Saturday, July 28, 2018

What Bloggers NEED To Know — Product Reviews & Taxes, Google Webmaster Guidelines, FTC Disclosures, and More

As a blogger, it's important that you know, understand, and abide by Google's Webmaster Guidelines, FTC Endorsement Guides, tax laws, and Amazon's Terms of Service.

Want to know if you're in violation of any guidelines? Answer yes or no to the following questions.

  1. Do you add the "rel=nofollow" attribute to all links on paid posts or product review posts?
  2. Do you claim the Fair Market Value (FMV) of all products you receive (in exchange for a review) on your taxes at the end of the year?
  3. Do you include an FTC disclosure at the top of every post that is sponsored or on product review posts?
  4. Do you review products on Amazon that you received for free, at a discounted rate, or were reimbursed for?

Question 1: If  you answered no, then you are in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

Question 2: If you answered no, then you are in violation of federal tax laws.

Question 3: If you answered no, then you are in violation of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Endorsement Guides.

Question 4: If you answered yes, then you are in violation of Amazon's Terms of Service.

If it sounds like a big deal, that's because it is.

Interestingly enough, you are probably not alone. Many bloggers — even the most seasoned — have no clue that they're in violation of these guidelines and terms. Unfortunately, ignorance is not a defense. It is your responsibility as a blogger or webmaster to know, understand, and abide by these guidelines and laws.

Before you freak out, rest assured that you can bring your blog or website "up to code," so to speak and hopefully remedy any Terms of Service violations.

Google's Webmaster Guidelines

Google has many different guidelines for blogs and websites. One of the most common guidelines that bloggers and webmasters violate are the "link scheme" guidelines. If you are in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines, including participating in link schemes, then you run the risk of having your blog or website banned from Google's index. In other words, your website will no longer appear in Google's Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). That means losing hundreds, if not thousands of visitors that rely on Google for searching the web — and we all know that Google reigns supreme.

So, are you participating in link schemes? Read on to find out more.

If the content is paid, whether by product, service, or with monetary compensation, the links should be "nofollow."

If a brand, company, or individual requests that you add do-follow links to a post that they paid for, then they are participating in "link buying" which Google considers a "link scheme." From Google:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
Some of those link schemes include "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."

In other words, if you are writing a product review, a paid sponsored post, or receiving any kind of compensation for the post, then the links need to be nofollow. You can add the nofollow attribute by including "rel='nofollow'" in your link code.

For example:

Do Follow <a href="">Freelance Lady</a>
No Follow <a href="" rel="nofollow">Freelance Lady</a>

All standard links start off as dofollow so you'll need to manually add the nofollow attribute to make it a nofollow link.

So, what the heck are nofollow and dofollow links and why should you care?

Well, let's get into that.

Dofollow links are links that Google "follows" or counts towards your PageRank (PR). The more dofollow links to your website from reputable sources, the higher your PR. The higher your PR means you'll appear higher in Google's SERPs (search engine results pages).

Think about it like this: You're a writer trying to make a name for herself. A few famous writers mention you and say, Hey, check this girl out! She's good! People assume that since reputable writers are recommending you, you must be a great writer, so they go out and buy your book. Dofollow links are essentially the same thing. If reputable websites are linking to you with dofollow links, you must be relevant to the results, so you'll have a higher preference in Google's SERPs.

It's like clout.

With that said, dofollow links are good. They're great for appearing higher in SERPs and of course, for the traffic. But all dofollow links should be organic. Receiving a product, service, or funds in exchange for dofollow links is manipulation of Google's SERPs and could lead to a potential ban of your website.

Nofollow links, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. Google does not follow these links, they do not count towards your PR, and they are not considered true backlinks.

So, what the heck is the point of nofollow links?

Well, long before the days of the nofollow link attribute, spammers used black hat methods to boost their SEO, increase their Page Rank and essentially fool Google by posting unnecessary, useless comments on blogs, websites, and discussion boards to get links to their website. Google caught on and in 2005, they created the "nofollow" attribute. This attribute is used on most forums and social media websites to avoid link manipulation.

The nofollow attribute helped reduce spamming quite a bit. Spammers are less likely to spam their link on a page if they know that it won't boost their rankings. Of course, spamming still happens and because people are still shady, they still look for ways to outsmart Google.

So, are nofollow links even worth it? Well, yes, actually. While they have no SEO value, it doesn't mean that you should completely write them off. Nofollow links are still great for referral traffic, which is just as important when you're trying to build a reputable brand. Google may not follow the links but guess who will? People. And people are the ones reading your blog!


FTC Disclosure Guidelines and Health Claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) occasionally scours the web to ensure that webmasters are not violating the disclosure guides or making unsubstantiated health claims.

If you're in violation of the FTC's Endorsement Guides, you could face enforcement actions of civil lawsuits.

Every post that is paid for, whether it be in exchange for money, a service, or a product, requires an FTC disclosure close to the claim or at the top of the post, before any links.

When it comes to medical claims, you cannot claim that it cures your ailments — this is an unsubstantiated medical claim and is illegal without solid proof, usually in the form of lab studies. You could, in theory, say that you noticed an apparent change, but you cannot say that it stopped, cured, prevented, etc. any diseases or physical ailments.

When it comes to medical posts, it's wise to include a disclaimer — something to the effect of:

Disclaimer: This post was created for informational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking because of what you're reading here.
If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by this post is solely at your own risk.

Products that your receive in exchange for product reviews need to be reported on your taxes.

Some people are bold enough to try and get one over on Google but not too many people want to mess with the IRS. I know I certainly never would.

With that said, it is important to know that products count as paid content because products are considered compensation. You should be claiming ALL products that you receive for review on your taxes as income.

They are taxable because you are engaging in a business exchange or barter. Barter is taxable. You are trading your review (your time) for a product.

How can this be? You might be asking. Well, as we all know, most products arrive with an expectation from the business or brand. Unless you're a well established blogger with an enormous following and social-media presence, PR companies are probably not sending you products without you first agreeing to a review. Not to mention, the PR company has your address and you likely agreed to receive the product in exchange for a review. That's the line separating random stuff delivered to your house versus an item provided for something in return (which is considered taxable income).

In short, receiving money, a product, or a service in exchange for a review on your blog is self-employment income and not a gift. You must claim the Fair Market Value (FMV) of the product, service, or money received. It is taxable income. Period.

It is against Amazon's TOS to review an item that you received for free or at a discount.

Amazon changed their Terms of Service about a year ago to remedy the barrage of "paid" reviews. Today, sellers can no longer request reviews if the product sent out is free or discounted. By having and using your Amazon account, you agree to abide by their terms. In their terms, they also state that you are not allowed to review products that you received with a discount code or for free. The only exception to this rule is books.

Why? Well, these reviews are considered "paid" and therefore, biased. If you're participating in these shady review practices, then Amazon can and will remove all reviewing privileges and possibly close your account. In fact, Amazon has closed many accounts recently because of this.

Some businesses are trying to get around this by offering to send funds via PayPal so that you can purchase the item yourself — so that it looks like a legitimate transaction. In other cases, they will offer to refund the money after you've made the purchase. This is NOT acceptable and any businesses participating in this practice should be banned from Amazon.

I would advise you not to participate in Amazon product review groups or even websites like Tomoson, where they allow companies to request Amazon reviews.

Just don't risk it.

Sometimes, Amazon sellers or other companies will try to convince you to review their product — essentially involving you in shady practices that could jeopardize your account.

Now that you know and understand some of the basic rules, laws, and guidelines, you're better equipped to deal with situations when a seller, individual, or company tries to convince you to use dofollow links or review their product without a disclosure.

You'd think that with Google being the number one search engine and Amazon being one of the top online shopping websites that people wouldn't risk it. You'd be wrong.

On a daily basis, people are constantly emailing me and asking me to share their posts on my blog for cash. When I outline my terms — that I always include an FTC disclosure that the post was sponsored or a product was provided and all links will be nofollow — people no longer want to work together.

Even worse, because I'm a top 10,000 reviewer, Amazon sellers are looking me up and contacting me asking me to review their product in exchange for a free product and in some cases, monetary compensation. As soon as I tell them that they're in violation of Amazon's Terms of Use by requesting a review for a free or discounted product, I hear crickets.

Some are a little more bold. Some will actually ask me to violate the guidelines! Here are some of the responses I've received:

So, I can't even get one dofollow link?
No, sir. If the content is paid, any links within the post must be given the nofollow attribute. This is per Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

We don't have to let anyone know that the link was paid for.
We pride ourselves on maintaining ethical standards on the blog, so I must respectfully decline your offer, Ma'am.

Why would I pay for a post that's not going to have dofollow links?
Sir, paying for dofollow links is against Google's Webmaster Guidelines — that means your site as well as mine could be penalized for participating in link schemes. Even with nofollow links, you will receive exposure to my audience and my social media channels where I amplify my blog posts.

I simply can't wrap my mind around how some people are willing risk their entire website and go against Google's Webmaster Guidelines just to increase their ratings. Some bloggers do it for the money, not realizing that they could lose their income stream by participating in such practices.

It's not hard to follow the rules, ladies and gents.


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