Native Should Be Concerned About Google More Than The ASA

The ASA's action against the BuzzFeed listicle from Dylon Colour Catcher has caused a lot of questioning among those engaged in native advertising. Much of the concern has centred on whether the ASA is being too stringent for its own good. An article in Marketing today asks the question on everyone's mind: has the ASA swung the pendulum too far in favour of protecting consumers online? Or as perhaps the hidden tabloid writer in me would say, are we risking native being regulated by a nanny state?

I think it's the wrong question for native advertisers not because it may not have some merit, but more because there's a bigger pressing concern this month -- Google.

OK-- so the ASA can occasionally seem the perennial "naysayers" when it comes to anything near the edges of what they say is permissible. I know people who make car ads who are shocked at what the ASA will not allow. If you're wondering why you're not seeing any interesting tv ads for cars, and they're all generally based around safe characters driving way under the speed limit, it's all the ASA's work. Creative people are now put off even risking showing what a car can do, even if clearly labelled as the driver being a pro on a closed off road or non-public area.

The ASA ruling appears to be that the BuzzFeed article wasn't sufficiently clearly labelled as promoted. People on the site may have realised that a small logo meant the article was promoted -- but crucially, given how BuzzFeed gets so many readers, those on social would not have been forewarned that it was promoted. If there's a lesson here for anyone, this is it. Native has to be labelled as promoted material from whatever channel the reader is coming through. To be honest, that seems fair enough.

While this is a key learning for the week, the overriding issue isn't whether the ASA is being too much a nanny when protecting readers from advertorial. To me, it's Google algorithm tweak. I blogged about this earlier in the week and the response in social was immense. My theory is that the reason so many big-name publishers in the US have dropped down natural search rankings just may be due to untagged native advertising. The experts looking at the sites which have suffered, including Time and Vanity Fair, among others, have noticed a lot of "brand-related" articles on the sites worst hit.

If this is the reason for the apparent demotion, there are a couple of factors that could come in to play, but both would bring into question whether "no follow" tags have been added to links reaching out to brand sites. On the one hand, Google may suspect affected sites of carrying links for advertisers the magazines want to cosy up to in editorial. On the other, this could be through native advertising, where even though a commercial relationship is acknowledged, links to the paying brand do not feature a "no follow" tag.

In other words, the publishers may have performed their duty in telling the reader an article is promoted, but they may have neglected to inform Google. It could, of course, be a combination of the two. My money is more no the native side, though, because responsible publishers have launched sections of their Web sites which give a clue in the url that they are sponsored and they will have presumably included a prominent disclosure that an article is promoted or is an "advertisement feature." That's a very clear steer to Google that if a link doesn't have a 'no follow' piece of code in a link, it's breaking the rules.

I've spoken to a couple of friends at agencies who suspect there just might be something in this. While "no follow" tags are commonly used by responsible brands and agencies, the experts I have talked to -- like myself -- wonder whether staff used to working on editorial, who are now likely to cover native as well, are even aware of "no follow" tags and how they must be applied to any link that has been earned through a commercial relationship.

Native got two lessons this week, or least I think they did. The ASA ruling is very clear guidance that they must add "promoted" acknowledgements on all channels, not just the home page of the site their content is listed on. That one is in the bank as a definite lesson. The second is a reminder that you have to tell Google as well as the reader that native is being paid for by a brand and so links back to the person paying the bill must not be counted by Google as a sign of natural popularity.

If I were in native right now, I'd call a meeting and ram home the ASA ruling for social channels to content. I'd also start the education process around "no follow" and give some poor soul the task of going back and adding tags to all advertorial. From what experts are saying, the Google tweak appears to have only affected the US at the moment, but you can bet it's coming to a market near you very soon. You have been warned.

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