In My Opinion: Craig McGill: On what newspapers could have done to avoid being hit by Google

IT’S not that long ago I was arguing how advertising teams in the media weren’t exactly doing their part in the move to online. That, in my view, they were potentially costing papers revenue.

Well, do a Google search for ‘Scottish News’. If The Scotsman wasn’t on page one before, it certainly isn’t there now.

The search engine has taken exception to the way it hotlinked to flowers service, Interflora. And The Scotsman is far from being the only newspaper to have been treated this way, as search marketing folk, David Naylor – among several other news sites and commentators, including – have reminded us these last few days.

Long story, short: Last week, it was discovered that Google had kicked Interflora off the front page of search results for a variety of flower-related phrases and its own name. And it was because of advertorials on vari0us newspaper websites, including The Scotsman’s.

People go to Google and they look through the first few – rarely more than ten – results and they pick what matches what they want. ‘Flowers for Mother’s Day’, ‘flowers for Easter’, and ‘wedding flowers’ are all phrases searched for thousands of times a day and people will click on a few of the results to see what matches up with what they want.

If you aren’t on that front page, you’re screwed. This is why people ‘do’ SEO – Search Engine Optimisation – so that they can be as high up the Google listings as possible.

One key part to SEO is linkage. This is where the link contains text relevant to what you are linking to. So if I was talking about elsewhere, I might say here’s a site about Scottish media news instead of ‘click here’. ‘Scottish media news’ is a good link for AMS. ‘Click here’ is of no use.

This also ties into what is known as PageRank. Very simply, this is a rank given to your site by Google which states how trustworthy it views your site, based on the links it has received.

So what was the problem?

The idea behind Google is that it is material people find useful, not material people have paid to have promoted. If you want to pay to promote sites, Google has ad sections – at the top and right of the search results – and AdWords to do that.

But the natural (ie non paid-for) results should be completely organic. This means bloggers should point out if they were paid for a review or blog post. It also means that companies – if it is a paid promotion like an advertorial is – should include a piece of code so that Google knows it shouldn’t count the page as part of the search engine rankings.

Such a simple thing to do, such potentially devastating consequences if you don’t, including negative PR.

The tragedy of all of this, as far as The Scotsman is specifically concerned, is that a decade ago – when the majority of Scottish Press (and many in the UK) had yet to recognise the digital opportunities – it was actually ahead of the game. With people like Neil McIntosh and Nick Clayton bringing out great copy, and Stewart Kirkpatrick as digital editor, The Scotsman online was among the world’s top websites for news.

How long the newspapers will be punished for is not known. It might be a wee while.

So, what are the implications of this?

I would love to think that advertising teams across the UK are being trained up on what they can and can’t sell when it comes to digital offerings on the back of this but I doubt they are.

Any brands or PR/marketing firm looking to do advertorial work will have to be careful to make sure that any linking involved is either properly tagged – or not bother spending the money in the first place and invest it in an area where they can still get links.

So, how to avoid it happening to you?

The PR/social media/marketing lessons are clear:

1. Invest in editorial, put it on your own platforms and make it something people will want to share/talk about. In other words, have interesting content.

2. If you do advertorial or any kind of paid review, make sure you have ‘nofollow’ coding placed on the relevant sites. You can take a chance and leave it out but you are taking a risk.

3. There are other ways of getting links – talk to whoever is doing your SEO or online PR.

4. Don’t try for paid links in organic search copy. As Mike McGrail from Velocity Digital pointed out on twitter: this isn’t 2005.

For newspapers, in particular:

1. Make sure your ad teams aren’t selling off anything that could impact negatively on your business. Make sure the online team for advertising are up-to-date with what you can and cannot do.

2. If there’s a conflct, make sure the ‘Org Chart’ leaves no room for error on who makes the final call on issues like this. Google doesn’t differentiate between advertising and editorial. It punishes all.

Does it mean the advertorial is dead? I think so, but Razvan Gavrilas over at CognitveSEO has a different idea: you can still do it and probably get away with the linkage, just don’t buy a large amount of them.

Craig McGill has written for – or been a member of staff at – TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Daily Mirror, The Scotsman, Evening Times, The Press and Journal, The Sun and Evening Times. An author of four non-fiction books, he has been recently appointed a lecturer in ‘cross-platform journalism‘ at Edinburgh Napier University.