The Gray Area of Terms of Service, Influencer Marketing, and SEO

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Billions of searches are performed online every day, and a mere fraction of them will bring up your website. But to some brands, that fraction of traffic can amount to thousands or even millions of visitors. For the average online retailer, Google is often a top referrer of new business annually. So you can imagine that if one day that business just disappeared from that all-important search engine it would have pretty costly results.

Playing nice with the sources that can bring your brand more business certainly isn’t a new concept. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” is how the old adage goes. In the case of SEO, that hand is Google. Playing by Google’s rules might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re building a brand, but over time complying with these guidelines can become increasingly important ― especially if you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t.

In this article we’ll discuss one gray area of marketing that could open the door for search engines like Google to question your tactics: influencer outreach. We’ll give you a few tips on what terms of service are affected by influencer marketing, ways to mitigate the risks, and how to avoid breaking rules in the future.

What are Google Terms of Service (ToS)?

Google’s Terms of Service (ToS) are an agreement you expressly agree to by using their services and products. By using Google’s services you’re pledging to adhere to their terms of service; these should be read and understood carefully. Misuse of Google’s provided services is in direct violation of the ToS and may result in suspension of services and possible investigation.

Terms of Service exist for popular search engines as well as the websites you frequent on a regular basis (such as social networking websites) to protect the company providing the service. It’s likely that right at this moment you’re required to comply with specific requirements on sites you use for free or pay fees for, and you probably don’t even know it.

Although it’s not a violation of any federal or state laws, not complying with ToS’s could have hefty consequences. In the case of Google’s ToS, this can mean a non-compliant business gets less traffic and fewer customers … and sometimes its website won’t show up in Google at all.

Knowing the rules will help you to play by the rules.

Influencer Marketing

According to Huffington Post, “Influencer marketing is simply the action of promoting and selling products or services through people (influencers) who have the capacity to have an effect on the character of a brand.”

For receiving compensation or a bit of free product for their time, the influencer then helps promote the company selling the products or services. It’s often a win-win for both brand and influencer, and all are happy.

Except sometimes Google. Oh, and the Federal Trade Commission. And sometimes the IRS, if you’re not careful.

Influencer marketing is a widely used form of advertising and marketing in the digital and offline world today. Brands have seen overnight success from the efforts of marketers partnering influencers with the right products. But there are rules to follow, some which reaffirm common truth-in-advertising principles that guide the quality of our industry.

It’s not a completely new concept. Influencers like athletes and models have been doing brand deals for decades. Today, the playing field is extremely level because of social media and other broadcast channels giving access to a wide array of individuals. Just about anyone can start and maintain a brand to become an influencer in their own right.

Rules for Influencers and Brands

Brands and influencers are encouraged to follow Endorsement Guidelines provided by the FTC. Imagine a world that didn’t have these regulations! We’d have false claims and horrible products being marketed to the public, and no way to tell the difference between legitimate and outlandish claims.

Guidelines help to inform influencers and brands about the importance of topics like disclosure too. “If there is a material connection between an endorser and an advertiser” it must be disclosed to the public, according to the FTC.

An endorsement must be an honest opinion, and the endorser can’t make claims that the product marketers themselves couldn’t legally make. Something that may affect the weight a person puts on the reviewer’s opinion of the product should be disclosed. If you keep these principles in mind you’ll mitigate the risks of violating a pretty simple concept.

Gray Area with SEO

Once upon a time the way to a #1 ranking on Google was within reach simply by buying a few high authority backlinks. These links would pass authority to your site, automatically increasing your importance in the eyes of Google. Hello, #1! …OK, maybe it was never that easy, but you get the idea. More backlinks = better rankings. Today, purchasing backlinks could get your website penalized by Google, so it’s a very risky tactic indeed.

Buying backlinks is never a good long-term strategy. Sure it might work today, it might have worked a few years ago, heck, it might even work tomorrow, but does that make it any less bad, really? You’ll want to avoid any and all signals that make it seem like you’re spam. For best results, follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t use suspicious or exact match anchor text in any hyperlinks back to your website. Doing so within a sponsored post not labeled as sponsored could be a huge red flag that the post is actually paid for, and the link is bought.
  • Disclose influencer marketing product placements in blogs, in videos, and any other assets online that also include a backlink to your website.
  • Avoid paying for influencer marketing on a site that heavily promotes link buying and other activities that violate Google’s ToS.
  • Avoid placing a link on a website that is a part of a blog network that buys and sells links. Simply add a <nofollow> tag on your link or avoid getting a link from the site all together.

Influencer marketing tactics can suddenly look like backlinking gone awry if you’re not careful. So, if you’re going down the route of influencer marketing because you want an SEO boost for specific keywords, we highly recommend avoiding it. There are so many other ways to increase your traffic, boost your rankings, and sell more products or services. Make sure you know all the risks before you start on your next influencer marketing strategy.