In the previous posts in this series, I wrote about how bloggers make money through advertising and affiliate links, so in the final instalment (Because yay, it’s almost over! Only another 3,000 words to go!) I’m going to tackle the thorny issue of sponsored posts and product gifting.
I say “thorny”: these are two really popular ways for bloggers to make money from their blogs, but they can be really UNpopular with readers – and with search engines, as I’ll discuss shortly. First, though, because these two methods of monetisation are pretty similar (and often completely overlap), a quick explanation of what they actually ARE, and how they differ from each other. So!
Sponsored posts explained
SPONSORED POSTS are, as I’m sure you already know, posts which brands pay a blogger to write and publish. The brand will normally provide the blogger with some kind of brief for the post, which can range from very detailed and specific to incredibly vague, but which will generally include things like the links they want to include, the timescale they expect the post to be published by, and sometimes a specific topic for the post. They may or may not also provide an item of clothing or other product which they want the blogger to feature in the post, and they’ll normally expect it to be promoted on social media, too.
Sponsored posts have long been popular with bloggers, because they can be highly profitable: what you earn from them will differ from brand to brand, and from blogger to blogger (If you have a huge amount of traffic/followers, you can expect to charge more than someone with a much smaller blog), but some brands are willing to pay quite a lot of money to appear on the blogs of their choice, so it can be a good way for a blogger to earn money without selling traditional advertising.
The problem with sponsored posts, of course, is that readers almost universally hate them. Don’t get me wrong: not all readers are vocal about their hatred of sponsored posts, and many are willing to tolerate them, on the understanding that bloggers need to make money somehow, but I don’t think there can be many people out there who say, “Oh, great, another sponsored post: those are my favourite!”
Part of the issue is simply that posts which the blogger has been paid to write can seem unauthentic to the reader: they don’t feel they can trust them, and see their appearance as evidence of the blogger “selling out”. Other times, sponsored posts can be problematic because they seem totally out of place on the blog: they might be on a subject the blogger hasn’t previously shown any interest in (but is now claiming to be ALL ABOUT), or the brand’s requirements regarding the way they’re written might make them totally different to read from the rest of the content, which is off-putting.
Whatever the reason someone has for disliking sponsored posts, the fact is that they are generally disliked by readers, and they’re positively HATED by search engines… as I’ll get onto in a minute, I promise. First, though..
In this scenario, rather than paying for the post itself, brands will simply “gift” the blogger a product in the hope that they’ll write about it. By which I mean, “they totally expect you to write about it: there is no “hope” about it”. They might not actually come right out say it, but there is most definitely an expectation that if a blogger has accepted a product, they WILL write about it – this is the infamous “c/o” (or “courtesy of”) you sometimes see in posts, when bloggers list where their clothing came from.
So, how does this make money for the blogger, I hear you ask?
Well, up until fairly recently, it didn’t, really. I can only speak for myself here (although I know a lot of other bloggers who are in exactly the same boat), but until earlier this year, product gifting was a nice perk of blogging, in that it enabled me to get the occasional free dress or whatever, but it wasn’t anything more than that. If a brand offered to send me something to wear, I’d accept it (IF I liked it, obviously) and I would always, always blog about it, but it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to ask them to ALSO pay me to feature it on my blog. I mean, cheeky or what?!
Over the last year or so, though, blogging has changed, and the nature of product gifting has changed, too. There has always been an expectation that bloggers will write about the items they’re gifted, but until recently, it was mostly an unspoken assumption: the brand sending the item would generally leave it up to the blogger to decide how and when they would feature it, and wouldn’t make any “demands” about it – because then it wouldn’t be a “gift”, would it?
These days, though, instead of simply saying, “Hey, how about we send you a dress, and if you like it, you can write about it?”, brands are now more likely to say something more along the lines of, “We’ll send you a dress: in return, we want you to style it three different ways – all of which must be appropriate for someone attending The Oscars – provide a list of your “top tips” for Oscars-attendees, include a paragraph promoting this contest we’re running – complete with these exact links – and promote us on all of your social media accounts. And we need you to do it by Friday.”
Now, this is obviously quite different from the scenario outlined above, and is the point at which “product gifting” basically becomes indistinguishable from the sponsored posts I discussed above. For that reason, many bloggers have started to charge for this kind of post, too (Catherine at Not Dressed as Lamb wrote an excellent post about this a few months ago, and followed up on it with some reactions from other bloggers: her posts are well worth a read.). I personally don’t charge for all of the posts I write featuring gifted items (and I don’t ever charge for reviews), but I do charge for ones in which the brand has specific requirements for the post, or expects me to work to a deadline, etc: to my mind, that’s no longer a “gift”, but an advertisement*, and my personal feeling is that advertising should be paid for, regardless of whether an item of clothing is provided as part of the deal or not. After all, if you’re being given a “free” dress, but you’re expected to work for it, that’s not actually “free” at all, is it?
(* Really, ALL posts promoting a brand are “advertising”. Some, however, are much more work than others, and it’s up to each blogger to decide where they draw the line – or if there even is one.)
So! That’s how bloggers make money from sponsored posts and product gifting. But! There is one major drawback to all of this, and that drawback is the almighty Google.
Why Google hates sponsored posts
As I mentioned above, Google hates sponsored posts – and makes no distinction between traditional sponsorship and “gifting”, viewing both as scenarios in which the blogger is essentially “bribed” to write about a brand. To understand WHY Google hates sponsored posts so much, you have to understand why brands pay bloggers to write sponsored posts in the first place. There are basically two reasons for this:
1. In order to sell products – the brand hopes that when the blogger writes about them, and links to them, the blogger’s readers will click through and buy something.
2. In order to improve their search engine rankings.
Point one is pretty self-explanatory. In order to understand point two, you need to know that one of the factors search engines like Google take into account when deciding how to rank websites, is how many links each site has pointing to it, and what the anchor text on that link says. (The “anchor text” is the words you click on to open the link.) So, in theory (and I’m greatly simplifying this), if I want my blog to rank highly in Google for the search term “green midi dress”, the more people who link to me using the words “green midi dress”, the more likely I’ll be to appear in Google’s search results for that term. So, brands pay bloggers to write about them, using specific anchor text: and Google sees that as an attempt to manipulate their search results (Which it is: they want the sites that are most relevant to rank highest, not the ones with the deepest pockets…), and it penalises the brand AND the blogger.
Yes, Google can and might penalise your blog if you accept money (or products) in exchange for writing about a brand: they do it by bumping your blog down the search engine results, or even removing it from the Google index altogether. (One of the best known examples of this was when Interflora managed to get themselves completely banned from Google for placing paid links: whoops!) Obviously, this can be catastrophic for any online business, blogs included: so does this mean that you can’t ever write sponsored posts?
How to accept sponsored posts without upsetting Google
Don’t worry: you CAN still write sponsored posts (or accept gifted items) without getting yourself banned from Google. The way to do it is to simply add the “nofollow” tag to the links within the post. Now, I’m not going to write a tutorial on how to nofollow your links (Because Google have already written one, which you can find here), but basically the “nofollow” tag is a way of saying to Google, “Hey, don’t bother taking this link into account when you’re working out how you’ll rank the site I’m linking to.” By doing this, you can accept sponsored posts and gifted items, without waking up one morning to find yourself on the Google Blacklist.
The downside to this? Well, nofollow is all well and good IF the brand who’s sponsoring you is doing it for reason number 1: to sell products. The problem is that a huge number of brands do it for reason number 2 – to improve their search engine ranking – and a nofollow link is no use to them whatsoever in that respect. (This is why some bloggers don’t disclose sponsored posts or freebies: so that Google doesn’t know the post was sponsored, and therefore doesn’t penalise them for it.)
For that reason, it’s becoming harder and harder for bloggers to make money from sponsored posts. (Which is good news for readers, I guess.) Personally, I only accept sponsored posts or gifted items from brands who are happy to get a “nofollow” link. There are still some of them around, and they’re great to work with, because they understand how the internet works: they’re interested in building a relationship with the bloggers they work with, and they’re not going to ask you to do anything that will get either of you in trouble.
For every brand who’s happy to sponsor my blog on this basis, however, there are many, many more who lose interest as soon as I tell them I’ll be disclosing the sponsorship and nofollowing the links. (Some even specifically ask me NOT to do these things: those brands aren’t ones I’ll ever work with.) And that’s why, as I’ve said in my other posts in this series, if you want to make money from blogging, it’s a good idea to use a few different methods of monetisation, so that if one stops being effective, you don’t completely lose your income.
And so ends this series on how bloggers make money! I hope you enjoyed it, or at least found it interesting to find out how the business side of blogging actually works. As always, if you have questions, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!