Paid Book Reviews and Potential Google Penalties

on August 7, 2014 in Book Marketing & PR
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While checking my feed reader this morning, I came across this post by Cate Baum at SelfPublishingReview.com:

Now I've made my feelings about paid book reviews clear here before in:

And I went so far as to put my decade-long history in financially-successful Web publishing to work, offering tips for book reviewers to help them monetize their review sites without resorting to paid reviews:

Now, back to the SPR article. I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to attack the site or author in any way. I happen to like the site and subscribe to their posts. But there was one argument in the post that alarmed me a little bit.

Are Paid Book Reviews Better Than Unpaid Reviews for SEO?

Here is the argument that caught my attention:

"SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a technique that webmasters use to increase their visibility and ranking on Google and other search engine results pages. Joshua Steimle at Forbes says,

'In case you’re a newbie to SEO, incoming links, also commonly referred to as backlinks, are a primary part of Google’s method by which it determines how to rank websites. At the simplest level, Google looks at how many links are pointing to a website and the quality of the websites those links are coming from…Check for bad links right now, and proactively remove them…'

Steimle offers many ‘bad link’ removal tools at the bottom of his article. Given that more often that not blog sites offering to review for free do not get many viewers or ranking on Google, and given that poorly ranked web links can do damage to your website in terms of how Google ranks your content rather than improve visibility, sticking to quality sites for reviews is a much better plan – say no to sites that are poorly constructed, old-fashioned and contain a lot of ads, listed links with no content, or popups, however enticing a free review may sound. You could damage your online presence and ruin sales."

I had to comment on the implication that a link in an unpaid review would damage an author's website. And that comment was rather lengthy, so I wanted to share the whole thing here. But to take it a step further, I'm going to expand upon it and link you to some resources that might help you get a better grasp on the situation so you know what kinds of links might hurt your author site, and what you really don't have to worry about.

My Response Re: Free Review Links Hurting Author Websites

The Low Quality Links Issue

It isn’t “poorly ranked web links” that are a problem. It’s low quality links. And a link isn’t low quality simply because the site it’s on isn’t ranked well yet. If it were, you would be penalized any time a new site linked to yours, and that simply isn’t the case.

Low quality links mean things like links from completely irrelevant sites, automated links, links on massive directories and link farms, spammy blog comment links, and links incorporated into things like badges, buttons, infographics, and themes distributed to other site owners (like a dofollow "sponsored by" link on a WordPress theme, a dofollow affiliate link where the code is distributed by the seller, or a dofollow link tucked into code for a third party widget -- especially if the links are keyword-rich).

While it's not guaranteed, if you're getting too many low quality links pointing to your author website, you might get an "unnatural links" warning in Google Webmaster Tools (you do have your site set up in there right?). Unless Google seems to have a problem with specific free review sites, perhaps for spammy tactics they use, you shouldn't freak out about removing those links or disavowing them. Here is a video with Matt Cutts, head of Google's Web spam team, discussing the basics of unnatural links warnings:

The Bigger Problem: Paid Links

Most importantly, "low quality links" include paid links, which is what you get in paid reviews. If a paid or sponsored review contains dofollow links rather than nofollow links, both the reviewing site and the author’s site are at risk of being hit with paid link penalties. Sometimes Google doesn’t catch them on their own, but they’ll penalize quickly as soon as someone reports the sites in question. They’ve accepted paid link reports since at least 2007.

A free review on a legitimate book review site (which is relevant to an author’s site by its very nature) wouldn’t have any reason to lead to penalties simply because it’s free. Google prefers free links. They want sites to get free (read: “earned”) links as opposed to paid links or anything else they consider manipulative of their rankings. That includes links given in a more selective way (such as from those sites that won’t post reviews of books they don’t feel are worth promoting as opposed to sites that will post a review, and link, for anyone who pays them).

If a link wouldn’t appear on a site if a payment hadn’t been made, it's not the same as an earned editorial link, and it’s something that shouldn’t pass PageRank. This is covered in Google's examples of link schemes:

"Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link"

Along those lines, paid reviews seem to clearly fall within Google's definition of advertorials / native advertising where content (and its links) only appear on a site because of some form of payment. Matt Cutts talks about it in the video below:

"It basically means someone gave you some money rather than you writing about this naturally because you thought it was interesting or because you wanted to....

We have had long-standing guidance, since at least 2005 I think, that says look, if you pay for links, those links should not pass PageRank....

If you look at our policy on advertorials, it's been constant for the last several years. But we just want to reiterate and make sure people realize that this can be an issue, if you are taking money and posting content that people don't realize is paid, or is not adequately disclosed both to people and to search engines, we are willing to take action on that."

Here's the video:

So at a bare minimum, sites selling book reviews should make sure any included links are “nofollow” links, similar to the way Kirkus handles the “Buy now from” links in their online reviews. That applies to any kind of paid review, sponsored post, or advertorial. If you ever want to nofollow a link and you aren't sure how, this infographic from SearchEngineLand.com is a nice introduction:

”What

If you want to learn more about Google's definition of paid links and where some gray areas might fall, you can check out this video, again featuring Matt Cutts (where he even specifically mentions exchanging something for links in editorial content or write-ups about that item):

Going Beyond Nofollow Links: Review Disclosures

If either party is in the U.S., a paid review should also follow FTC guidelines, disclosing that a payment was made for a review to appear on the site (note that a separate disclosure page is not enough to satisfy those guidelines — disclosure should happen at the start of the post or near where the link appears to avoid confusion). This isn't exclusive to paid reviewers though. Free review sites also need disclosures when they've received free review copies of books. That's clearly demonstrated by Example 21 from the FTC guidelines linked above:

"The blogger in this example obtained the paint she is reviewing for free and must disclose that fact. Although she does so at the end of her blog post, there are several hyperlinks before that disclosure that could distract readers and cause them to click away before they get to the end of the post. Given these distractions, the disclosure likely is not clear and conspicuous."

Been There, Done That

While I in no way support paid reviews, I used to offer them (though not specifically book reviews). The reviews were all unbiased and strictly vetted for relevance. I had a big problem with Google deciding that a particular advertising / income model wasn’t okay because of faults with their algorithm and some bad eggs, but in the end they ruined it for the rest of us.

I took a stand at the time and continued to run my business the way I always had, knowing I wasn't doing anything unethical (strict standards, honest reviews, and clear disclosures). Eventually my site got penalized. And let me tell you from someone who’s been there, you don’t want to deal with that. It can take months to years to fully clean up the mess if you ever want your rankings back (that blog was highly ranked before the penalty, and it took a couple of years for traffic to recover even long after the penalty was lifted).

Better Safe Than Sorry

It’s not worth the risk. My recommendation is always to avoid paid reviews. But if you insist on buying them for your books, please at least make sure any included links are nofollowed. If the review site doesn't do this by default, you can cover yourself by requesting that they manually nofollow any links in your own review.

I think it’s important for more authors to get a handle on SEO so they can take advantage of the increased visibility while not putting their sites, rankings, and potentially sales at risk. And sadly this is an area many authors continue to neglect. If you'd like to discuss it, we already have an ongoing discussion in the forums about the importance of SEO for author blogs. I hope some of you will register (it's free) and take part in the conversation there.

Followup: Cate and I have been continuing the discussion regarding my original comment over on her post. While we disagree strongly on the SEO risks of paid reviews vs free review sites, I encourage you to check out the discussion as I feel it's always a good thing to get different perspectives so you can make informed decisions for your business and book marketing efforts.

Thanks for sharing!
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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.

6 Comments

  1. Cathy Miller August 7, 2014 Reply

    My head is spinning but this is a definite come back to and study post. ;-) Thanks, Jenn, for sharing your vast knowledge and experience.

    Are you sure we can’t do a brain dump? ;-)
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Is Your Business Message Lost in Imagery?My Profile

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern August 7, 2014 Reply

      I came across another great background video from Matt Cutts, so I’ve added that since this went live. Adding to your study materials. :P

      Tell you what. Let’s trade some of this stuff in my head for a bit of your natural patience and sunshine. ;)

  2. Angela Booth August 7, 2014 Reply

    Jenn, I haven’t read the articles to which you’ve linked, sorry, but I need to say you’re completely right — Google sees paid reviews as paid links.

    And when it comes right down to it, Google’s right. Paid book reviews are paid links, and Google will penalize websites which sell links. Google wants websites to use AdWords, and pay THEM for the links. (Sigh. ;-))

    My take on it: don’t pay for reviews.

    ASK for reviews instead.

    You can ask for reviews:

    * In the back matter of your books. Offer a bribe if you like. Google will never know;

    * On Pinterest — run a contest;

    * On social media. (But don’t just hit social media to ask for book reviews. Be social);

    * Private groups to which you belong. There are lots of private groups around. You review others’ books, and they review yours. Not that I’m advocating that. However, if you’re desperate, it’s an option…

    It’s completely natural that authors want to pay for book reviews, since they need reviews to be able to advertise on websites like BookBub etc. However, there are lots of ways to get reviews without stirring up the Google beast.

    My take on it: write another book. Write a blog. Write guest posts on blogs and link to your book. Reviews are useful, no question, but there are better ways for an author to spend his time than sweating over book reviews, paid or free.

    Great article Jenn, I enjoyed the way you’ve explained the SEO implications. :-)
    Angela Booth recently posted…Your Writing Business: 3 Tips To Make It WorkMy Profile

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern August 7, 2014 Reply

      Some good ideas Angela! :)

      I also don’t recommend review exchanges. That could get you into hot water too because it could still be considered a “link scheme.” I’d like to see more authors dig into the past a bit and familiarize themselves with the kinds of things Google tends to go after full-force. They hit paid review providers hard quite a few years ago. And exchanges soon followed (though the tools have changed — back then it was StumbleUpon exchanges, reciprocal link exchanges, “Like” exchanges, etc. — though I imagine that last one is still a problem).

      You’re absolutely right about there being better ways to get reviews. And I wish more authors would get creative about it (in a good way). But maybe that’s a topic for a follow-up post. :)

  3. Debra Stang August 8, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for the warning and the clear – and extensive! – explanation about why paying for reviews is a bad idea. I’ve never done so, but I admit it’s crossed my mind a few times when I had a newly published book and couldn’t seem to get any reviews.
    Debra Stang recently posted…A Shocking Development: How ECT Gave Me Back My WritingMy Profile

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern August 8, 2014 Reply

      As long as you understand the risks, you have to do whatever you think will be best for your career in the long run. But I’m hoping to have a follow-up post in the near future with tips for securing reviews. So hopefully that will give you some new ideas before thinking about going the paid review route.

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