Native Advertising

Mar 21st

Native advertising presents opportunities for SEOs to boost their link building strategies, particularly those who favor paid link strategies.

What Is Native Advertising?

Native advertising is the marketing industries new buzzword for....well, it depends who you ask.

Native advertising can't just be about the creative that fills an advertising space. Native advertising must be intrinsically connected to the format that fits the user's unique experience. There's something philosophically beautiful about that in terms of what great advertising should (and could) be. But first, we need to all speak the same language around "native advertising.

Native advertising is often defined as content that seamless integrates with a site, as opposed to interruption media, such as pre-rolls on YouTube videos, or advertising that sits in a box off to the side of the main content.

It’s advertising that looks just like content, which is a big part of Google's success.

Here’s an example.

Some high-profile examples of native advertising include Facebook Sponsored Stories; Twitter's Promoted Tweets; promoted videos on YouTube, Tumblr and Forbes; promoted articles like Gawker's Sponsored Posts and BuzzFeed's Featured Partner content; Sponsored Listings on Yelp; promoted images on Cheezburger; and promoted playlists on Spotify and Radio.

One interesting observation is that Adwords and Adsense are frequently cited as being examples of native advertising. Hold that thought.

Why Native Advertising?

The publishing industry is desperate to latch onto any potential lifeline as ad rates plummet.

Analysts say the slowdown is being caused by the huge expansion in the amount of online advertising space as companies who manage this emerge to dominate the space. In short there’s just too many ad slots chasing ads that are growing, but at a rate slower than the creation of potential ad slots.

This means the chances are dimming that online ad spending would gradually grow to make up for some of the falls in analogue spending in print. ....staff numbers and the attendant costs of doing business have to be slashed heavily to account for the lower yield and revenue from online ads

And why might there be more slots than there are advertisers?

As people get used to seeing web advertising, and mentally blocking it out, or technically filtering it out, advertising becomes less effective. Federated Media, who were predominantly a display advertising business, got out of display ads late last year:

“The model of ‘boxes and rectangles’ – the display banner – is failing to fully support traditional ‘content’ sites beyond a handful of exceptions,” wrote Federated Media founder John Battelle in a recent blog post. He explained that the next generation of native ads on social networks and strength of Google Adwords make direct sales more competitive, and that ad agencies must evolve with the growing trend of advertisers who want more social/conversational ad campaigns.

Advertisers aren't seeing enough return from the advertising in order for them to want to grab the many slots that are available. And they are lowering their bids to make up for issues with publishing fraud. The promise of native advertising is that this type of advertising reaches real users, and will grab and hold viewers attention for longer.

This remains to be seen, of course.

Teething Pains

Not all native advertising works. It depends on the context and the audience. Facebook hasn’t really get it right yet:

Facebook is still largely centered around interactions with people one knows offline, making the appearance of marketing messages especially jarring. This is particularly true in mobile, where Sponsored Stories take up a much larger portion of the screen relative to desktop. Facebook did not handle the mobile rollout very gracefully, either. Rather than easing users into the change, they appeared seemingly overnight, and took up the first few posts in the newsfeed. The content itself is also hit or miss – actions taken by distant friends with dissimilar interests are often used as the basis for targeting Sponsored Stories.

If you’re planning on offering native advertising yourself, you may need to walk a fine line. Bloggers and other publishers who are getting paid but don’t declare so risk alienating their audience and destroying their reputation.

Some good ways of addressing this issue are policy pages that state the author has affiliate relationships with various providers, and this is a means of paying for the site, and does not affect editorial. Whether it’s true or not is up to the audience to decide, but such transparency up-front certainly helps. If a lot of free content is mixed in with native content, and audiences dislike it enough, then it might pave the way for more paid content and paywalls.

Just like any advertising content, native advertising may become less effective over time if the audience learns to screen it out. One advantage for the SEO is that doesn’t matter so much, so long as they get the link.

Still, some big players are using it:

Forbes Insights and Sharethrough today announced the results of a brand study to assess adoption trends related to native video advertising that included senior executives from leading brands such as Intel, JetBlue, Heineken and Honda. The study shows that more than half of large brands are now using custom brand videos in their marketing, and when it comes to distribution, most favor “native advertising” approaches where content is visually integrated into the organic site experience, as opposed to running in standard display ad formats. The study also shows that the majority of marketers now prefer choice-based formats over interruptive formats.

Google’s Clamp-Down On Link Advertising

So, what’s the difference between advertorial and native content? Not much, on the face of it, except in one rather interesting respect. When it comes to native advertising, it’s often not obvious the post is sponsored.

Google has, of course, been punishing links from advertorial content. One wonders if they've punished themselves, of course.

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker — are experimenting with new ad formats such as sponsored content or “native advertising,” as well as affiliate links. On Friday, Google engineer Matt Cutts reiterated a warning from the search giant that this kind of content has to be treated properly or Google will penalize the site that hosts it, in some cases severely.

If native advertising proves popular with publishers and advertisers, then it’s going to compete with Google’s business model. Businesses may spend less on Adwords and may replace Adsense with native advertising. It’s no surprise, then, that Google may take a hostile line on it. However, publishers are poor, ad networks are rich, so perhaps it's time that publishers became ad networks.

When it comes to SEO, given Google’s warning shots, SEOs will either capitulate - and pretty much give up on paid links - or make more effort to blend seamlessly into the background.

Blurring The Lines

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the editorial thin blue line is looking rather “fuzzy”. It may even raise legal questions about misrepresentation. There has traditionally been a church and state divide between advertising and editorial, but as publishers get more desperate to survive, they’re going to go with whatever works. If native advertising works better than the alternatives, then publishers will use it. What choice have they got? Their industry is dying.

It raises some pretty fundamental questions.

I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?

Likewise, in order to compete in search results, a site must have links. It would great if people linked freely and often based on objective merit, but we all know that is a hit and miss affair. If native advertising provides a means to acquire paid links that don’t look like paid links, then that is what people will do.

And if their competitors are doing it, they’ll have little choice.

Seamless Integration

If you’re looking for a way to build paid links, then here is where the opportunity lies for SEOs.

Recent examples Google caught out looked heavily advertorial. They were in bulk. They would have likely been barely credible to a human reviewer as they didn’t read particularly well. Those I saw had an "auto-generated quality" to them.

The integration with editorial needs to be seamless and, if possible, the in-house editors should write the copy, or it should look like they did. Avoid generic and boilerplate approaches. The content should not be both generic and widely distributed. Such strategy is unlikely to pass Google’s inspections.

Markets will spring up, if they haven’t already, whereby publications will offer editorial native advertising, link included. It would be difficult to tell if such a link was “paid for”, and certainly not algorithmically, unless the publisher specifically labelled it “advertising feature” or something similar.

Sure, this has been going on for years, but if a lot of high level publishers embrace something called "Native Advertising" then that sounds a lot more legitimate than "someone wants to pay for a link on our site". In marketing, it's all about the spin ;)

It could be a paid restaurant review on a restaurant review site, link included. For SEO purposes, the review doesn't even need to be overtly positive and glowing, therefore a high degree of editorial integrity could be maintained. This approach would suit a lot of review sites. For example, "we'll pay you to review our product, so long as you link to it, but you can still say whatever you like about it". The publishers production cost is met, in total, and they can maintain a high degree of editorial integrity. If Jennifer Lopez is in a new movie with some "hot" scene then that movie can pay AskMen to create a top 10 sexiest moments gallery that includes their movie at #9 & then advertise that feature across the web.

A DIY site could show their readers how to build a garden wall. The products could be from a sponsor, link included. Editorial integrity could be maintained, as the DIY site need not push or recommend those products like an advertorial would, but the sponsor still gets the link. The equivalent of product placement in movies.

News items can feature product placement without necessarily endorsing them, link included - they already do this with syndicated press releases. Journalists often interview the local expert on a given topic, and this can include a link. If that news article is paid for by the link buyer, yet the link buyer doesn't have a say in editorial, then that deal will look attractive to publishers. Just a slightly different spin on "brought to you by our sponsor". Currently services like HARO & PR Leads help connect experts with journalists looking for story background. In the years to come perhaps there will be similar services where people pay the publications directly to be quoted.

I’m sure you can think of many other ideas. A lot of this isn’t new, it’s just a new, shiny badge on something that has been going on well before the web began. When it comes to SEO, the bar has been lifted on link building. Links from substandard content are less likely to pass Google’s filters, so SEOs need to think more about ways to get quality content integrated in a more seamless way. It takes more time, and it’s likely to be more costly, but this can be a good thing. It raises the bar on everyone else.

Those who don’t know the bar has been raised, or don’t put more effort in, will lose.

Low Level Of Compromise

Native Advertising is a new spin on an old practice, however it should be especially interesting to the SEO, as the SEO doesn't demand the publisher compromise editorial to a significant degree, as the publisher would have to do for pure advertorial. The SEO only requires they incorporate a link within a seamless, editorial-style piece.

If the SEO is paying for the piece to be written, that's going to look like a good deal to many publishers.

Published: March 21, 2013

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Comments

March 24, 2013 - 12:50pm

Google's continual reliance on links perpetuates the "black market" for links. If you can't get rank in Google from natural links (and 98 to 99% of websites can't, REGARDLESS of the quality of their products or services), then the black market will always exist. I don't even think links are a particularly good proxy to determine the quality of a product or service that a website sells either.

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