged at the idea that any blogger would compromise their integrity and endanger their trust bond with blog readers (especially for a mere $50).

That wasn’t the response I got, though. Read on:

[Writer]: Wow, that’s amazing! I’ve never written for publications as prevalent as the HuffPost, but I do still get the occasional request from someone to write an article with a relevant backlink to them in a guest post. They totally pay, and expect to pay. So weird to me that people are turned off by this!

I actually talked with an SEO guy that said I could get $1,000 per backlink on sites like Forbes!

Me: You…actually can’t, [Writer]. What you can get is banned from Forbes forever. They take a very harsh stance against undisclosed or paid backlinks. You can’t do it. They ban people every day, because the practice of placing paid links in a post without disclosure is unethical. Please read this.

 

This news, that undisclosed paid links could be a career-ender, didn’t dent this blogger’s steadfast belief that secretly getting paid for links is fine:

[Writer]: Why is it wrong if the site hosting the guest post is fully aware and completely compliant, and the link is in no way spammy or irrelevant? Always open to learning, but I’ve done my homework on this, and I can’t find anything unethical about something between consenting, aware parties.

Me: If you had an open discussion with an editor, you’d learn it’s forbidden.

[Writer]: I have, did, and frequently do – it’s very common practice.

Me: It’s still unethical because the AUDIENCE is hoodwinked. You’re not being honest with THEM. But in general, most of these paid links come with a REQUIREMENT not to disclose.

[Writer]: How is the audience hoodwinked? It’s just a link to a page relevant to the content being discussed, so they can explore the topic further. Truly not getting this.

 

It proved tough to explain that nondisclosure of payment is a form of lying…but I continued to try:

Me: When I wrote a channel for Forbes for 3 years, they made us swear a quarterly affidavit that we would not accept any paid links or write about anyone for pay.

[Writer]: I’ve worked as a ghostwriter in a number of capacities over the years, and the jury seems to be out on the ethics of paid links in guest posts. In most cases (and these are the ONLY guest post positions I write for), as long as the link is to a reputable site and relevant to the conversation, they’re fine with it.

I don’t contribute to Forbes, not really my thing, but in this case I would definitely have an open discussion with the editor to verify their stance on it (as I do every time).

Me: No, the jury is not out. What you are doing is wrong. And can ruin your career. It’s just that companies don’t care about ruining your career. They just want their link. I’d STRONGLY discourage anyone from taking the easy money of paid links without disclosure because it can be a career-ender.

 

And on it went.

Since having this conversation, I’ve asked around more about paid link nondisclosure. I believe this blogger is not alone in the feeling that failing to reveal that links were paid for is a comfy gray area. Take the money — who cares?

To answer that question, there are three important parties who care deeply about undisclosed paid content and links.

Yes, even if they happen to be relevant (though remember, they rarely really are the best resource, or the company wouldn’t have to pay anyone to mention them).

If you value your writing career, you should care deeply about all three of these objectors to undisclosed sponsored content:

1. Google

Google considers any links that are intended to manipulate its rankings to be prohibited link schemes. Which, of course, is what all undisclosed paid links are trying to do — to help the company rank better in search.

These secretly paid “do-follow” links are considered “unnatural” links by Google.

These links violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and can lead to your waking up to your blog’s (or your client’s) not getting found on Google anymore. Kiss that business buh-bye. They’ll spike your site off their search results, as they’ve done in the past with Overstock.com, JC Penney, and yes, Forbes (they ended link selling and removed the links, long ago). Then, you can begin the long, painful process of trying to get back in Google’s good graces.

If you’re being approached by big link-selling companies or major brands, you never know who’ll get busted for this next, taking your reputation — and your site traffic — down along with them.

2. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission

The FTC has been very clear on bloggers’ needs to disclose any links for which they are paid, to avoid being prosecuted for engaging in deceiving consumers. Their key words are “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of any monetary relationship.

I could wade you through a bunch of boilerplate, but I think this reminder letter about the importance of disclosure that I recently got as a Bluehost affiliate (see how I just disclosed that affiliate-pay relationship?) makes the FTC’s keen interest in our honesty crystal clear. I’ve bolded some key sections:

Dear Carol,

As a reminder, the Bluehost Affiliate Agreement requires you to disclose your affiliate relationship with Bluehost whenever you offer an endorsement or testimonial of Bluehost’s services, including, in the form of publishing online rankings or reviews comparing service providers. Under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (“Endorsement Guidelines”), and as updated in 2015, you are required to disclose any material connections. The FTC is especially concerned about any financial incentives that would be of interest to a consumer reading your endorsement or testimonial (including reviews and rankings).

If you are publishing reviews or rankings comparing brands, the consumer needs to understand the factors which weigh or drive the order of rankings or the substance of reviews. If, for example, commission or conversion rates are significantly determining the positioning or endorsement of a brand, then you must communicate this.

If you are making comparisons among brands on the basis of price or features, you are solely responsible for the accuracy of this content, and also for making sound and fair (“apples to apples”) comparisons among the various brands you are reviewing or endorsing.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU

If you provide reviews, rankings, endorsements, testimonials, blogs, or content of any kind about any Bluehost service for which you receive commissions, you must clearly disclose the fact that you receive such compensation in a clear and prominent place in close proximity to your endorsement. This disclosure must appear on every page that includes your endorsement and cannot require the consumer to scroll through multiple page views, or click on secondary links behind vague words such as “Disclaimer.”

The FTC takes the Endorsement Guidelines seriously and continues to bring enforcement actions against a wide range of companies, including marketers, advertisers, affiliates, PR agencies, web influencers, and others.

Bluehost has an obligation to monitor our affiliate program, and we take this obligation very seriously. Bluehost monitors affiliate sites to ensure that our services are represented appropriately and that they comply with the Endorsement Guidelines. As stated in our Affiliate Agreement, failure to comply with the Endorsement Guidelines could result in your removal from the Bluehost affiliate program as well as the cancellation of all commissions due to you.

TIPS FOR MAKING SURE YOUR SITE IS COMPLIANT

Please note that although the Bluehost Affiliate Agreement specifically requires you to comply with all FTC regulations, you also have an independent obligation to comply with such regulations. It is your responsibility to ensure that your actions are always in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations

We have pulled together some examples (based on FTC advice or enforcement cases) to illustrate ways that you can disclose a material connection between you and your advertisers. Take a few minutes to review this summary:

Bluehost Affiliate Disclosure Requirements and Examples

The FTC also offers a variety of resources to help make it easier for you to comply with the guidelines, including:
Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising
The FTC’s Revised Endorsement Guides: What People Are Asking
Dot Com Disclosures: Information About Online Advertising
The FTC Native Advertising Guide

Please take steps immediately to make sure that your site is in compliance with these guidelines. Several of our leading affiliates have already posted their disclosures, and they continue to enjoy great success.

Note: These links are intended to provide guidance only. If you provide endorsements of some type, you should obtain legal advice on how the FTC rules apply to you.

Best wishes,

The Bluehost Affiliate Team

Quick tips on how to disclose a “material connection:”

Disclosures must meet these four basic requirements:

  • Frequent: Disclosures must be “clear and conspicuous” whether they are in video, print, or audio content.
  • Clear: Language must be specific and easy to understand. This means, for example, you should identify which brands featured on your page pay you commissions, not merely that “some” do.
  • Conspicuous: The location of the disclosure should be placed close to your endorsement or review. The font, color, and size of the disclosure should be such that it is easily noticed and read. And don’t obscure the disclosure behind a vague, non-explanatory link, such as “disclosure” or “disclaimer.”
  • Require no action: The user shouldn’t need to click, hover, or scroll to locate or understand the nature of your disclosure.

For more information, please review our Affiliate Disclosure and Requirement Examples.

To repeat, the jury is not out. Bluehost is not sending this out because disclosure is optional. It isn’t. This is not a gray area.

If you accept paid links and do not disclose it, you are breaking the law. The FTC does prosecute companies that lie about paid links, and the bloggers they collude with.

3. Your readers

This shouldn’t even need saying. But if you’re a blogger, your entire success rests on the shoulders of your loyal readers. You owe them everything.

They trust you to tell them the truth.

Pretending you think a link is valuable to them when really, you linked it because someone paid you $50 or $500 to include it, well…that’s the same as lying in their face.

They follow you and share your posts and leave you comments because they believe you’re being honest and authentic with them. When it comes to light that you’re really just a paid shill for anyone who waves a $50 bill at you, your blogging career will likely be over.

Don’t your readers deserve the complete truth from you? I believe mine do.

And what about those editors you ask on some sleazy big blog who say, “Sure, I don’t care if you take a little money on the side in this post and put in a link,” are wrong.

They should care. And they will care eventually, when this all comes tumbling down around their ears.

If you’re thinking no one will ever be the wiser, let me share with you the wisdom of age: Oh, yes, they will. The truth will out. Don’t ever bet against it.

What could happen

Besides watching your blog audience vaporize after it comes to light that you’re sneakily on the take rather than watching out for readers’ best interests, what else could happen?

So far, the FTC has mostly gone after major brands in its prosecution efforts. And it’s tended to use the embarrassment factor rather than lawsuits or big fines to get them to stop their deceptive practices, as when Lord & Taylor secretly paid bloggers to post shots of their dresses on Instagram.

Maybe you think playing the odds is worth it, to get your hands on some secret link money. You’re willing to risk disappearing overnight from Google, getting publicly outed as a liar by the FTC, or enduring the wrath of your betrayed blog readers, should you get caught up in one of these scandals.

I think you’re making a big mistake. Turn back now. It’s not worth it, even for $1 million (the amount I jokingly now offer those who ask me to stuff an undisclosed link for them.)

Your reputation as a writer or blogger is your most precious asset. Don’t risk it for anything.

Would you accept paid links without disclosure? Let’s discuss on my Facebook.

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