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The end of sponsored posts?

Like them or loathe them and whether you've been approached to do them or just seen them on other blogs, sponsored posts have become a part of blogging life.  Once you've built a corner of the interweb that people come to because they consider you an expert or someone they want to listen to, you've built a corner of the internet that companies, PRs and Agencies start seeing as real estate.  But this might be a thing of the past due to Google's latest clampdown on paid links.  If you've ever taken payment for a post or a link, or even a product or a freebie - or thought you might do in future - then I hope you'll find this worthy of a read.  Unfortunately it's no longer an option for bloggers to follow the lead of PRs and not educate themselves on the rules of Google and advertising, and Google's action against people who pay for and host these links signals a sea change in the way we monetise our blogs and build relationships with companies.  However, before I explain, let's take a step back however and consider how this all started.

Why do companies ask for sponsored posts?

The way Google ranks pages in its search is somewhat a dark art, but what we do know about Google is it lists pages predominantly on the kudos it gives to them based on what I'd describe as 'word of mouth'.  In order to decide how relevant a page is for what you're searching for, it goes on recommendations.  So if you're searching for 'hairdressers in Bournemouth' it does the equivalent of talking to ten of your friends and asking them who the best ones are.  It also does some other things, like, if one of your friends is an expert in haircare or beauty, it gives a bit more weight to their recommendation.  (This is a very rudimentary explanation but it will do for now).  The way Google does this is it does things like sees how many people link to a hair salon, and how many people link to it via the text you've searched for, for example if I own a haircare blog and I write 'Bob's Salon is the best hairdressers in Bournemouth' and link to the website of Bob's Salon, boom, when someone searches for that text in Google, that's a few points given to Bob's Salon that will bump him up the ranking.

Naturally, all companies want to be number one in Google as it's the first thing you click on.  So after a little while, companies started to cotton on to this 'word of mouth' premise and paid links were invented.  That's why we get emails from companies asking you to link to them (bump them up Google) or link to them via a search text (bump them up Google based on what most people search for) - because as bloggers we are seen as experts in particular areas, and because if we have a good amount of traffic, this means more clicks and more points.

Why isn't this okay?

Because Google is a happy, fluffy company that wants to give you results based on honest, genuine information, it does not like this practice at all.  In fact, it makes Google very, very grumpy.  Other people whom it makes grumpy are the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Office of Fair Trading.  These organisations obviously regulate advertising (which a paid link is) and protect consumers.  I'll explain - say you've asked your friend which hairdressers you should go to in Bournemouth and they say Bob's Salon.  But what they don't tell you is that they're working on commission and they just pocketed £10 for sending you Bob's way.  If you find out you'd be pretty narked right? Bob isn't the best hairdresser and might make a right meal out of your hair, but they recommended him to you on the basis they were getting paid, and didn't tell you that.  That's what a paid link is doing (unless you do certain things which I'll come on to next).

credit: bitchpink.tumblr.com

So what should I do?

ASA and OFT are happy if you disclose that you've been paid or received a product in exchange for a link or a blog post. What they expect is that you add a disclaimer to indicate this, be it a piece of text at the end of a post, a graphic or whatever you like.  This shows to people that it's essentially an advert and should be viewed as such.  However, Google is different.  When you link to a company's website or product you've just given them some 'points' (boosted their Page Rank) regardless of whether a post is marked as sponsored or there's a little * next to the product.  For this reason, Google invented the 'nofollow' link.  They stipulate that if you're paid for a link you must mark it as a 'nofollow' link, and what this means is that Google knows it's a paid link and doesn't give it any points.  Blogger makes this easy for you as when you create a link there's a little box you can click on the bottom link to make it 'nofollow'.


What does this mean for companies?

You've probably already guessed that a nofollow link for a company is as good as a chocolate teapot for them. You're not giving them any Google points so you're not boosting them up the rankings so their perception would be that there's nothing in it for them.  Furthermore, companies are trying to disassociate themselves from 'sponsored posts' so what I'm seeing now is an increase in the amount of emails from PR companies who are requesting a link or post in exchange for payment, but who don't allow you to mark it as a sponsored post, and who won't allow it to be a nofollow link.  

But I need the money, what's the worst that could happen?

This brings me onto what I mentioned at the start, the Google 'clamp down'.  Google are pretty wise to the paid link business now, and they're pretty pissed off.  Last week they rather made an example of Interflora, who ran a campaign via advertorials on regional newspapers' websites.  Of course an advertorial is really another example of a paid link without disclosure, and so Google put them on the naughty step, big time.  They basically wiped Interflora from Google so that even when you searched for 'Interflora' you couldn't find them, along with removing all of their valuable keywords (so if you searched for 'flowers online' or 'flowers delivered' they wouldn't be found.) Then they reduced the Page Rank scores for the newspapers that had hosted the advertorials, effectively reducing how high they appear in searches. (You can read a news article about this here - credit to wehearthome for sending this to me!)

Google then issued a reminder about selling links, saying "Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or "advertorial" pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations."  Google has also been known to strip the page ranks of bloggers who sell links too - it's not just the companies that are penalised.

So what next?

This seems to have left a lot of companies, PRs, Agencies and bloggers a little nervous.  Losing your rank in Google is obviously a company's worst nightmare and the penalty imposed on Interflora could be very costly for them financially.  Not being able to pay for links means that companies are going to have to do one of two things (or both!) ... 1) Build a product or service so blindingly awesome that people talk about it and link to your website for free (e.g. genuine word of mouth recommendation = Google, OFT and ASA are all happy) or get a bit creative about how they interact with bloggers.  If they can't offer money or products, what could they offer? This article on Search Laboratory has some ideas, essentially, building relationships and offering rewards like building infographics, doing photoshoots, putting on events or blogger schemes like the ones Aussie and Witch Skincare offer.   Joining affiliate networks so that you get a small amount of commission if you sell an item on the basis of someone seeing it on your blog is another way to get a bit of money back from a company rather than promoting them for free.

What does this mean for bloggers?

Well firstly, I can't tell you whether you should or shouldn't accept sponsored links on your blog.  That's up to you - I'm just explaining what the consequences would be.  Likewise, I've seen a lot of bloggers accept paid links and not disclose them, again, makes me slightly uncomfortable but it's your blawg.  What I would say is that if the direction of travel is that these payments will cease you might find that things change in blogosphere.  I'd suggest it will become more about mutually beneficial relationships and building links with brands rather than just being thrown a bunch of fivers and feeling slightly dirty about it afterwards.  And I like that idea.  Considering the amount of dislike I see for sponsored posts in Twitter chats and generally I'd suggest it might not be such a bad thing for blog readers either.

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60 comments

  1. Such an informative read Rosie, so glad you wrote this post!

    http://www.rafflesbizarre.blogspot.com

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  2. This is such a good post (and helped me understanding the google rankings so much better!). I try not to do sponsored posts often but if I do, I like to make sure it's something I want to blog about, and I can write it the same way I would write any other blog post.

    To be honest I'm quite naive because I thought they were paying for me to blog about it to my readers so they could get clicks that way, I didn't realise it was to push up their rankings!

    Going to RT your tweet about this post too. I think everyone needs to read it.

    Jess @ditzyglamour

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  3. great read is it ok to link them and then state its a sponsored post?
    also i have reviewed products before and used * but they have never said link them in the post but I have done as I loved their products is this ok too?

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    1. A product review is a tricky one and I'm not sure of the answer to that one. What Google are clamping down on really is money for links so they would consider that small fry really, especially if you weren't specifically asked for a link or keyword xo

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    2. I put sponsored post at the bottom of my post which was published the other day and was my own content and images in return for reviewing and using a website for a couple of days in return for a voucher? They didnt ask me to add a link or say it wasnt sponsored. I added a link though.

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  4. You are a very smart cookie. I like this xxx

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  5. Oh wow this was an interesting read. I knew google didn't like sponsored posts but didn't realise it was quite this serious!
    It will be interesting to see how this shakes up the blogosphere. I'll be honest I will miss the extra cash from sponsored posts but I coped without it before and can do again! x

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  6. Really enjoyed reading this, thanks :). Very informative! x

    http://gemsi2011.blogspot.com

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  7. rosie, thank you so much for writing this! kim had been discussing it with me before last weekend, and i was so confused by it all. obviously sponsored posts are all a bit hushhush but then at the end of the day, i need to pay my bills, so yes sometimes it is the right way (if it fits in). I've heard about them clamping down on this, and interestingly enough I had an email yesterday from a company offering to do an infographic..
    Interesting read, you little clever bean you. xx

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  8. Such an informative and well written post - it's not easy to explain something this complicated in a way that's easy to understand so thanks so much for doing just that!

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  9. good read hun!- definitely informative! x
    www.beautyrambles.com

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  10. If there is a Bob's Salon in Bournemouth it probably just went to the top of the google search aha. My blog is way too small for ads but this was an interesting read nonetheless, some good stuff to know.

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  11. This was seriously helpful, I never seem to understand anything mentioned so whenever I've heard about this its flown over my head! Not sure what to do now - Not that I do many anyway, but is it worth it?!

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  12. Really interested to see how all of this spans out..I've been curious about sponsored posts, but now that I know the facts I may be a bit more wary! Thank you very much for this, it's very important information!

    - Killian x
    indulgenceonabudget.blogspot.co.uk

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  13. Actually, I have a question - What about links in posts that are not sponsored? I.e if I'm raving about something I've bought recently, or a company i genuinely LOVE, could google guess it to be a undisclosed sponsored post and penalty my blog? I link all over the place, but 98% of them are NOT sponsored... Hmm!! x

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    1. same here iv im talking about something iv bought i add a link, also I did my first sponsored post the other day a review on the website all content and pics were my own and I added their link but they didnt say I had to add their link or that I shouldnt put sponsored post, kinda confusing as lots of people saying what we cant do but not saying what we can do?

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    2. Nope that's fine Sarah. Google would have no reason to think that was sponsored so that's fine. Google look at multiple links for the same keywords to identify if a company is undertaking a campaign and that's how they know, and penalise. Like if Bob's Salon suddenly got 100 links from bloggers on the keywords 'hairdressers in Bournemouth' they'd know it was a paid campaign xo

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    3. Oh right, I suppose that makes sense! And if we're all blogging about the same product (apocolips went mental didn't it)? then I suppose they could just see who had disclosed it or not - If nobody disclosed it surely that'd mean its not sponsored! I saw a link where someone had searched 'interflora sent me' on google, and it came up entirely with blog posts - I never seem to get asked for sponsored posts by huge companies anyway, I've only done 3 in over 2 years, and a few links!

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  14. I really enjoyed reading this Rosie, I feel a lot more informed on the whole situ now!

    Hannah www.cagneyandlace.com

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  15. Rosie, this is such a brilliantly researched post, well done for bringing this out into the open. I have written posts with sponsored links and I have to be honest, it's always left me feeling a bit "icky." I have also refused a lot of offers as I have wanted to keep my blogs integrity, if something didn't "fit" I wouldn't do it.
    You've actually helped me make a decision, Rosie! I'm no longer going to accept products or sponsored links on my blog and do you know what? I feel relieved. When I began my blog I had no idea what I was doing and when companies began approaching me about sponsored links I was very naive about it all and just kind of went with it. I want my blog to be a place free of links that I've been paid to include and only links of things I genuinely love from now on!
    Phew! I honestly feel released from the chains of those dreaded emails that want a bit of my interweb corner! The answer from now on is NO!! ;) xx

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  16. OMG so amazing that you wrote this, informative. I'm kind of glad in a way, hurrah. Feel bad after the whole valentine's flower thing for Interflora though. No wonder they emailed me and asked me to remove all links from my flower review. Xx

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  17. wow that was really interesting and worth knowing! i'm sharing this on twitter for fellow bloggers :)
    thank you!

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    1. Hi!

      Not sure how many people will read this comment but I wrote the Search Laboratory article Rosie linked to and I was so surprised when her post was retweeted onto my twitter feed and I saw it was inspired by me! I think this is an excellent post and does reall well at expanding on the points I was trying to make, with added blogger input!

      I'm really glad so many people are discussing this subject and sharing their thoughts on it; its interesting for me from a personal point of view as well as a professional one! I really hope it's something bloggers and agencies can find a mutually beneficial solution to.

      Thanks again to Rosie for writing this post and to everyone else who has commented on it or talked about it!

      Whilst I have your attention, here is a shameless plug for my own blog :) no sponsored posts I swear! www.fadefromblack.co.uk

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  19. What a super post of info! Very handy. I've never been massively keen on doing sponsored posts, and I'm funny about providing links if I'm asked to in general actually! Seems like I'm quite a suspicious one haha!
    But this is really helpful - had no idea all this was going on so cheers you fab thing :)

    xx

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  20. Love this post. Very well written and informative. Thank you. I would not accept payment from a company and I only write about products and companies because I like them and not because they are paying me or giving me something for free.
    http://totallyvtg.blogspot.co.uk/

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  21. Aha this is a great post and has acted not only to provide me with more information but has made me feel much better about my feelings towards sponsored posts, which is that I hate them on sight and refuse to even read posts that mention the words "so and so asked me to such and such".

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  22. What a brilliant post Rosie, I had no idea about any of this! Thank you for sharing! :) x

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  23. I don't think you could have expressed this any better. Wonderfully presented in layman's terms which allowed my squidgy brain to grasp the whole idea. Google are doing the right thing and ultimately the blogosphere becomes a more pleasant playground to ride on the swings.

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  24. This is fascinating - didn't fully understand how Google worked - and it's really very clever!

    Thankyou for sharing

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  25. Wow. I'm so naive to how google works. Makes total sense now. I've never done a paid sponsored post before. But I've done a product review. Where do you stand on promoting other peoples blogs for payment? All this is really interesting.

    Jen | sunny sweet pea xx

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    1. Hello Jen! It depends on whether it's an ad or a link. Promoting someone's blog via a sidebar ad is fine as Google knows it's an ad and doesn't give it a Page Rank bonus. A paid link would be viewed in just the same way as paid links to companies. xo

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  26. Very interesting post, I am completely clueless when it comes to things like this, I tend to only blog about things I've purchased myself but I do have the odd sponsored post and gifted item post on my blog all containing links, I only include a disclaimer at the bottom of posts when I have not personally paid for the item, does this mean that on the posts I have not included a disclaimer for ie items I've purchased myself but have included links in the post I could run the risk of going down in google ranking?

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    1. Hello Daniella, glad you found it interesting. Sponsored posts and paid links is what Google are really looking at, however Interflora also asked bloggers to remove links when they'd been 'gifted' flowers as gifting products in return for a link could still be considered a payment - if a company ran a keyword campaign (e.g. we will give you this product in exchange for a particular link) then it could get picked up by Google. HOWEVER, linking to a company because you love their product is exactly what Google was set up for and one of the ways it ranks search results so you should definitely continue doing that, you won't risk losing your Google ranking for linking when you haven't been paid. xo

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  27. Excellent post! To be honest I really hate sponsored posts, I would much rather know what someone is willing to spend their hard earned cash on than be told what to by on the basis of them getting money/free stuff!

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  28. Hi Rosie,

    Great post!
    I work in SEO so keep a track of all these things - you've summed this all up more clearly and succinctly than I ever could.

    With regards the mention of "does receiving products count as being sponsored" - I believe that technically they SHOULD be.

    Google SHOULD, according to their own guidelines, penalise any site who have received product or cash incentives to include doFollow rather than noFollow links on their site (and the sites they are linking to should be punished too).
    But at the moment the main crackdown, as you noted, is on paid links.

    If they can implement a working way to weed out all sponsored posts they may try and find a system to penalise all received products that feature doFollow links too.

    If this happens then there's going to be a real sea change in blogging and marketing. There'll be an incredible cutback on PR samples and/or a lot more bloggers refusing to disclose so as to avoid penalties. It's a really strange time for blogging.

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  29. Such an interesting read Rosie. I've been thinking about sponsored posts a lot lately. I work with Spartoo who always want three links per page, which used to be fine, but when I started reading about all of this stuff it did make me feel differently. I guess it's a game of catch up for Google because I'm sure brands will think of another way to get around it!

    Great blog post though Rosie, I'm going to tweet it too because I think it's something lots of people will have no clue about! xxx

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  30. great post, really interesting to read. i didnt know about any of this xxx

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  31. This was really interesting to read, I agree with you I like the idea of building relationships with brands rather than them paying for sponsored posts, its a lot better for blog readers as you know what to trust then!

    A little bit Unique

    x


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  32. Thanks for this, going to have a good clean up of the blog this weekend and I have a disclaimer but I need to update it and make sure all my sponsored post are clear. Need to think about how I do things differently I think xx

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  33. This was mental I had no idea about half this stuff until I just read. Got asked to put a link to a site for $50 yesterday I was like 'um no?' because it just doesn't seem like it fits in with anything I do at all!
    I'll have to have a better read as I'm freaking out! haha
    xx

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  34. Hi, Great post, I had no idea about this and a friend posted your link on Facebook earlier tonight, I am so glad I read it and thank you for blogging about this.

    I have a question about wordpress blogs and how the "unfollow" link thing works. I am on wordpress and as far as I know there is no option to click an "unfollow" link. Do you know how all this works for wordpress? I am assuming that Google still picks up the fact that the post is sponsored through a key word search? I do disclose on my blog when a post is sponsored though, I have only done one so far!

    Thanks
    Grace

    www,allthatslap.com

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  35. Thanks so much for explaining all of this so succinctly. I often include links for the convenience of my readers - is it advisable to use nofollow links all the time in product reviews, regardless of whether it's a sponsored post or not?

    Nic x

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    1. Hello Nic, unless you have been paid for the link you should use normal, follow links as if you love a product you'll naturally want to give them a boost up the Google ranks. You could however use a nofollow link if you reviewed a product and didn't like it, does that make sense? xo

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  36. Well done on a great post - really useful xx

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  37. Great post, such an interesting read. I just assumed that it was all to do with increasing sales, I never thought about the Google ranks aspect!

    Surely companies would still benefit from nofollow links as it is still potentially increasing sales and promoting the products though?

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    1. It's Search/SEO agencies that will be orchestrating this and their chief aim (and what they are being paid to do) is increase a companies page rank. So really it depends how you look at it

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  38. Ah, as a relatively new blogger this post was really useful. Thanks. Fiona.

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  39. Thanks for this, you've taught me something new! I always thought full disclosure was 100% for the sake of readers, didn't occur to me that Google might get pissed. I don't do anything like this on my blog, but it was interesting to read xxx

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  40. This is a great post! I don't do sponsored posts, but thank you for alerting me to this anyway. I've found it really helpful :)

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  41. Thank you for putting all of this information into one tidy little place! I'm still unclear (and after googling it seems a lot of people are) on whether or not affiliate links require the No Follow tag... Can you shed any light on that?

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  42. I think this is great! I generally trust all of Googles choices. There motto is "Don't be evil"

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  43. This was a great read. I recently started blogging and I had no idea about all the rankings, etc!!! It is a great thing to be informed!
    http://www.jessiehearts.com

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  44. What an informative post! I have a question for you that you may or may not be able to answer -

    I have a new relationship with a cosmetics shop in Asia that carries multiple Korean brands. Basically, they approached me and asked if they could send me products in exchange for links to their shop. I absolutely do not accept any compensation for product reviews, so what I worked out instead is an arrangement where I'd interview the owner about Asian skin care trends and new products on the market. It's actually an informative post, so I'd hate to nofollow that link! It hasn't been published yet, but my plan was to label it as a sponsored post even though my compensation for it was product, and not monetary. Will Google penalize me for having a sponsored post that is labeled but not marked as a nofollow link?

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  45. As it happens, I never ever clicked on any advert on any website.

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  46. Thank you so much for this.It has been informative

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Thank you in advance for your lovely comments, they mean the world to me! If you have a question or want to get in touch, tweet me at @rosieoutlook.