I started writing the following in April of last year and later abandoned it because I wasn’t yet able to articulate my feelings on the topic. I’ve revisited it every few months since then and think I’ve finally found what I was trying to say when I started it thirteen months ago. Remember, it was written long before Gigaom shutdown, so some of the nitty gritty details might not continue to apply. But, I think the overarching thought behind this piece is still relevant in today’s atmosphere of online advertising.
Sponsorships, Integrity, and Online Publishing
Back around 2007, when weblogging was all the rage, there were a few companies — PayPerPost and SponsoredReviews being the two I remember most — that were claiming to help writers monetize their sites. They offered a marketplace where advertisers could pay writers to publish sponsored posts on their weblog.
I dug up This piece by Matt Cutts after realizing that the current state of sponsored posts (often affectionately referred to as “native advertising”) feels very similar to how it did around 2007. Matt’s piece more specifically mentions the passing of PageRank as the primary problem with sponsored posts (which is what I would expect from the perspective of a Google employee). But, I do remember there being a lot of discussion regarding the morality of sponsored posts by other writers in the weblog community. And after Google started severely punishing websites for publishing paid articles and selling links, sponsored posts all but disappeared.
However, I started noticing the trend start to resurface over the past couple of years. I’m not exactly sure where I saw it first, but I have recently seen them appear on Gigaom, Shawn Blanc’s weblog, and John Gruber’s Daring Fireball.
The aforelinked sponsored post on Gigaom is clearly labeled as an advertisement with “Sponsored post” written in the headline in bold, and I would expect most readers would be able to spot it as an advertisement from a mile away. There’s no name attached to the article so I would guess that it was written by the advertiser and not by any members of the Gigaom staff. The only link to the advertiser is buried in the third paragraph and does not pass PageRank by making use of the “nofollow” attribute, adhering to Google’s recommendation to publishers.
The sponsored posts on Shawn Blanc’s weblog are a little different. The text below the headline reads as if it is written by the advertiser and the text written in italics below the break seems to be written by Shawn himself. The headline is a link to the sponsor and there is an additional link to the sponsor in the paragraph written by Shawn — neither of which have the nofollow attribute added to them and therefore pass PageRank. When you purchase a sponsorship with Shawn, he also includes a text-link ad in the sidebar that appears for the duration of the sponsorship and also excludes nofollow.
The Daring Fireball sponsorships are framed as “RSS feed sponsorships” with a sponsored post appearing in the RSS feed at the beginning of the week. This post only appears in the RSS feed, it never appears on the homepage of Daring Fireball or anywhere in the archives (that I can find). The author of these posts is listed as “Daring Fireball Department of Commerce” according to the RSS feed and I’ve confirmed with John through email that it is written by the advertiser. But, John also posts a “Linked List” item at the end of the week thanking the sponsor. These “thank you” posts appear on the homepage and archives of Daring Fireball in addition to the RSS feed. None of the links include the nofollow attribute and all of these “thank you” posts are written by John.
Even though I lived through all of this before I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Back around 2007 when I was 19 (and slightly less wise) I took part in a few SponsoredReviews and/or PayPerPost dealings. All of them labeled as such but written by me and done without the use of of the nofollow attribute on links to the sponsor. I only took part in a few and later that year decided to stop doing them entirely. Before my decision to quit (and the reason I only did a few), I was only willing to write and publish a sponsored post if it fit with the context of what I was writing about at the time.
I never felt great about publishing sponsored posts but the extra money was appreciated. It’s sad to say it, but the primary reason I quit doing sponsored posts was because Google started cracking down on websites that published them. Now that I’m older, I continue to have morality concerns with sponsored posts — an advertiser paying a writer to publish articles about their product could put a chink in the armor of credibility that the writer has developed over time. And, it leads many readers to question the writer’s motives in the future.
But, I also can see the reason why writers decide to publish native ads in the first place — they enjoy writing and want to continue doing so. And the best way to continue writing, is to figure out a way to get paid for your work. That’s why I chose to and I’m sure that’s why a lot of other writers are willing to, as well. But, at what cost? Potentially damaging your credibility and hoping that Google doesn’t start cracking down again isn’t something I’m interested in worrying about.
But more than almost anything in the world, I want to continue writing. If I was ever to accept sponsorships on Initial Charge I would have to find a way to do so that allowed me to maintain as much credibility as possible. This would mean clearly disclosing that I’ve been sponsored by a company every single time I write about them or potentially having someone else interact with the advertiser — essentially putting up a wall between them and myself in order to limit any influence they could have on my writing.
The aforelinked Gigaom sponsored post feels bad from a reader’s perspective because it appears to be pushed down our throats. Not only is the Gigaom staff giving up an area of their site that historically was reserved for editorial content, they are also charging the advertiser for that privilege and then surrounding the ad copy with banner ads for the advertiser. The sponsored post feels completely disconnected from the rest of the site while occupying the same area that news and editorials would typically live. This is the equivalent of those scummy-looking, full-page magazine ads that are designed to look like just another article. They’re obnoxious. But, at the very least Gigaom isn’t breaking Google’s webmaster guidelines and they’re labeling the post in the headline.
Shawn Blanc’s sponsored posts feel much less intrusive to me than Gigaom’s, most likely because Shawn publishes several link posts per day in a similar format to his sponsored posts. And it also helps that his aren’t surrounded by banner ads like Gigaom’s are. There is still the issue of the ad copy occupying the same space that would typically host actual content. But Shawn tends to attract advertisers of products that I’m actually interested in, which helps keep the sponsorships feel less obtrusive and more helpful.
John Gruber’s approach is the one I like most from the examples above — if you read the site and not the RSS feed you only see John’s “thank you” note to the sponsor (which is, again, written by him) and there’s no additional links to the sponsors anywhere else on the site. The links don’t include the nofollow attribute, but when I asked John about this he didn’t seem concerned about potential repercussions from Google or any of the morality issues.
John Gruber, when asked about his sponsorships and Google’s webmaster guidelines:
For one thing, I’ve been running my sponsor-thank-you posts since before the “nofollow” attribute existed. For another, I personally vouch for each sponsor being worthy of my readers’ attention. I’m not writing for Google, I’m writing for my readers. I do nothing regarding “SEO”.
Reading Google’s “Link schemes” guidelines:
It seems to me that what I’m doing is not just within the spirit of their guidelines, but the letter of them. I wouldn’t accept a sponsorship whose text contained keyword SEO links.
This is good to know and does put me at ease about the quality of his sponsorships. I’m still concerned that these sponsors could have influence over his writing, but in a followup email he discussed his role in the process and his ability to reject sponsorships outright based on content:
But I do have approval over the sponsor-written RSS entries. In the 6 or 7 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only ever suggested changes regarding spelling and punctuation (“and” instead of “&”, that sort of thing), but in theory, I might reject a sponsorship outright based on content. (And if that were to happen, I’d issue a refund.) But the vetting I do at the time of booking makes that a non-issue in practice.
This helped me to start thinking about native advertising from a different perspective (at least when it comes to one man shops), maybe we should be questioning the morality of links to products and services that we have no control over. Maybe the best way to maintain integrity is to vet every single word and link published on our sites. If someone else makes decisions about what products and services are linked to in sponsorship spots then how can we as publishers vouch for the quality of everything we publish?
If some of the content on our websites is determined by advertisers, then everything we publish could be taken into question by our readers. If we interact directly with sponsors and maintain the right to reject their advertisements based on content, then we might have to deal with occasional arguments about whether those sponsors have an undue influence on our work. But I’d much rather have that along with the peace of mind knowing that I have the final say on everything that’s published rather than having to fight for respect with intrusive advertising mucking up my site.
I don’t have any direct site sponsorships in the works and don’t have plans to start accepting them anytime soon, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of doing so in the future. I would love to start making a larger portion of my overall income from Initial Charge and sponsorships is a great way to do so.
To be certain, if and when sponsorship spots start appearing here, they will be clearly labeled as such so that my readers know exactly what is and isn’t paid for. I will vet every potential sponsor ensuring that the product or service they are promoting aligns with what I have or would be willing to pay for myself. And, I will do my very best to disclose that a company has sponsored the site in the past whenever I write about them from that point forward.
But, I also want to encourage writers to take a look at how native advertising is handled at their publication and what that could mean for the integrity of their writing. Are you or your advertising department accepting anything and everything that comes your way? If so, I implore you to reconsider and only allow sponsorships from companies you have, or would be willing to purchase products or services from. It will help maintain your credibility and it’s simply the right thing to do.