An unintentional lesson in blogger ethics

Every writer and editor knows the pitfalls of complaining about typos and minor grammatical mistakes in someone else’s. Murphy’s Law of Nitpicking says when you do that, you will invariably include a typo or a factual error in your own piece.

The stakes go twice as high when you start making lofty pronouncements about journalism and ethics. Today’s object lesson is BetaNews, which ran a story by Ed Oswald headlined “Blogger Ethics Questioned Over Microsoft Ad.”

Rule #1: If you’re a blogger writing about “whether bloggers should be considered journalists,” it helps to get the journalistic fundamentals right. Like spelling the name of Federated Media founder John Battelle properly. Misspelling it once is a typo. Getting it wrong three times (Batelle, with one T) is just sloppy.

Rule #2: If you’re going to throw penalty flags over mixing ads and editorial, you really should try not to have a Microsoft pop-up ad embedded in the text of the story! Here, see for yourself.


That’s a screen shot of the BetaNews story as it looked when I read it in my browser this afternoon. That double-underline under the word Microsoft in the second graf is a link to a paid ad from Vibrant Media. Here’s a close-up look at the pop-up ad that appeared when I moved the mouse pointer over the tagged word:


You want to talk about mixing advertising with content? This, in my opinion, is much worse than anything the Federated Media gang is accused of doing. This technique literally embeds advertiser messages in the words written by the post’s author. The effect is to encourage a site owner to write more about topics that result in more expensive paid ads and higher clicks. I don’t blame Microsoft for buying these ads, but I do blame the site owners who succumb to the lure of seemingly easy money and buy into this shady concept.

I hate these Vibrant ads (and the similar product from AdBrite) with a passion. I won’t allow them on this site and I go out of my way to avoid visiting sites that use them, including BetaNews. And yes, I realize that the double underlines make them look different from standard user-created links, but never underestimate the naivete of readers. And I’m sick of seeing these stupid ads pop up as I move my mouse over the page.

Ads don’t belong in content. Period.

PS: PC World Editor in Chief Harry McCracken, who has recent firsthand experience with the wall between ads and editorial (thankfully, it ended well for him), says “Journalists shouldn’t write ad copy.” Exactly right.

10 thoughts on “An unintentional lesson in blogger ethics

  1. Boy did you hit a nerve with me! I also despise “tool-tips”, “Vibrant Ads”, or whatever name is pinned to them. IMO, if the person/site is that hard up for money, they should consider a different line of business.

    As you can see below, both MVPS Hosts file and IE-SPYAD block the vibrant URL so people with either hosts file software do not see the tool-tips provided by VibrantMedia’s IntelliTXT service.

    Obviously, those sites are blocked for a reason. I know of one situation of a brief study conducted at just one site using that service where, within minutes, a fellow MVP discovered a tool-tip linking to a site serving up WinFixer. So, think of the person running their mouse over a page with those tool-tips and accidentally clicking that link. šŸ˜¦

    See: #[IE-SpyAd]

  2. (…well, I find other content when possible. I’m guilty of LINKING to a Blade Runner anniversary story that’s full of the junky little ads. But hey… it’s BLADE Runner. And it’s 25 years. Gimme break.)

  3. Here’s a question Ed, how are Vibrant ads any different than Google ads. Both use a blogger’s content to serve up relevant ads. The only differene is that Google ads are next to the content, and Vibrant ads show you exactly what term triggered the ad.

    For that reason, I like Vibrant ads a lot better. Plus, they pay far better than Google ads do.

  4. Robert, the difference is that I can visually ā€” and habitually ā€” ignore the Google ads because they neither blink nor create any other distraction. BetaNews has become so ad-laden that it’s fast approaching PCMagazine heights. Even with Java and JavaScript turned off, a few static ads still get through.

    That content and ads should never mix, I completely agree. As a reader I’m much more likely to notice and even click-thru your ads as long you don’t annoy me. And I try to do with with good blogs. Although Ed is writing more than ever between this blog and his work at ZDNet, if you skim the archives of this ‘Windows Expertise’ blog it was built on the one thing that brings me back every day: content.

  5. “how are Vibrant ads any different than Google ads.”

    @Robert McLaws —

    I really enjoy reading your blog but I read your posts in the RSS Feed rather than at your site to avoid the tool-tips. Google ads don’t result in a pop-up as I scroll down the page and my mouse inadvertently touches across a tool-tip.

    Please see what I wrote above regarding VibrantMedia. I trust and respect Microsoft MVPs Mike Burgess and Eric Howes and know they would not include VibrantMedia in the respective hosts files without justification.

  6. Robert,

    In the online and offline worlds, ads are (almost) always related to content. Advertisers buy ads because the content in the place where they purchase ads is relevant to the product or service they’re selling, or the content attracts the kind of people who are interested in that product.

    The big BIG difference between Vibrant and Google ads is that the Google ads do not embed themselves in my content with the specific purpose of looking like a hyperlink. They sit in a special ad zone that I designate, and the only way they fire is if a reader actively chooses to click on them.

    By contrast, I accidentally clicked on a Vibrant ad at BetaNews yesterday, trying to get it to go away so I could see what was underneath it. Maybe that’s why they pay more.

    I won’t pass judgment on your decision to use these ads, because that is not my place. All I’ll say is that I will never use them here, and I avoid visiting sites that do use them. I’m grateful you have full-text RSS feeds.

  7. I stuck with Amazon ads for my own site, if only because the offerings they provide seem a little less bizarre than some of the stuff that came up with Google’s ads.

  8. Just stumbled upon your missive here Ed.

    A couple points. The misspelling of Battelle’s last name was an honest mistake, even slipped by our copy editors. I think that was more of a nitpick then an honest to god problem with the article.

    To your comment that I was making lofty pronouncements of journalism and ethics, I find it interesting that you decided to not respond to the actual topic (which in its face is true) and instead went for something completely unrelated to what the article was about.

    There was no typo in FM, Battelle’s, or Arrington’s support of the Microsoft project. So what’s your point Ed? The point was that bloggers want to consistently be considered press, however when their feet are held to the fire, they shy away. (Not all mind you, but like Arrington, theres a vocal few that do).

    You don’t have an issue with this? Isn’t this what a lot of people hate the traditional media for? That they don’t know whether or not their copy is being bought by the highest bidder.

    As to our ads, we have NOWHERE NEAR the amount of ads that other news agencies do. It just so happened that Vibrant’s code picked up the word Microsoft and highlighted it.

    So, if you’d like to debate the points of the article, rather than nitpicking, that’s great and I look forward to a healthy discussion (the original point of the article anyway!) But you haven’t yet, thus my response here.

  9. Ed,

    Good to hear from you.

    Spelling a person’s name right is not a nitpick. It’s the most important part of the story. They teach you that in Journalism 1. Before you hit Send, you make sure you have the names right. When your whole story is about John Battelle and his media empire and you can’t spell his name right, you lose major credibility in my eyes.
    Good for not having too many ads. Bad for having ads IN YOUR ARTICLES. That’s my point. And if you can’t appreciate the irony of having a Microsoft ad IN AN ARTICLE about a blogger being criticized for having Microsoft ads, well, you need to calibrate your irony detector.

    Good for you for correcting the typos, finally. As for the substance, I’ve written enough about this topic already. If you used the search box you would have seen that I’ve addressed this issue in two lengthy posts. I don’t feel the need to rehash it. For your reference, here are the links:

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