Pinterest is cracking down on users who get paid to "pin"—that is, for posting items on the visual social network. Weirdly, though, its new rules don't actually prevent people from getting paid for putting stuff up on Pinterest. Instead, they're mostly aimed at eliminating visual spam.

Late last week, Pinterest updated its acceptable-use policy with clearer guidelines about what users should and shouldn't pin. “To keep Pinterest feeling authentic, we’ve also added guidelines about not getting paid per follow or Pin,” Enid Hwang, Pinterest's community manager, wrote in a company blog post on Friday.  

Here's what the revised policy states (emphasis added):

We don’t allow schemes that buy and sell Pins or pay people per Pin, follow, etc. We know that some popular Pinners have relationships with approved affiliate networks or participate in paid social media campaigns, and that’s still okay, as long as they’re not being compensated for each action on Pinterest.

So if you're in a deal to earn $1 every time you pin a corporation's products, you're out of luck. But if you’re a highly influential blogger in a five-figure partnership with a brand, making money is A-OK. Here's more:

A business can pay someone to help them put together a board that represents their brand. For example, it’s okay for a guest blogger to curate a board for a local boutique’s profile. We don’t allow that boutique to pay the blogger to Pin products to her own boards.
A person can be given commission by an approved affiliate network. For example, it’s okay for a blogger to get paid when someone purchases a product that blogger has Pinned. However, we don’t allow the blogger to be paid just to Pin.

In other words, Pinterest isn’t trying to keep brands or bloggers from making money. It just doesn't want anyone paid for filling up its network with garbage images.

The Perils Of Visual Spam

With millions of users curating billions of images, Pinterest is less a social network and more of an organic visual search engine indexed by biological CPUs (i.e., users). 

The Web was built with text links in mind, but Pinterest is quickly bridging the constraints with new technology. Its recent acquisition  of Visual Graph, which identifies and organizes images by subject, underscores the company’s eagerness to improve search accuracy.

That’s where “paid to pin” images could potentially ruin everything. In such schemes—like one offered by the now offline BuyMorePins.com—users are paid each time they pin an image, no matter how often. It doesn’t even need to be a human pinner—spambots that repeatedly pin images for black hat hackers have been around since at least 2012. 

Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate, a Visual Web analytics firm, says it’s easy to see how Pinterest’s search function could get tripped up by redundant images.  

“If you’re algorithmically trying to figure out 25 billion pins, and people start flooding the network with pins that have no meaning, your algorithm will go haywire,” he said. “It’s terrible for the long term health of the platform as well.”

By removing undesirable “paid to pin” programs, Pinterest strengthens legitimate advertisements. That’s because people are pinning pictures of things they truly like, not pictures that will earn them money. And when people are pinning what they like, it's easier for Pinterest to help them find more of the same, whether through search or ads.

“[Pinterest] will be a tremendous type of ad unit—truly based on your interests as a person,” Gupta said. “In a traditional demographic based ad, I might give you an ad for camping equipment because you’re 25 to 35 and male. But on Pinterest, I’d advertise it because you’re pinning a lot of camping equipment. I don’t care that you’re actually 55. I know you’ll be a buyer.”

The Blogger Connection 

A Pinterest spokesperson told me that bloggers who use Pinterest to make money haven’t had any issues with the new change. That might be because Pinterest actually reached out to several of these bloggers as it was revising its policy. 

One of them was Victoria Smith, the author behind popular lifestyle blog SF Girl By Bay. One of the first 100 people to adopt Pinterest, Smith has more than 500,000 followers. Smith told me that Pinterest’s Hwang called her and asked if she would review the new policy:

I thought they could place a little more of an emphasis on the phrasing to clarify that approved affiliate models are still allowed. That wording seemed like it could be possibly misconstrued by laymen like myself not familiar with legal jargon. I've never signed on for a "pay per pin" kind of program, but I could see that pinners who pinned with affiliate networks based on commission might think themselves to be breaking Pinterest policy if that detail wasn't clarified a bit better.

As it stands, Smith’s method of making money via Pinterest isn't actually referenced in the acceptable use policy. Smith said her agency, Federated Media, sometimes asks her to pin images on behalf of clients to her boards, but “generally those are original images I have photographed or had photographed for a post.”

Pinterest’s wording makes it sound as if it doesn’t “allow that [company] to pay the blogger to Pin products to her own boards,” but it seems extremely unlikely that it would leave bloggers high and dry. It’s pretty clear that Pinterest doesn't intend to disrupt existing partnerships.  

“The policies are aimed towards things like pin-buying scam sites that sell Pins and follows, rather than business relationships bloggers and brands may have,” a Pinterest spokesperson told me in an email. 

It’s clear that Pinterest is simply trying to keep its content authentic, not transactional. But when you’re weighing that against a billion dollar valuation, the company has to move carefully. So far, observers like Curalate's Gupta think it's doing a good job.

“I think one thing Pinterest does a good job of is that it tries to balance community interests with the realization that when you raise the money they’ve raised, you need to attract brands,” Gupta said. “In general, they’re erring on the side of the consumer’s experience first.”

Illustration by mkhmarketing