You will have noticed that there are ads on this blog. The people who run the FreethoughtBlogs site have contracts with various agencies to place the ads and when people click on the ads, it generates a small amount of money for the network that is then distributed to the various bloggers. The ads that appear are based on some sort of algorithm that looks at the content of the page as well as the browsing and search engine queries history of the person viewing the page. So two people viewing the same page at the same time may well see different ads.
Since the algorithms do not seem to parse the content for attitude, the ads that appear can be quite amusing and incongruous. Since I often write about things I am critical of, such as religion, I can get ads for things I would not dream of purchasing or joining. Right now, there is an ad inviting me to learn more about the Mormon church and to buy some video put out by Kirk Cameron.
All this is pretty open and above board and is common practice in the world of blogs. As long as it is clear what is an ad and what is actual editorial content, then it is acceptable. Of course writers may tailor their work to appeal to certain types of readers and advertisers but that is a second order effect.
But I just learned that there is a shady and unethical practice in which bloggers are being bribed to influence their content without the readers being aware of it, by inserting links in their content to raise the rankings of the advertised site in search engines. Hamilton Nolan describes how he was approached by a company and in probing with the person named Rock who approached him them about their practice, he discovered how it works.
To briefly reiterate the problematic aspects of the practice: these firms are hired by clients to enhance their Google results and overall SEO [Search Engine Optimization]. The firms then offer to, essentially, bribe writers at various websites to place links to their clients in editorial content, because Google looks kindly on such links when calculating search rankings. The writers get paid; the links go in quietly; the cash is slipped into Paypal accounts; the news organizations are never informed. It’s stealth marketing, and it’s designed to deceive both the employer and the reader. It’s an unethical scam.
Considering the fact that most of the examples that Rock sent to me are links inserted in stories that are contributed to sites with extremely low editorial standards, this does not constitute the greatest scandal in journalism history. But everyone should be aware of the fact that the shady and undercover practice of inserting paid links into purportedly “editorial” copy appears to be rampant. Readers (and employers) beware.
But the practice is not limited to lower-profile bloggers who would not normally be mistaken for news reporters. Recently Erik Wemple, blogger for the Washington Post, brought to light that former Washington Post reporter Mike Allen, who now writes a popular blog on politics for the site Politico, seamlessly mixes news with plugs for groups like the Chamber of Commerce and BP, a practice that now has its own name of ‘native advertising’. Greg Mitchell has more on this story.
After a long silence, Allen has recently decided to respond, angrily rejecting the allegations and has even gone to the extent of requesting a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board presumably to exert some pressure on Wemple to tone it down. The meeting was supposed to be on January 15th but no reports have emerged about whether it was actually held, the discussions, or what the outcome was.