There’s a trend in the freelance writing and content marketing communities that could be problematic for you if you jump on board. I take particular interest in this trend because it’s often perpetrated by supposed PR professionals (of which I’m one), while what they’re peddling has nothing to do with legitimate PR.

Here’s what business owners, in similar positions to you, are asking freelance writers to do:

  • The writer is to draft an article related to the client’s business. (There’s nothing wrong with this part.)
  • The writer is expected to include one or more links — generally “dofollow” links — to the client’s website. (This is sketchy depending on the circumstances, which we’ll get to below.)
  • The writer is also expected to “place” this content on third party websites they already have established publishing relationships with. (This is a huge problem that can ruin a freelancer’s career, but it also puts your own reputation at risk.)

The Issue of Backlinks

I mentioned asking your freelance writers to include dofollow links in their articles can be a problem. Now, if those articles are on your own website, or going on your own social media profiles, there’s nothing wrong with this.

The problem is when you require them to publish that content elsewhere with your links (their website, their social media accounts, or third party sites they have separate relationships with).

This isn’t always bad. But for this to be ethical (and following FTC guidelines if you, the writer, or the site involved is based in the U.S.), those articles would need to:

  • Feature clear and conspicuous disclosure of the writer’s paid relationship with you (“clear and conspicuous” means it can’t be stuck at the bottom of an article, in a sidebar, or anywhere else that wouldn’t make it clear as soon as a reader sees that link);
  • Make the links “nofollow” if the writer’s being paid in any way for this content with links as a requirement (otherwise you risk being penalized by Google for buying dofollow links to manipulate your search engine rankings).
  • The other website involved would need to be aware of the arrangement.

The Issue of Ethics

When I see these gigs advertised, the problems are two-fold:

  • They always seem to want to sneak the links in (dofollow links with no disclosure).
  • They don’t want the writer mentioning it to the sites they’re publishing on (these often include well-known sites like Forbes.com and HuffingtonPost.com).

There’s no way around this. If you do either of these things when you hire a freelance writer, it’s unethical. And any freelancer who would willingly do this for you is both unprofessional and putting your company at risk.

The Consequences

If you took part in one of these “freelance writing” link-building schemes, what could go wrong? Quite a lot.

  • If Google finds out you’re paying for links to manipulate rankings, you could end up with SEO penalties that hurt the rankings you were trying to build in the first place.
  • If you fail to disclose paid relationships for those links, recommendations, or reviews in articles, you could run up against the Federal Trade Commission for violating those FTC guidelines.
  • If the site that got exploited in this scheme finds out, it could cause the freelance writer to lose their relationship with that company, and it could cause irreparable damage to your reputation and get you blacklisted from any legitimate coverage and links in those media outlets in the future.

Don’t think the last will happen? I can tell you for a fact these media outlets are not only aware of this scheme, but they’re actively looking out for suspicious placements.

I have colleagues who have been told as much by the large sites they write for. One was caught up doing this without realizing what was wrong and she lost a long-time gig. And another freelancer I know did other work for a client who was guilty of this (she wasn’t even involved in their link placement on the site). And it cost her that relationship simply for being professionally associated with a company engaging in these kinds of unethical practices.

It happens. And you will eventually get caught.

So please. Don’t do this. As a PR professional, it blows me away that people don’t see the obvious reputational risks involved. I would hate to see you get caught up having to clean up a mess you might not fully recover from. And as a freelance writer, I have professional standards of my own that would never allow me to take on a gig like this.

When it comes to your relationship with your freelance writer, it’s important to pay attention to their ethical lines — not just your own. If they make promises to place content somewhere, make sure they’re not willing to engage in a conflict of interest. If they’d screw over one client, why wouldn’t they do the same to you? After all, you wouldn’t want them getting paid to place links in content on your site for another client without your knowledge.

Looking for an ethical freelance business writer to assist with your blogging or content marketing? Between my business writing and public relations experience, I can help you come up with a plan to improve your visibility, backlinks, and reputation in ways that are both effective and ethical. Get in touch, and I’ll let you know how I can help.

Jennifer Mattern
Jennifer Mattern is a freelance blogger and business writer specializing in helping small businesses and independent and creative professionals. In addition to writing for others for 19 years and having 16 years experience in PR and online marketing, Jenn has been blogging for 14 years and runs several blogs of her own includingAll Freelance Writing, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.
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