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SponsoredReviews: A New Assault on the Blogosphere’s Credibility

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In the blogosphere, credibility and transparency are everything. Why should you believe me? Because hopefully what I've written in the past is fundamentally reasonable and even when you, the reader, disagree with me, it's because there's an honest difference of opinion and no cause to delve into potential ulterior motives exists. Sure, I tend to like and enthusiastically yak about social news sites (Digg, Reddit, Netscape, etc.) more than pure social networking sites (MySpace, Friendster, etc.), but it's hoped that that bias is born of my eccentricities and interests and not because I'm getting paid by Kevin Rose, Conde Nast, or the departing C.K. Sample.

SponsoredReviews represents a new assault on the blogosphere's credibility, on the heels of the commotion and controversy caused by PayPerPost's arrival on the scene. The scenario is basically the same: sign up and get paid to write about advertiser's products on your blog. Now, it's possible, maybe, for this sort of service to be a relatively innocuous scheme where writers are encouraged to experience new products and services and write about them in exchange for some kind of compensation. However, Michael Arrington gets right to the heart of the matter in diagnosing SponsoredReviews as nothing more than a linking scam: "While none of the other sites will admit that search engine rankings is a big part of these scams, SponsoredReviews lists it right on their home page as a benefit to advertisers. At the end of the day, these advertisers won’t care all that much what exactly these blogs say, as long as they are linking back to their product."

Tony Hung brings up the somewhat bizarre but nonetheless plausible notion that companies may even directly bribe bloggers, politician- or star-athletic prospect style, writing, "More recently, there was a bit of a stir in the blogosphere when Microsoft sent 'gifts' of Ferrari-branded laptops to bloggers to review Vista, as it was thought that Microsoft was bribing bloggers with gifts."

If readers will not be able to know which results in search rankings are from unbiased writers, that represents a huge credibility problem for the blogosphere. That could lead to a massive retreat of readers to those sources they feel they can trust, namely large and traditional media companies. These of course are the very same sources that millions spread out from in the first place, looking for new and fresh and vibrant information sources and communities in the form of the blogosphere.

Whether we like it or not, it seems that SponsoredReviews and PayPerPost or their ill bred offspring are not going away. The question is: how will the blogosphere defend its credibility in the coming days? Perhaps a third-party eBay-like service will emerge that will allow readers to assess "credibility points" in some form. Or maybe blog networks that proudly assert their independence will increase in fashion.

Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, assert that it is incumbent upon the writer to throw a lifeline to readers to save them from the swamp of uncertainty. SponsoredReviews and the like are new creatures in the blogosphere's murky depths that must be actively confronted.

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  • alessandro nicolo

    I agree. But how?

  • Eric Berlin

    It’s going to take a combination of efforts, Alessandro. To quote myself, “Perhaps a third-party eBay-like service will emerge that will allow readers to assess ‘credibility points’ in some form. Or maybe blog networks that proudly assert their independence will increase in fashion.”

    I do believe that in the end these kinds of services won’t amount to much and those bloggers who sign up will quickly learn that the compensation won’t match the credibility that they’ll take.

  • Christopher Rose

    I share your concerns up to a point, Eric, but if everything is conducted openly and bloggers are not lying, I don’t really see much harm.

    As for unbiased writers, I’ve never met one…

  • Eric Berlin

    I agree Chris that the damage may be minimal if there is great transparancy but I doubt many bloggers will be up front about getting paid, essentially, to link.

    And bias again comes back to transparancy. If a blogger is upfront about his/her bias then that fosters a greater sense of credibility.

  • Christopher Rose

    I think we should all be more upfront about money. Everyone has the right to earn a living and it seems quite silly that we should continue to get uptight about it.

    I really don’t see the point of papers refusing to accept freebies from companies and holding thast out as evidence of their probity and independence. There’s a million ways to be corrupted and the worst crime committed by a writer that lets themself be bought for the price of a couple of freebies is that they are too cheap!

    There’s not really a vast difference between getting a free CD or concert tickets for review and Microsoft giving out free laptops.

    The key thing is that all we marketing savvy post modern era folks keep telling the truth as we see it and, in our ever more open and open source world, any sellout becomes a lot more easy to detect.

    I agree totally that we should all be upfront about our biases too, whilst at the same time trying to transcend them and guarding at all costs against falling into the trap of blind prejudice.

  • Jarrod Hunt

    Hi Eric,

    Whored out blogs don’t keep large audiences. With disclosure being required, a blogger would be incredibly stupid to not do an honest review.

    If they have any readers at all, it will be clear to them whether he/she is being upfront.

    Readers don’t hate bloggers for making money, they hate when they get lied too.

    The exception being if the blog was entirely made up of sponsored reviews. Which we would not allow in our system anyways.

    As for the part about being only for links for gaming the Search Engines.. that is completely incorrect. Links are a great part of the deal, but not just for the search engines but also for the direct traffic. And lets not forget the branding.

    Getting reviewed on a major site can make a huge difference in a marketing campaign.

    Once again, I appreciate your review of our service Eric. Feedback like yours is exactly what reviews should be about… While I do not agree with you and Michael on most points, there is still a lot to be learned from your critics.

  • Eric Berlin

    Chris, I think the difference would be if the MS laptops were review “copies” (which would inevitably have to be returned for so expensive an item). It’s a subtle but significant difference I think.

    But yes, keeping as much as possible above board is a key in creating trust and credibility with readers.

  • Eric Berlin

    Jarrod – I appreciate your insight and kinds words, particularly considering I was not-so-nice in looking at SponsoredReviews. I agree that getting reviewed by a major site is significant. But, and with all respect, I don’t think a “major site” would be interested in getting involved with SponsoredReviews because of the very real potential for a credibility hit.

    Now, “sponsored editorial space” or some such, a clearly outlined column/feature/series that is upfront in saying “We’re talking about this product/service in this space because we’re getting paid to do so, but at the same time we’re trying to be objective about etc. etc. etc.” could be acceptible but I’m fearful that most bloggers would go to that great extent.

    I imagine that the typical blogger will sign up and be as guarded as possible in disclosing the relationship with SponsoredReviews (or PayPerPost, etc.).

    All of that said, I think it’s a very interesting develop to look at as the blogosphere begins to mature.

  • Nancy

    As a member of the masses being marketed to (as opposed to being a writer who would be blogging) I have to ask the question: who in hell would knowingly bother to even go to such a website, knowing it’s nothing but paid pandering? Granted the average American these days seems to have the IQ of an amoeba, especially as far as advertising & consumer discernment go, but surely anyone not either prepubescent or senile has enough smarts to realize these endorsements are nothing but crap.

  • Mark Schannon

    Ain’t nothing created under the spread wings of an angel that can’t be sullied by some toucans looking to make a buck regardless of where they spread their shit.

    In Jamesons Veritas