|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 3028 - March 25, 2013 - ISSN 1539-5065 2 of 5|
On any given day, a query in Google News for a simple search term such as "eBay" or "Amazon" might retrieve a multitude of stories high on the first results page highlighting individual listings.
This sort of content, now a stock-in-trade of many publishers across the Web, runs the gamut from, say, an item about a rotten Twinkie for sale on eBay to a list of "15 of the Most Sarcastic Amazon Reviews Ever."
The news value of such output may seem dubious, but when it originates from publishers that are well-established in Google News or Bing News, such as (but certainly not limited to) the Huffington Post or Business Insider, these articles often enjoy top billing on the site.
What's more, many stories that feature links to ecommerce sites or individual listings aren't just put out there for the sake of generating traffic and the ad revenue that follows for the publisher. Many of those links are a form of ads themselves that net the publisher a commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase, downloads a piece of content or takes some other action. In some cases, simply clicking a link is enough to generate a commission.
The use of affiliate links to earn commission is hardly a new phenomenon on the Web. Affiliate marketers have long provided a nexus between website owners and ecommerce companies. It's mostly a win-win scenario, where sellers on eBay and Amazon might enjoy increased sales, while publishers net some extra revenue for the referral.
Disclosure: Certain sections of the EcommerceBytes website participate in affiliate programs (EcommerceBytes Update, the Bookshelf page, though not Newsflash), but those associations have no bearing on editorial considerations of this publication.)
But for news organizations, which often talk about the sanctity of the church-state divide between the business and editorial operations, at what point does the temptation - and indeed, necessity - of earning a little extra revenue begin to seep into the editorial decision-making process and result in the production of content geared around affiliate links, like the ubiquitous articles about a quirky item up for auction on eBay?
"It's a balance, because they want to have editorial integrity and they should," said Oliver Deighton, vice president of marketing at VigLink. "At the same time, they need to make a living and get compensated for the value they're creating."
VigLink, which built its business connecting forum operators and bloggers to affiliate networks, describes its vision as "content-driven commerce." According to the company, online sales generated through referral links from blogs, forums and social-curation sites spiked 31 percent this holiday season, more than double the 14 percent general ecommerce increase that comScore reported for the holidays.
Like other affiliate services, VigLink supplies publishers with detailed daily analytics reports that correlate revenue with specific keywords and ecommerce sites. Quite naturally, those reports are intended to inform publishing strategies with the perfectly rational goal of maximizing revenue.
It gets murky, however, when the common practice of forum operators and hobbyist bloggers begins to sway the editorial direction of news publishers, resulting in articles that appear to be constructed around revenue-generating affiliate links and often include little else in the way of context or original reporting.
Longtime search analyst Sue Feldman describes that friction as the "warring motivations of money versus quality."
While search engines are cagey about the specifics of their ranking algorithms, the placement of stories on the news sections of Google or Bing is in large part a measure of the publication's popularity. Put another way, readers vote with clicks.
"Those clicks really do determine ranking to a great extent, and the theory is that a million people can't be wrong," said Feldman, CEO of the consultancy Synthexis.
And news aggregators, while they are in the business of retrieving relevant articles in response to a query, must balance so-called quality content with stories that readers want to, well, read - irrespective of the publisher's role as an affiliate marketer.
"The reason that people do those stories is that people click on them," said Stefan Weitz, director of Bing at Microsoft. "It's hard to say subjectively or objectively whether that's news."
Those judgments, subjective as they are, are further complicated by the fact that they are made by computers, not editors.
"I think we would have a really tough time algorithmically determining which was done in service of advertising (or) informing the public," Weitz added. "You start getting into a very subjective area of what's actually news and what's an affiliate listing."
Reached for comment on the issue of publishers' use of affiliate links, Ryan Brack, a spokesman for Google News, thanked EcommerceBytes "for bringing this to our attention," and cited the company's Webmaster guidelines that, among other things, warn against cloaking links and "participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value."
"We take seriously our mission to provide the best possible experience for those seeking useful and timely news information and make clear that Google News is not a marketing service," Brack wrote in an email, declining to comment further.
The guidelines for gaining placement in Google News, a vital step for many online publications, similarly warn against using the site as a "marketing service," and advise publishers to focus on producing timely, authoritative and original news items.
But absent in that quality matrix is any mention of the popularity of a site, which, as in general Web search, has a significant bearing on page ranking in news-aggregation sites. And popularity, gauged by criteria such as page views and inbound links, of course makes for a more easily quantifiable metric for algorithms to digest.
"It's really hard to determine what's high quality," Feldman said. "If there's lots of people clicking on the Huffington Post article on eBay, and fewer are clicking on something you'd consider to be more substantive, like the Investor's Business Daily, then you've got a problem."
The Huffington Post and its corporate parent AOL did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Asked about the degree to which affiliate strategies guide editorial production, Julie Hansen, president and chief operating officer of Business Insider, responded, "Not in the least."
"The editors cover whatever they want to without any regard to affiliate potential," Hansen wrote in an email.
She also pointed to a link at the bottom of each article the publication runs that directs to a commerce policy, which reads:
"From time to time, Business Insider publishes links to various retailers as part of our reporting, particularly around product reviews.
"When you purchase items from Amazon and other retailers through links on the site, Business Insider receives small affiliate fees from these retailers."
Articles on the Huffington Post do not include such a specific disclosure. A link to AOL's "About Our Ads" page appears at the bottom of each story, which in turn includes a link to a privacy page that mentions sponsored links, but not in-text affiliate links. However, some articles republished on Huffington Post include the disclosures that appeared on the original website (Zuburbia.com/blog, for example).
Read more about VigLink and stay tuned for tomorrow's installment which includes the Federal Trade Commission's position on advertising disclosures.
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About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
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