BuzzFeed is a popular website that aggregates viral content from around the web and produces a few original features in between. BuzzFeed focuses on social shares instead of search, and there’s some animosity between the site and Google, seemingly on both sides.

BuzzFeed runs advertorials with do-follow links and features a wealth of duplicate content — two things that run afoul of Google’s webmaster guidelines. What if BuzzFeed continually tests the rules because it doesn’t need Google at all?

BuzzFeedShun

BuzzFeed used to be a Reddit Digest of sorts with an occasional original news or features piece. Now it’s a cultural phenomenon. Sponsored stories, or advertorials, from Bravo, Taco Bell and Bud Light sit alongside viral videos and “image essays” like “Ronald Reagan’s 31 Most YOLO Moments.”

It’s a strange beast that has developed an entirely new content model but, judging from its success, it’s providing exactly what the ‘millennial’ demographic wants: an easily digestible version of viral videos, cute animal photos and assorted interesting tidbits that it aggregates from around the web (mostly Reddit).

BuzzFeed ruthlessly pursues shareable content, and has found itself at odds with writers, journalists, Reddit and Google itself in the process. Some question the ethics of BuzzFeed’s advertorials; choice of sponsors (the Charles Koch Institute in particular) and model of aggregated journalism. BuzzFeed has been speared by Portlandia (which it still seems to love) and The Onion (read that piece, it’s funnier than anything I’m going to write today), and has an entire website dedicated to satirizing it in FeedBuzz. That certifies BuzzFeed as a pop culture juggernaut.

And that juggernaut is speeding right toward an escalating conflict with Google. How do Google’s guidelines on duplicate content and paid links affect BuzzFeed? And, more importantly, does BuzzFeed care at all?

Advertorials and PageRank

BuzzFeed’s advertorial, or native advertising model, is nothing short of revolutionary. It puts ad content side-by-side with the site’s editorial work, and is written in a similar style. From a sheer ad/marketing perspective, they’re great ads — the content is just as compelling as the rest of the site, and relatively non-intrusive. The fact that they sit so equal with BuzzFeed’s editorial rubs some people the wrong way, however.

In a piece for Bullett, journalist and blogger Luke O’Neil writes:

“… “native advertising” [is] meant to play on the assumption that a harried reader will stumble into it like a wordy bear trap in the thicket. It’s a common practice in print that has been smuggled into the revenue-generating blueprints of popular sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed as well. In print, however, there’s often a different type-set, or even quality of paper used in the advertorials — on the web it’s a lot easier to fit the Trojan Horse through the gate.”

Similarly, Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish also questions BuzzFeed’s advertorial ethics.

But forget journalistic integrity — what does Google think? Paid links that pass PageRank are against Google’s webmaster guidelines, and in that regard the UK flower retailer Interflora was smacked down early this year for a massive campaign overflowing with paid do-follow links.

Google doesn’t take paid links lightly. Google’s head of Web Spam, Matt Cutts, recently released a video specifically outlining Google’s view on advertorials. He plainly states that the sponsored content needs to be clearly labeled as sponsored and that it cannot pass PageRank if it’s paid for.

Does BuzzFeed care about that? The easy answer is “sometimes.”

Mathew Ingram at Paid Content writes about BuzzFeed advertorials, along with BuzzFeed’s response to passing PageRank with paid links. He mentions that a certain advertorial for Sony’s PlayStation 4 features a do-follow link to a Sony contest, but that other posts contained no links at all. He also says:

“In a post on Twitter, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti said that all of the paid content that appears on the site goes through Google’s DART system (which is part of its Doubleclick advertising unit) and therefore doesn’t pass PageRank.”

No-follow and do-follow tags seem like they’re an afterthought with BuzzFeed sometimes, but sometimes they go on the straight and narrow or don’t include links at all. BuzzFeed does what it wants, regardless of Google guidelines.

Sidestepping Duplicate Content

BuzzFeed aggregates content from the web and fancies itself “The Viral Web In Real Time.” Aggregated content is often duplicate content, and Google’s webmaster guidelines mention strict rules about duplicate content:

“However, in some cases, content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic. Deceptive practices like this can result in a poor user experience, when a visitor sees substantially the same content repeated within a set of search results… Duplicate content on a site is not grounds for action on that site unless it appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and manipulate search engine results… However, if our review indicated that you engaged in deceptive practices and your site has been removed from our search results, review your site carefully.”

Most of BuzzFeed’s aggregated content comes in the form of images and videos — and it definitely gains search rankings.  Google looks for text when it’s sniffing out duplicate content, so BuzzFeed sometimes escapes penalties on a technicality. BuzzFeed often cites sources for those videos and images as well.

Let’s take a look back at that BuzzFeed Writer Resigns In Disgrace After Plagiarizing ’10 Llamas Who Wish They Were Models’ piece on The Onion — like always, there’s truth in satire. How long will it be before Google’s rolling Panda updates start to dig deeper and sniff out the similarities between llama photo essays?

There’s some evidence that BuzzFeed did get smacked by Panda. I saw a comment from Mark Pilatowski of PiloSEO on Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Land article titled ‘Sorry, BuzzFeed: Pinterest Isn’t A Better Search Engine Than Google’ that suggested BuzzFeed might have suffered Panda’s wrath. I sent Pilatowski an email with a few questions. He replied with:

“What I do know is that in 2011 one of my colleagues had recently begun working [for BuzzFeed] and he came to me asking about help with a significant drop in search volume across the site. They were aware that it was Panda and they were looking for some ideas on how to reverse the downward trend in search traffic. He explained that while search wasn’t a big part of their efforts they were seeing a drop and would like to figure out how to get some of that search traffic back. This was at a time when almost all of their content was aggregated from other sources so they were dealing with massive duplicate content issues. In the end I believe they were able to stem the tide enough to end the downward trend but it seems that it also solidified their focus on everything else but search. That seems to be the policy at this point. Search is there but they are not going to pay it much attention and focus on social and other sources that they are able to control and eliminate some of the issues inherent with aggregators in the search space.”

So a Panda penalty might not even be a big deal to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed makes highly shareable content, most of which is aggregated from other sites. It doesn’t rely on Google for those shares, as it follows the social model.

Luke O’Neil, whose Bullett piece I quoted earlier, is a journalist and blogger. He’s written for Vice, Slate, The Boston Globe and many other publications. I spoke to O’Neil about the BuzzFeed model of aggregated, viral content. O’Neil says:

“I’d like to think that, in a perfect world, being aware of how Google returns search results is something that a writer shouldn’t even ever think about. In the good old days, the reporter didn’t deal with that sort of thing – you weren’t writing your own headlines, you weren’t worrying about distribution of the magazine or paper, or designing the cover. Obviously that’s not the world we live in anymore, and it means more time spent as a marketer and less as a journalist or writer. I think work in general suffers for that. On the other hand, journalism and blogging are still two different things, and when I’m wearing my blogger hat I, like many of us, get a kick out of watching which posts go more viral than others.”

If BuzzFeed is eschewing SEO to some degree (a search for ‘baby Tasmanian Devils,’ a BuzzFeed search string if there ever was one, reveals they’re on the second page in Google’s SERPs for this piece), it’s because they’re relying much more on social shares. And the SEO results are still rolling in, for the time being.

O’Neil continues:

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting your work to reach a wide audience, but when that’s the primary motivator, as it is with most of what we think of as “BuzzFeed,” you end up with highly shareable shit. It may be the most popular piece of shit online, but it still stinks. Top 10 Pieces of Shit from the 2010s.”

BuzzFeed’s content is easy to share and digest, but in the traditional sense, it’s not quality content. Still, that model is working for BuzzFeed despite Google’s guidelines.

Taking on Google

But not all BuzzFeed content is aggregated llama lists. There’s also original reporting – and some of it takes a pretty big swing at Google, revealing some straight-up animosity between the two.

BuzzFeed’s John Herrman wrote a piece called ‘Why Google, Not Facebook, Knows Your Darkest Secrets‘ in late 2012. He writes:

“It’s Google, the social also-ran, that knows your real secrets. It knows the things you wouldn’t ask your friends. It knows things you can’t ask your spouse. It knows the things you haven’t asked your doctor yet. It knows things that you can’t ask anyone else and that might not have been asked at all before Google existed. Google’s servers are a repository of the developed world’s darkest and most heartbreaking secrets, a vast closet lined with millions of digital skeletons that, should they escape, would spare nobody.”

Keep in mind that this heady piece is settled among photo essays of Disney Princesses, ’90s nostalgia and Ryan Gosling GIFs, which makes its impact even more staggering.

Herrman goes on to say:

If anything, the rise of social networks has reinforced, by force of contrast, the perception of the search box as a safe place. This will be a significant part of what becomes of Google search. It’s disturbing, and almost completely valueless to advertisers, anonymous to all but Google and the user, yet tied directly to your above-ground Google life — your Gmail, your Google+, your Google Drive — in a voluntarily created account. It’s also, in its own sad, unmonetizable and sometimes beautiful way, incredibly important — a confessional booth, a digital back-alley doctor, an incidental diary, or a pillow to scream in. Google is no longer organizing the world’s public information; that’s doing an increasingly fine job of organizing itself. Google is keeping the world’s secrets.

Herrman points out some disturbing aspects of Google’s business practices, but notice how he also focuses on advertisers. There’s no question that BuzzFeed is valuable to advertisers — their sponsored content is likely some of the most clicked-on ad material on the web. So it’s not just disturbing, it’s also not profitable — concepts which are mentioned within the same paragraph, sitting at an equal balance.

BuzzFeed also recently posted a piece called ‘Pinterest Accidentally Built A Better Search Engine Than Google – another example of animosity between the viral content giant and the king of search.

BuzzFeed values social media in the form of audience participation, social shares and viral content. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the site values social more than it values search, especially because it’s such a “one-stop shop” for quick, easily-digestible content.

In fact, in a CNN interview (embedded here by Mediaite), former Politico writer and current BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said that BuzzFeed’s more social-focused model was a “great advance from SEO [which makes content producers] write the dumbest headlines possible so that the machines will like them.”

Building Its Own Empire

BuzzFeed continues to do everything its own way, including building a much larger base of advertisers and extending its brand even further. If it’s not meshing with Google, then it has to find another way to rake in some money.

SRDS sums up the venture nicely:

“BuzzFeed is launching its new Social Storytelling Creator Program, which trains agencies on how to create BuzzFeed-like branded content. Really it’s a way to teach interested advertisers on how to produce high-quality sponsored content (native advertising) that will ultimately appear on BuzzFeed.com.

Agencies that complete the program are “accredited” by BuzzFeed. They receive a badge to place on their website, gain access to a new analytics tool as well as other benefits… Once an agency completes the program, they can post stories directly to the BuzzFeed site, although BuzzFeed staffers will review the articles before they’re live.”

BuzzFeed is also including its own analytics reports in the deal. That’s a venture that makes advertisers and content producers want to become a part of the BuzzFeed empire. It’s something close to Cyber-Manifest Destiny.

The Next Big Example?

Google tends to make an example out of large companies who break its guidelines. It happened to JC Penney in 2011 and Interflora this year. Will BuzzFeed become the next “big example?”

If BuzzFeed becomes more careless with its advertorials and duplicate content, there’s a good chance it could be, especially after Cutts’ latest video on “sponsored content.” Google is clearly watching that space, and Matt Cutts noted that Google will be further addressing advertorials this summer.

But the real question is – will BuzzFeed care? It’s building an entirely separate empire that functions outside of normal search. It relies on social media, hugely profitable native advertising, aggregated content and a growing network of “certified storytellers.”

The advertising money is rolling in from its ad model, which is also roping in those “social storytellers” for even more money. BuzzFeed also has younger readers in its grasp, which allows the content aggregation giant to shun SEO practices in favor of social shares.

So even if BuzzFeed is Google’s next big target, will it be just a drop in the bucket? What use is Google search to a growing advertorial and viral content empire that values social shares over search?