Forbes’s labeled and unlabeled ad blogs

By Felix Salmon
November 4, 2010
accused Forbes's Lewis DVorkin of selling out his blogging platform, his lieutenant Andrea Spiegel responded in the comments, saying that the new adblogs would be "clearly labeled and transparent to all".

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When I accused Forbes’s Lewis DVorkin of selling out his blogging platform, his lieutenant Andrea Spiegel responded in the comments, saying that the new adblogs would be “clearly labeled and transparent to all.” She added:

Hopefully the criticism will wait until after we actually launch an AdVoice, when everyone can see it and judge for themselves.

Well, that day has come: the first AdVoice — SAP — has now launched, and it’s pretty much identical to all the other blogs on the Forbes platform, including DVorkin’s own. The differences are that SAP gets to include a banner ad for itself, and that there’s a little squib above that banner saying “Forbes AdVoice”.

That said, the branding is clear: the blog is clearly written by SAP, giving the SAP view on various topics. What’s still unclear, because the SAP blog is so new, is how links to the SAP blog from the rest of the Forbes.com site are going to work: will SAP posts be treated the same way as posts on other blogs, or will links to those posts be labeled as links to paid-for advertising content?

DVorkin himself hails the launch of the SAP blog with a post of his own, which talks about how marketers have become “respected content providers in an increasingly information-obsessed society.” He continues:

Everyone can be a creator or curator of content. What was yesterday’s audience is today’s cadre of potential experts who can report what they know or filter information for distribution to friends who trust their judgments.

Advertisers can do the same…

At Forbes, we’re beginning to open up our print and digital platforms so many more knowledgeable and credible content creators can provide information and perspective and connect with one another. In doing so, we will be totally transparent. All participants will be clearly identified, delineated and labeled.

I don’t actually find myself objecting very much to this, if only because the Forbes blogs didn’t have a good enough reputation in the first place that it matters much when they start getting mixed up with overt advertising.

But while I was on the site, I clicked around a little bit, and soon stumbled across this post. “The Best Rewards Credit Cards For Your Lifestyle” is the headline, but look closely at those hyperlinks. Common search-engine phrases like “rewards credit card”, “airline credit card”, “hotel credit card” and others are linked to just one site, cardhub.com. Altogether the post contains seven links, and all of them point to Cardhub.

Nowhere on the post is there any indication that the author of the post, Odysseas Papadimitriou, is the CEO of Cardhub. But he’s managed to convert an editorial blog — not an AdVoice blog — into a massive advertisement for his own company, complete with lots of highly valuable SEO links.

That’s not “knowledgeable and credible content creators can providing information and perspective and connecting with one another,” it’s advertising and marketing. And it emphatically is not “totally transparent,” nor is the marketer in question “clearly identified, delineated and labeled.”

Even if the AdVoice blogs are acceptable, then, Forbes.com as a whole seems to be very comfortable transgressing ethical lines with its blogs. I wouldn’t trust anything there to be what it seems.

Update: DVorkin responds in the the comments, saying that he “learned a lot from the post on credit cards”, where the byline has been quietly changed from Odysseas Papadimitriou to Card Hub. The SEO links remain, however, without any kind of nofollow tags.

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Comments
4 comments so far

Felix,

Now that you’ve posted this, I bet that Forbes’ MoneyBuilder blog post comes down soon enough. Why? Because Forbes didn’t get a cut!

The True/Slant platform appears open enough that self-promoters can get in and post. That’s not at all the same as the sponsored AdVoice blogs Forbes is launching. The MoneyBuilder blog is just sneaky.

Re: The AdVoice blogs, I am with you that the idea of a company being a source of information is no longer objectionable. There’s certainly stuff that SAP knows about — perhaps things they know more about than anyone else in the world. We can’t applaud corporate transparency and CEO bloggers without admitting that companies and institutions sometimes have something to say.

And I’d much rather be marketed to with useful information than with glossy photos and a tagline.

Posted by S.Howard-Sarin | Report as abusive

Yes, advertisers have useful information, but it’s a slippery slope. At what point does the advertiser say “Don’t run this article, it contains information harmful to me.” When you had that wall, you had at least the appearance of independence in which readers could have some level of trust. When ads appear as editorial content, the camel’s nose is in the tent, so to speak.

I do think that publishers and advertisers have to find new ways of working together. But without the trust of independent editorial to readers, publishers simply become an extension of the corporate marketing department. That may be the publisher’s solution to staying in business, but it creates a very different beast.

Oh, and as a reader I would not pay for advertiser-generated content.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

felix,
thanks for your interest in what we’re doing at forbes. i appreciate your comments and observations. our contributor platform launched late this summer and remains a work in progress, particularly group contributor pages. as we evolve the platform our goal is to work to make sure the author’s background is clearly visible. for the moment, if you click on the byline you are taken to the author’s profile page, with biographical information. our goal is to offer forbes users quality content from journalists, authors, topic specific experts and others. i, for one, learned a lot from the post on credit cards.

Posted by lewisdvorkin | Report as abusive

Don’t agree with the one halfway positive thing you say on the sponsored blogs – that ‘the branding is clear.’ Compare it to ZDNet’s editorial blog covering SAP
http://www.zdnet.com/topics/sap+ag?tag=h eader;header-sec

Niche beat blogs like ZDNet’s are pretty widespread these days. Is it clear graphically that Forbes’ is fundamentally different than them, written *by* SAP as opposed to *about* SAP? Not to me.

Posted by MickWeinstein | Report as abusive
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