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Internet

May 5, 2007

Walking the Line on Blogging Ethics

Ed Shull says his company has found a way for bloggers to get paid for writing about advertisers without undermining their integrity. Gelf isn't so sure the results meet that ideal.

Hadley Robinson

Several companies are paying bloggers to write posts on behalf of advertisers. Are some more ethical than others in this controversial practice of paying for play? Blogitive claims it is, because it doesn't force bloggers to put a positive spin on the advertisers' wares. Yet Gelf's inquiries suggest that most do, anyway, because it's easier to regurgitate a press release than to write something original and critical.

Ed Shull
"Bloggers are being paid to write something unique and relevant; they're not being paid for endorsement."

Ed Shull

Blogitive was born in 2005, a year after Ed Shull, CEO of its parent company USWeb, had begun to casually post jobs on Craigslist for bloggers. Participating bloggers are paid to write and post about a "web release," which is essentially a press release from an advertiser about its product. "They can write whatever they like," Shull told Gelf. "Bloggers are being paid to write something unique and relevant; they're not being paid for endorsement." He adds, "If bloggers didn't have opinions, they wouldn't be bloggers."

Shull says his bloggers' freedom-of-expression doesn't deter most advertisers, but some clients have been unhappy. One Russian-bride website, for instance, didn't appreciate bloggers' comparison of its business to slavery, according to Shull. He declined to name the client.

The most heavily blogged such website is Lover's Planet, which connects wife-seeking American men with Russian and eastern European "brides" hoping to move to the US. Dozens of blogs have posted items about Lover's Planet, most of them overwhelmingly positive—and similar to each other, and one of them confirms to Gelf that the post was a sponsored one, arranged by Blogitive. Most blogs mentioned these assertions about Lover's Planet, compared to its competition: The women on the site have a lower divorce rate, a more-serious commitment to marriage and family, and looks more-similar to models'. Certain phrases were duplicated, or nearly duplicated, in nearly every review. (Lover's Planet didn't respond to Gelf's email inquiring as to whether it's a Blogitive client.)

For example, this line, or a slight variation, was included in over half the posts. Here are a few:

Lovers Planet unites a diverse community of single Russian women seeking men for marriage and romance.
Tracks to Success

Lovers Planet…a dating and personals agency that gets together a diverse community of single Russian women seeking men for marriage and romance.
Vanilla Pudding Blog

Lovers Planet...a dating and personals agency that gets together a diverse community of single Russian women seeking men for marriage and romance. Time and Time Again Strawberriann

Lovers Planet unites a diverse community of single Russian women seeking men for marriage and romance.
Community Thought

Some bloggers attributed these claims to the business, but most stated them as facts. And reading these posts feels like reading the same thing over and over. Jeff Rogers, owner of Community Thoughts, confirms to Gelf that the post—and another one at his blog Market2MySpace—were sponsored posts arranged by Blogitive.

When Shull is asked about these similar posts, he declines to confirm that Lover's Planet is an affiliate but tells Gelf, "Since bloggers are given a press release that is not negative, the chance of the post being negative is pretty rare. We see few instances where there are negative posts."

Rewriting press releases is so easy that some Blogitive associates churn them out with regularity—which may be good for their bank account, and less so for their readers. Shull says that to deter people from writing only for money, Blogitive requires bloggers to write two posts between every sponsored post. "We have some people we have to watch because they are just pushing out content as much as possible and the quality of their work is suffering because of that," Shull tells Gelf. "So it has to be a regular blog; it can't be something that nobody reads and is just a link for search engines."

These "regular blogs" should have something in common with mainstream media, according to Blogitive's website, which says its potential affiliates "would simply be writing a quick article about their news release. No different than a newspaper does."

Does that mean Shull considers his bloggers journalists? "I think it really depends on the motivation and ethics of the work that the blogger does. Some want to be journalists but don't want to be held accountable. They want the credibility but they don't want the responsibility," Shull said. "I do think there are some great bloggers out there who are great journalists. Those kinds of people are going to be against Blogitive."

Colleen Caldwell isn't one of those people. Caldwell, who says she's the highest-earning blogger for Blogitive competitor PayPerPost, writes for nearly all the sponsored-content blog networks on her blog, Simple Kind Of Life. She says people who object to her ilk are mistaken about the nature of bloggers. "We're bloggers, not journalists," she says. "A lot of those guys seem to think those are one and the same."

Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.







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Article by Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.

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