The ethics of blog advertising

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.


  1. colnago80 says

    Does this also apply to links in comments? If it does, a commenter could post links to such sites in his/her comment.

  2. lanir says

    Search engine optimization (SEO) is always shady because it’s an attempt to game the system. The more pages that link back to you, the higher your stuff will rise in the rankings. I’m surprised they actually wanted the links to make sense. I would have half expected them to ask for links in periods at the ends of sentences or something just to show up for the search engine’s web crawlers but not the people visiting the site. Then again, that might be too easy to filter out of results as well. Basically it’s a constant back and forth between these scammers and the search engines. And the results have been lousy enough that many corporations pay SEO firms. It’s a lot of money and I don’t think there’s any way to measure the actual value of what you get so ultimately you can think of it as not much different than selling rainbows.

  3. dobby says

    I am now getting ads in Danish on Freethought Blogs. Very strange.

    Does the ad preference even work? I keep requesting not to see ads from “Liberty” University but they keep showing up.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    The latest to worry about:

    Adware vendors buy Chrome Extensions to send ad- and malware-filled updates
    Once in control, they can silently push new ad-filled “updates” to those users.

    One of the coolest things about Chrome is the silent, automatic updates that always ensure that users are always running the latest version. While Chrome itself is updated automatically by Google, that update process also includes Chrome’s extensions, which are updated by the extension owners. This means that it’s up to the user to decide if the owner of an extension is trustworthy or not, since you are basically giving them permission to push new code out to your browser whenever they feel like it.

    To make matters worse, ownership of a Chrome extension can be transferred to another party, and users are never informed when an ownership change happens. Malware and adware vendors have caught wind of this and have started showing up at the doors of extension authors, looking to buy their extensions. Once the deal is done and the ownership of the extension is transferred, the new owners can issue an ad-filled update over Chrome’s update service, which sends the adware out to every user of that extension.

    We ought to clarify here that Google isn’t explicitly responsible for such unwanted adware, but vendors are exploiting Google’s extension system to create a subpar—and possibly dangerous—browsing experience. Ars has contacted Google for comment, but we haven’t heard back yet. We’ll update this article if we do.

  5. colnago80 says

    Re wthwhatever00d @ #4

    Firefox only automatically updates the extensions and addons installed by the user. I only use Chrome on our local library’s web site as it runs a script that Firefox doesn’t like.

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