|Sun Mar 24 2013 21:41:23|
When Ecommerce Affiliates Run the News Room
By: David Steiner
If, over the past several months, you noticed a search on Google News for terms like "eBay" or "Amazon" bringing back barely relevant results, you're probably not alone.
In our research since mid-December, searches for "eBay" and "Amazon" brought back articles about baseball cards, a girl inadvertently listing a dress on eBay that included her naked image in the photo, or even 15 stupidest reviews on Amazon. Interestingly, many of them had one thing in common: affiliate links embedded in the content.
Affiliate programs have been around for years, and some of the Internet's largest retailers and publishers participate, including EcommerceBytes (although never in news stories), in order to subsidize the content that consumers expect to be free.
What's new is that some publishers appear to be gaming the system in violation of the traditional Chinese wall between advertising and editorial, and news aggregators seem unable or unwilling to stem the tide of, well, just plain crap rising to the top of search results over quality stories with original reporting.
In a multi-part series we're running this week in EcommerceBytes NewsFlash, Kenneth Corbin explores how publishers stealthily earn revenue by embedding affiliate links within articles purporting to be "news." As an avid online news reader myself, I'm not surprised by this type of behavior from certain popular, lowbrow websites. But thanks to new services, mainstream publishers are also monetizing their content in new, creative ways.
There are several issues at play here:
Is the publisher to blame for Google News picking up their affiliate-optimized articles and placing them at the top of Google News search results?
Or are publishers studying affiliate reports to determine which topics are most lucrative and writing "news stories" around high-value keywords?
Can Google, Bing, or any search engine for that matter, rely on algorithms to recognize when sites that are attempting to game the system? It would appear that more human interaction and vetting is called for.
Many of us have figured out how to hover our mouse over hyperlinks to see if they might be affiliate links, but services like Viglink and Skimlinks, both direct affiliates of eBay for example, are cloaking the URLs, making it harder for readers to see if there is an ad relationship between the publisher and the seller of the item being linked to.
To be fair, Viglink prominently advises publishers to disclose affiliate links to readers: "The Federal Trade Commission requires that you disclose to your readers when you endorse a product or service and have a "material connection" to the seller. If you're using affiliated links, with or without VigLink, you have that connection." However, that doesn't necessarily mean its clients are doing so.
The FTC's newly updated guidelines call for labeling hyperlinks as specifically as possible, and they caution advertisers to consider how their hyperlinks will function on various programs and devices.
Kenneth spoke to the FTC to see how they weighed in on this issue, as well as speaking to search and affiliate experts and executives at Bing and Google News.
We're interested in your take.
- As a reader, how do you feel about clicking on a revenue-generating link in an article posing as a news story?
- Does this decrease the trust you have in that publisher?
- Have you had a similar experience with results on Google and Bing searches for ecommerce news?
- Is this a practice we should get used to, or is this a line that legitimate publications should not cross?
Update: Two days after this series kicked off, Google addressed the issue on the Google New blog and issued a warning to publishers. Congratulations to Kenneth Corbin on a great story!