When content marketing gets ethically murky

A freelance writer and content marketer in Orlando, Sherry Gray has written for Social Times, Inbound.org and Search Engine Journal among many other publishers and platforms. She regularly writes articles that deliver business and marketing advice.

Often she will post her stories to sites for free, in exchange for the prestige of being able to say she’s written for the title. But there is an additional benefit that readers (and even her editors) may be unaware of: Some of the businesses she features in her posts have paid her an average of $200 per mention. In fact, Gray’s income has nearly doubled since she began freelance writing 10 years ago and it is all due to the importance of link building and content marketing as businesses strive to gain press for their services and products.

“Any good content strategy includes outreach, or placing content with links on other sites,” said Gray. “Opportunities occasionally come along to feature more than one client in the same piece, and I can double or triple my pay for a post already written. That’s always exciting.” She declined to disclose which of her posts include paid links, however.

There is significant concern over whether it’s ethical to include paid links in articles that ostensibly offer advice. Though Gray is adamant that she is not a journalist — she describes herself as a “content marketer” — her stories often appear in outlets that do real journalism. And Gray is hardly an outlier. When high-traffic sites like Forbes or the Huffington Post effectively become platforms — by opening themselves up to user generated content — they also open themselves up to contributors of questionable motives.

Meanwhile, as declining CPMs have given rise to the content marketing and branded content trends, certain companies will pay guest contributors at those sites to bypass the hurdle of needing editorial approval for coverage. Even at $200 per link, blog mentions are far cheaper than more formal advertising agreements like sponsored posts and native advertising.

Editors at CNN, Social Times, Huffington Post and Search Engine Journal did not respond to requests for comment.

Al Ruggie, the Public Relations Director for 911 Restoration, a home restoration company that specializes in water damage and disaster recovery solutions, admits to frequently paying bloggers to plug his company. The California business originally operated with only one location and sought to expand its digital marketing strategy to propel its growth. They reached out to Milestone SEO, a content, SEO and PPC marketing company to assist them with digital marketing, and have seen a tremendous growth in their business, enabling them to branch out with more than 60 locations.

“Milestone’s writers are guest bloggers for a few different publications and they can usually place article ideas directly into those publications through simply emailing the editor with their pitch and then writing it themselves,” Ruggie said.

Through Milestone’s connections, 911 Restoration was able to secure mentions on CEO Blog Nation and MortgageLoan.Com. Ruggie claims that the branches that work with Milestone SEO see a 30 percent increase in business.

911 Restoration isn’t the only business hiring bloggers with access to high traffic platforms to mention and link to their businesses: Big.Discount, a website that offers online coupons for shopping discounts at major retailers, recently created a job listing on ProBlogger seeking professional blog writers with access to high-quality websites like CNN’s iReport, The Huffington Post and others.

Hiring guest bloggers with access to high-traffic websites may be a very convenient way to establish brand authority yet, according to Google, buying or selling links that pass PageRank, including exchanging money for links, can get a website being banned. The FTC also warns writers not to include paid links in editorial without disclosure.

“This kind of practice is against the official Google guidelines,” says Rae Hoffman, a search marketing expert and founder of PushFire. “If a mainstream publisher chooses to have bloggers and journalists both publishing under their brand, I’d say making that distinction should fall with them because at the end of the day, readers are showing up for their brand.”

Despite these clearly expressed rules, Gray does not believe she is doing anything unethical when she offers free content to platforms — that happens to include paid links for her clients. “Content marketing is not a secret,” Gray said. “Every website that allows submissions has a policy in writing. I don’t post on sites that do not allow links in the text, and I follow the rules for those who do. It’s a mistake to confuse blogging and content marketing with journalism. There is an expectation of impartiality in journalism. I’m a blogger, not a journalist.”

But Loren Baker, founder of Search Engine Journal, is adamant that businesses like Big.Discount should never pay writers for links because writers do not have the authority to accept.

“From an ethical route, especially journalistic ethics, it is extremely wrong to offer or accept [payment to include links],” said Baker, who is also the vice president of Foundation Digital, a content marketing company. “But of course, it can and does happen, especially because most bloggers are not journalists. There is a great distinction. I’m a blogger, not a journalist; and most bloggers I work with have not taken any kind of journalistic oath.”


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