Google is dropping the hammer on paid content, which it defines as “advertorials or native advertising,” issuing forth a kind of edict that this kind of content shall have no effect on search results, and furthermore, if it’s not disclosed properly, even the publishers who support it may be barred from Google News.

When it comes to disclosure of paid content, Google is 100% correct. Native advertising should be clearly labeled as such so users know what they’re getting into. Anything less is tantamount to willful deception on the part of both the advertiser and publisher platform in question, and it’s a position we’ve similarly staked out. The idea that native advertising should also be clearly disclosed to search engines makes perfect sense as well, and Google’s instinct to protect users from advertising masquerading as content is laudable and right on target.

But it’s also possible that Google is overreacting to the native advertising craze, specifically in relation to why advertisers are getting involved in the production of content and its subsequent value to users.

In this piece on Google’s next steps on paid content, it’s interesting to note that Engineer Matt Cutts persistently invokes “advertorials or native advertising” in the same breath, as though the difference between the two is equivocal when in reality they’re not.

Not all paid content or native advertising is promotional in nature. It may seem antithetical to consider that a brand with very real business objectives could produce and promote actual content purely for the sake of giving consumers a pleasant or otherwise useful experience online, but it is happening all around us. Brands are increasingly legitimate publishers, with the likes of American Express, Red Bull and L’Oreal creating credible hubs of content, free of promotions and click-baiting, that educate or delight consumers as much as other publisher sites. We work with them every day. It seems unfair to group them with bad advertisers who churn out product-hawking advertorial.

With this latest move, Google seems to be suggesting that if a brand puts dollars behind promoting content, it must be doing so, at least in part, to dupe both users and search engines, following in the footsteps of the content farms of old. But what’s neat about the current content revolution is that, perhaps for the first time, brands really are getting it. They’re learning when to switch off the marketing cap and think like actual human beings, empathizing with consumers. They’re starting to understand the value of creating value with content, and that the minute they start to lie to users with the promise of content , when really they mean advertising, all the hard work they’ve been doing will go the way of the banner.

Should their content be clearly labeled as produced or otherwise backed by a brand? Absolutely, full disclosure should be part of every publisher’s guidelines. But let’s also give brands some credit. Overall, they’re doing a great job producing quality content. We see brands continuing to evolve into capable publishers on a daily business, and if Google is hesitant to work with them or reward their efforts, we certainly will, as long as they’re committed to delighting or educating consumers with actual content.

Image courtesy of shokari on Flickr