Guardian Sport Network, Bloggers and Google

Anyone who follows football bloggers on Twitter will no doubt have seen in recent days a lengthy debate about the introduction of the Guardian Sport Network.  For those who haven’t, the GSN syndicates content from a collection of writers on its own Sport Blog, the idea being content for the Guardian and exposure for the bloggers.

But there’s a problem. These writers aren’t being paid for the use of their work and to many this is a very contentious issue. There aren’t many people who are willing to work for free yet within journalism it is rife, with people expected to work for free for months or even years as part of getting on the ladder.

Actually, there are two problems. As well as the paid/unpaid argument which has attracted plenty of attention, the manner in which this scheme works directly threatens the well being of these writer’s own websites.

The other problem with the Guardian Sport Network

In my day job I work in SEO and I’ve hand-coded websites, including this one, so I know plenty about how these things work. SEO used to be seen as a grubby exercise in spamming the internet, but Google is rapidly forcing the industry to adjust its focus – content is now king which is as it should be. One of Google’s tactics is a full-frontal assault on content duplication and it is this area where the Guardian Sport Network is going to cause problems which most people won’t be aware of.

Whilst there is no getting away from the fact that syndication is also duplication, there are ways of directing search engines to another page, even on another site, as an original version. Unfortunately, the Guardian Sport Network does the opposite, indicating to search engines that it is the original – you can tell this from the source code if you know where to look. This is a standard method which most large sites use to handle their internal site structure, so this isn’t something the Guardian has implemented especially for the sport network – it just uses what was already there.

However, the consequences of duplicating content en-masse can be very severe:

  • Massive loss of search engine rankings;
  • Massive loss of search engine traffic;
  • Devaluation of links out from the affected site (who else do football bloggers link to if not each other?);
  • A long struggle to recover from the damage.

This is far less of a problem for the Guardian than it is for a small, independent blog because Google places value in what it calls “trust factors” – as an official media outlet the Guardian is viewed as a trusted site. Given that the Guardian Sport Network indicates itself to search engines as the original source, it’s highly possible that the writer’s site will be flagged as a duplicate – essentially as a plagiarist. Scary.

A brief Google experiment

Let’s conduct an experiment.  This is a post on SportsScientists.com and this is the same (slightly edited) post on the Guardian Sports Network, republished a few days later. Virtually identical. Now let’s try to find this content in Google – we’ll select a snippet from the article and search for it. This is the snippet in question:

Snippet of content from the Guardian Sport Network

And here’s the result in Google, with the part in bold being the snippet we have searched for:

The Guardian Sport Network and Sports Scientists in Google's search results

The Guardian’s version of this post comes out on top, with Sports Scientists only 3rd – even after only a few days, Google has prioritised the Guardian above Sports Scientists. Another aspect of this is the appearance of other duplicated versions – as a major news source, much of the Guardian’s content is scraped automatically and republished on other sites of dubious repute. What’s to tell Google that Sports Scientists don’t fall under this banner? Frankly, not much.

Whilst publishing the content on the GSN with a link back will bring in some traffic, it will only be for a short-term period. To keep the flow coming, bloggers are going to need to keep churning out the content for syndication and for no money in return. This traffic might outweigh search engine traffic now, but what happens when the GSN relationship ends? Search engine traffic is something which can grow to very significant levels given time and the right kind of effort – publishing reams of duplicated content is not the way to achieve this.

My advice to bloggers would be to steer clear of the Guardian Sports Network, and to keep a very close eye on search engine traffic if you’ve already signed up.

About Mark Chalcraft

A long time follower of non-League football, Mark also takes an interest in the murky antics at the top of the pyramid & in the infamous FIFA House.

  • http://twitter.com/ystbah Rhys Wynne

    Completely agree with you. However as an SEO I believe there is a risk/reward for the bloggers involved.

    For creative writing and opinion pieces (which is largely what the GSN is), you’re not going to get that much search traffic for phrases hitting your site.With the GSN you are getting people interesting in football writing and opinion pieces reading your work in the GSN, as opposed to semi interested people reading your work (which is what Google would bring).

    Regarding the monetization that is (not) received by the writer, it’s an interesting thought. I believe they should get some form of renumeration, particularly if pieces are comissioned by the Guardian. However it’s a difficult model to track as the paper doesn’t have any form of display advertising that could be tracked to individual authors/pieces.

    • http://2ndyellow.com 2nd Yellow

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      For me, the problem isn’t so much one of traffic from specific phrases within a post, its the overall effect being flagged as duplicate will have. And it will be cumulative, the more they syndicate the worse it will get. Some of the big name sites which have been worst hit since Google introduced its new measures have lost up to 90% of their traffic (admittedly, there were other issues with those sites other than duplication).As a point of interest, most of the traffic to this site comes from Google, so I would take issue with you on that to an extent.

  • https://playforcountrynotforself.blogspot.com Steffi Wes PFCNFS Cricket

    Hello Mark, really enjoyed this article. Thanks for bringing this topic up. From what I can tell, not many sports bloggers are aware of the dangers that come with duplicate content. I have submitted some of my best posts to other websites as well, and only realised later that this might have been a big mistake. Lesson learnt from it: guest posts should be unique. Now the question is, which ways do there exist for a blogger to identify the version on his/her own blog or website as the original?

    • http://2ndyellow.com 2nd Yellow

      Thanks Wes. Without going too far into the technical ins and outs, there is a great WordPress plugin which I recommend for any blogger on that platform – http://yoast.com/wordpress/seo/ - This takes care of that side of things as well as generally optimising the site.  There’s a good guide for getting it set up correctly here:

      http://www.wpbeginner.com/plugins/how-to-install-and-setup-wordpress-seo-plugin-by-yoast/

      This won’t stop content being pinched by bots and scrapers, but running the same test as I did for the post will pick those up, and it’s then a case of contacting or reporting the offenders if necessary.

      • https://playforcountrynotforself.blogspot.com Steffi Wes PFCNFS Cricket

        Thanks Mark, I have heard about Yoast, do you also have any tips for Blogspot users?

        • http://2ndyellow.com 2nd Yellow

          Other than switch to WordPress?! I’ve never used Blogspot to be honest.

  • Matthew

    Mark:

    Interesting piece here and some very fair arguments.

    TSG (www.theshinguardian.com) is a member of the Guardian Sports Network. Two things make us unique *probably from some of the blogs participating: 1) we are a free collective right now and 2) we are Stateside-based.

    That said, the Guardian–and we have no vested interest here–was very professional about approaching and explaining to blogs the opportunity. In short, we were aware of how and when our content was being used.

    Secondly though, while we do gain a decent amount of traffic from SEO daily & currently, I think going forward social sharing with continue to have a larger and larger role in content distribution.
    It’s typically a social sharing site that leads our visitor count each day–our content is fresh and relevant and less likely for someone to reach by combing through search results.

    By being on the Guardian, TSG (again, perhaps uniquely) is opening up our content to both a new overseas audience, but also to those that will participate in the community a little more. We’ve had quite a number of people that have read multiple pieces after our pieces or links appear within the network.

    As well–and this is perhaps different in the States–there is no brand in the States that truly cultivates a strong soccer publishing ethos as the Guardian does. We wanted to be a part of one that was progressive.

    Happy to take questions and again your piece certainly has merit.
    Matthew
    The Shin Guardian

    • https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/118234180262070949849/118234180262070949849 Mark Chalcraft

      Thanks Matthew, interesting perspective.

      There are three things I would say on this:

      1) The pros and cons are likely different for every site. Some will barely be affected at all, indeed one of the GSN sites chooses not to be listed in Google anyway.

      2) I agree with you on social sharing, it is increasingly important. Certain aspects are also ranking factors in Google’s algorithm, which shows they also understand its importance.

      3) Freshness and relevance are perfect for SEO. If targeted correctly it’s possible to rank very highly very quickly for news related articles. My recent article about Carlos Tevez refusing to play brought in good levels of traffic from Google simply because I published so quickly after the event.

      • Shinguardian

        Mark,

        Nice chatting and it was good read perspective on someone evaluating GSN. We don’t get much on it in terms of coverage over here.

        Interested to hear more on sports SEO. As a note, see the third change down here. Google seems to be addressing that dupicate problem: http://searchengineland.com/google-parked-domains-scraper-sites-targeted-amongsearch-changes-103302

        For us — our content will run on our site at least a half day ahead of the Guardian and we get indexed about every 15 minutes.

        Thanks for replying as well — best!