In the Blogosphere: A Thin Ethical Line
The revelation of a marketing firm that claimed to be paying writers at high-profile online outlets to insert links to its client websites has dredged up old concerns about the ethical nature of some bloggers.
Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan shined the light on the company, which calls itself 43a, last week, posting a series of emails from what appears to be a company principal that offered up to $175 every time he linked to a site from one of their clients. In those notes, the 43a rep claimed to have worked with notable sites such as The Huffington Post and Business Insider, and had a client list that included Dell, Motorola Mobility and T-Mobile.
All of the sites and businesses have denied working with 43a — and many say they've never heard of it, raising some questions about the legitimacy of the firm. (The 43a website is a bare-bones affair as well, with little more than an overly broad explanation of what it does and an email contact form. The company did not respond to CNBC.com's request for comment.)
Regardless of whether 43a is a legitimate business or someone looking to pull a prank (or a game of 'gotcha') on Gawker, it has resurrected some moments the blogosphere would rather forget.
Two years ago, several prominent bloggers were found to be engaged in ethically questionable practices, exchanging favorable reviews of products for freebies. The accusations were widespread — ranging from mommy bloggers hyping child-care products to political bloggers taking cash from campaigns.
The practice and the growing influence of bloggers among readers prompted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to update its nearly 30-year-old guidelines to require disclosure of these exchanges, classifying them as endorsements. The proposal that 43a allegedly made in those emails would be in direct violation to those rules.
"For starters, it's illegal," says Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at The Poynter Institute. "Beyond that, it would be highly unethical and terribly problematic. It would hurt both the advertiser and the blogger or journalist who's doing it."
The FTC rule changes haven't stopped businesses from paying for placement, though. The travel industry, for example, has managed to skirt several disclosure regulations.
"Something very similar to this happens to writers in the travel industry," says Tompkins.
"Travel writers often get free accommodations and even travel to sites around the world and they do so with the [expectation] that they will write about where they go — and of course, they're writing positively about it. … It's just one of the incestuous little tricks of the trade in travel that I think is deplorable."
Meanwhile, as social media becomes a more powerful marketing tool, some companies are reaching out to "opinion makers" in an effort to sway public opinion — a practice that has ethicists cringing.
In New Orleans, the digital arm of the parent company of The Times-Picayune (the city's paper) has stuck deals with five members of the New Orleans Saints, paying them to tweet messages to their Twitter followers encouraging them to visit the paper's Saints website.
Other companies have bought placement not to sell individual products, but to increase their exposure in search engines, which often rely on the number of links to a site to determine where they rank in search results.
JC Penny saw its search ranking plunge earlier this year after the New York Times showed Google links from thousands of seemingly unrelated sites, many of which contained nothing but links. The search giant determined it to be a "link scheme" operation — where a company (or someone representing the company) buys links on a wide variety of sites to artificially inflate their relevance in search results.
One week later, Google similarly penalized business news site Forbes.com for selling irrelevant linksto help companies boost their search rankings. (Disclosure: The author of this story worked at Forbes.com from 2008-2009.)
The upside to the 43a scandal, says Tompkins of The Poynter Institute, is it could serve as a wake-up call to newsrooms to make sure readers understand their policies when it comes to linking and company-supplied products.
"Are newsrooms quite clear about their linking policies?" he says. "Are they clear about letting [readers and viewers] know their disclosure policies? If they're not, this is a good opportunity to do so."Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com