Paul Conley shares my belief (or, more correctly, I share his) that text within the body of a news article should not be hyperlinked to advertisements. Paul has long been the leading opponent to this practice among the small group of us who are sometime labeled “magazine bloggers” or “b2b media bloggers.” I am 100% agreement with his complaint. Today, he blogs that Ziff Davis (not currently related to ZDNet) has again started to embed ads in news articles. This may seem like a nuanced and esoteric issue, but it’s not hard to understand if you follow the common sense and ethically enlightened belief that in the context of a news story — the edit well — advertisements and sponsorships should be clearly marked as such. If I’m reading a story and I see a word linked, then my expectation as a reader is that the link goes to something editorial directly related to the word or term highlighted. Likewise, if I see something that is marked “adv.,” then I think it goes to something that is advertising. I am not against advertising (obviously) or advertising online. I’m not even opposed to having clearly marked advertising or sponsored content that is interspersed with editorial content. The practice that Paul (and I) oppose is the hidden nature of hyperlinked-text advertising.
This is a slippery slope. The technology of hyperlinking is racing forward and the editorial and advertising usage of the link will follow the technology. For an example of “the future,” visit any article on the New York Times website and double click on any word, whether it is underlined or not. You will be taken to an “encyclopedia entry” for that word. It’s a very cool feature, but only because the Times is smart enough to tread gently on the feature: there are no ads on the results page except for the “powered by Answers.com” icon. But soon, who knows? I am sure an argument can be made for how a link from one page that is editorial content sponsored by advertising to another page that is editorial content sponsored by advertising fits within the parameters of ethically appropriate practices.
Also, what about a news article that clearly states at the beginning of the article that all links in the article are to ads. Would that make it ethical? In my mind, it would make it about as ethical as a blog post that a marketer purchased through one of the “pay to post” services that require the blogger to disclose somewhere that the post was purchased: in other words, it could be morally defendable, but still slimy. As a reader, I’d unsubscribe from the RSS feed of the blog/website and would, whenever possible, use other sources.
Disclosure and transparency are the best measures of ethics. Advertising and sponsorships are good things. But, how those sponsorships are executed and where and how that advertising appears is what make them appropriate — or not.
Later: After Scott (see comments) noted that a user can turn off the text ads, I clicked over to the site and discovered that, yes, if one knows where to go and how to do it, one can opt out of the hypertext linked ads. Again, that’s an ethical feint — like announcing at the top of the article that links go to ads — that may provide a publisher some room for a fuzzy defense of the practice, but at what cost? Certainly, it’s not worth what it must be to signal to your writers and readers when you do this.