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Are PR Firms Buying the A-List?

Todd Cochrane has an interesting post up over at Geek News Central today about a new SEO gaming techique which is evidently the new playground of tech bloggers.  Based on his description, it seems that the game is played this way:

  1. Advance PR releases go to mainstream bloggers.
  2. These same bloggers write reviews of new site or feature and begin building buzz
  3. These same bloggers are paid to place specific links into their posts
  4. The A-List post hits Techmeme, others link to it, and the result is a lot of strong Google Juice for the site or service looking for the links.

Frankly, this post surprised me.  A lot.  I’m thinking now about the A-List tech bloggers that I read regularly and how adamant they all were that they would nevernevernevernever place paid links in their posts, that doing such a thing, particularly without disclosure, was something only whores would do, and in particular, whores that write for PayPerPost.

I wrote for PayPerPost.  I don’t any more but it has absolutely nothing to do with PayPerPost.  I have other restrictions that keep me from writing for them but frankly, if I could I still would, particularly with some of the great stuff they have going on right now (particularly in the entertainment and tech areas).  From day one I always voluntarily disclosed my paid links and the way PPP is structured now, disclosure is a requirement, not an option.

Here’s what Todd says about it:

But I do know it includes mainstream “A” list bloggers in their “specific” categories who are paid to link to specific sites. While this is not new per se, some of the other things he hinted at (such as how the linking was done), were unique, in at least that I have not heard of the practice before.*

So what gives?  Is Techcrunch being paid for links?  MashableRead/Write/Web?  Without disclosure?  Seriously, I can’t imagine that it’s as straightforward as it’s outlined above.  At the same time, there’s no question in my mind that Techmeme is reshaping the way tech bloggers choose topics and write about them.  If you’re a tech blogger looking for a name and recognition, the path to that end is to watch Techmeme and write about whatever is at the top.  Of course, it helps to write something intelligent, but I’ve certainly seen more than a few blog posts that are basically nothing more than a quote and  a link back to the A-lister at the top. 

The more subtle way to pay bloggers for links would be to release the advance PR with a promise for an ad buy on the blogger’s site after the posts (and the site, features, release, whatever) goes live.  I wouldn’t be surprised nor bothered by that.  But I will be seriously annoyed to have taken all of the flack that flew around last year about writing for PayPerPost (not to mention the rotten treatment of Ted Murphy and a lot of the bloggers that I really like and read regularly, like Colleen over at Geeky Speaky)  only to discover that all of the righteousness over it was nothing more than hypocritical turf defense.

Todd’s solution to the Google gaming is to stop using Techmeme and go back to reading a lot of different blogs.  I think there’s value in both.  Blogher editors, for example, write about hot topics across a gamut of areas, from mommy blogs to food blogs, to non-profit blogs to political blogs to life-in-general blogs.  They have a policy of linking out to many of their affiliated bloggers, no matter what their page rank or visibility factor.  That makes Blogher one of my first stops when I read feeds.  I have 300 or so individual RSS feeds that I read every day on a gamut of topics — from education to health to politics to tech.  There are some A-Listers on there and many others who aren’t, but whose opinion I respect.  I think mixing both is a way to come up with a pretty whole picture of whatever is happening with bloggers.

More fundamentally, though, what happened to all of the righteous posturing about paid linking and disclosure?  Isn’t a paid link a paid link, no matter how it’s placed?

Update: Mashable’s Pete Cashmore responds with an emphatic “No!” and goes a bit further, saying “accepting cash for posts without disclosure would destroy your reputation and therefore your revenues. There is nobody who would take the bait.” I’m glad to hear it, since Mashable is my first stop for news on new web stuff since I unsubscribed from Techcrunch a year or so ago.

*From the time I first published this post, Todd made some edits that caused my original quote to be inconsistent — I’ve re-quoted the current post word-for-word

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