Our editor recounts a recent exchange with a watch company and asks if small watch bloggers are being ripped off by a big brand or are they the subject of some kind of SEO scam?
[I do not wish to come across as vindictive, and so I have removed the name of the watch brand]
Is This Watch Brand Ripping off Bloggers?
Let me introduce myself. My name is Mike and I am the editor of WRUK. Perhaps that’s a bit grand: other than the odd guest post, WRUK is a one-man effort. I buy or borrow the watches, make the videos, do the photography and send them back on again all by myself.
This is a small website, getting maybe 10,000 visitors per month and I make a small amount of money from affiliate links and Google ads. I never ask for payment to review a watch, other than reimbursement of my postage costs (which makes a loss, as I have to cover the PayPal fees!) and I am a self-employed writer so I pay tax on the small amount of income I receive. Each month, this blog makes enough money to cover the hosting costs and I can afford to fund the odd giveaway and hopefully pay the odd guest writer.
Every now and again an email pops into my inbox. The heading on this one read: “Paid Collaboration with Wristwatch Review UK”. Who can turn down the chance of a paid collaboration, eh?
The first thing I do is check for red flags. Is it watch-related? Yes. Is it a real company? I checked the link, yes, it looks to be a small watch company and the watches don’t look bad. A quick google reveals the brand’s been covered by some reviewers I trust – like A Blog To Watch and Just One More Watch – and a lot of smaller websites and YouTube channels, so it’s not unreasonable for them to contact a small player like me. The email reveals a Gmail address which is not unusual for smaller watch brands – I use one myself.
Finally, they mention there may be an administrative fee for the link – this is industry code for asking me to link to their website to boost their SEO. Usually, brands will want to either anchor to some existing text within the page or add a short paragraph. I always make sure that advertising is labelled as such, and so it would appear as a “box out” within the article.
I applied my editorial judgement – it’s not a review, and it is already got ads on it, so it would not affect the integrity of the site, I make a few pounds to support the site, and it puts me in touch with a brand that might lend me a watch to review so it’s a win/win. I responded: let’s see what they are proposing.
The following day I got a reply:
They want that link into my page. Sounds fair. It’s not a direct link to a product and it is not a spurious link – in fact, it’s a pretty decent article about watch movements that will be of value to my readers. They say again they’re ready to pay a fee. I wonder how much they are thinking? I usually get offered between $25-$50 for an advertisement.
Look, I was so excited about the prospect of making some cash I couldn’t even spell “How” properly!
$50. That’s about £35. You’d take £35 to add a relevant link to a two-year-old article on your blog, wouldn’t you? Anyway, I’ve made an invitation to treat, they have made an offer…
…and I’ve accepted. Under English civil law, that’s a contract. I add the link, they pay me $50. What can possibly go wrong? Let’s sort the details. They are paying good money so if they want me to adjust the article then I’m happy to do so.
And there we have it, a nice clear advertising link. I delve into the backend of the site and make the relevant changes. They want a prompt response and are ready for my PayPal details. This is going very smoothly.
I wonder if it meets their requirements?
It does! So that is the contract completed. I wonder if they want that further collaboration now we’ve done business together?
That’s my standard review terms: a week’s loan of a review sample watch and they cover postage both ways. WRUK does not and will never charge or demand free watches for review.
Right. Let’s wait for the money to roll in then. Usually, I get paid by brands within a day or two. The watch world is a trustworthy place and bloggers talk amongst each other. If a watch brand were to be slow to pay or difficult we would soon all know about it. Five days go by…
This happens occasionally. I’ve been a freelancer since 2016 and payment can be delayed. But they did ask me to do the work promptly, right? Maybe they need an invoice. They usually say if they want an invoice but I deal with a lot of one-man bands.
That was July 22nd. I finally get contacted on July 27th…
Wait, what?! Confirmation that we have a deal and that I am, expecting payment but you weren’t able to get my link and payment approved? You won’t be able to provide me payment? Is that how contract law works in the USA? Can you go to Wal-Mart, load up your basket with goods and then refuse to pay?
I spoke to some friends to see what was going on. It was suggested that maybe the brand paid a third party to get links. But “Maria” introduced herself as the brand’s Partnership Manager and has been using “we” and “I” up until now. I was given an email address for the brand’s owner and so I dropped her a line.
Maybe the brand has been conned? Maybe the brand has gone bust? Maybe there is a subsection of the internet I am not aware of, where people offer watch bloggers money to link to a site to which they have no connection? I can think of quicker ways to make money, but, let’s see what the brand owner has to say. Maybe she would distance herself from the person I’ve been speaking to or clarify that it is all a misunderstanding? I sent her the full chain of emails above, and I got an email response within minutes:
And there you go. No contrition, no clarity, no apology. They don’t want that link. The link they initiated, specified, wrote and offered to pay for. The link that has now been live on my site feeding them with “Google juice” for the last ten days.
Are Watch Brands Ripping Off Watch Bloggers?
So, what’s going on here? Is the watch brand dishonest? Are the brand getting search engine optimisation by asking for sponsored links and not paying for them?
I shared my story with some friends including Rikki from Scottish Watches (do subscribe to the podcast!) to spread the word amongst the watch blogging community to see if anyone else had been a victim. Surely the bad publicity is not worth defaulting on a $50 debt? Remember, we are only talking about £35 here. Too small an amount to justify taking court action but also pocket change for a biggish company. So what does this mean?
I have a few ideas of what might be going on:
- A company could have a business model whereby they get links from websites, and hope that they have been indexed on Google and gained search position before the bloggers realise they’ve not been paid. Some bloggers might not bother chasing such a small sum and might even leave the link live.
- Maybe the company employs people to get backlinks for them, empowering them to use their brand name, and picks and chooses which links they like and which they don’t, thinking that you can refuse to pay after a service has been delivered and one side of a contract is fulfilled?
- Perhaps the company was scammed and “Maria” is not representing them at all but trying to blackmail them into paying for links that have already been put in place – they might be another victim in all of this (although they were given, and did not take, the opportunity to clarify this).
Did I Get Scammed by a Watch Brand?
At the end of the day, what conclusions can we draw? Am I too trusting? Did I get scammed? Did the watch brand get scammed by their Partnership Manager? I will leave that for you to decide.
[Update 29th July 2020 – I have been contacted by the brand in question, offering to pay the $50 that is owed, whether or not the link remains on the page. I have advised them I do not want the money and to give it to charity]