Online Ethics Debated
B-to-b publishing consultant and influential blogger Paul Conley accused tech publisher Ziff Davis in May of running astray of editorial ethics with its online content. In a strongly worded blog post early in the month, complete with advance warning of "foul language," Conley had this to say: "There’s no reason to pretend any longer that Ziff Davis is a reputable company."
Conley’s wrath was directed at Ziff’s decision to use an advertising feature called IntelliTXT developed by Vibrant Media that hyperlinks keywords within an article to a pop-up advertisement. To Conley, and others, the practice skirts advertising transparency, even though the pop-up window is labeled as an advertisement and the hyperlinks are uniquely formatted (in this case, in green with a double underline).
Room for Interpretation
But for Michael Vizard, editorial director and senior vice president for Ziff Davis’s Enterprise Group, the feature did not initially cross ethical lines, that is, until a revised guideline was released by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. In a response to Folio: regarding Conley’s comments, Vizard felt that existing association guidelines left room for interpretation. "The IntelliTXT ads are clearly labeled as advertisements in compliance with existing ASME and ASBPE guidelines as we understand them. Should these officially recognized bodies adopt specific policies related to IntelliTXT ads, we would welcome that clarification and would also be inclined to comply with those guidelines," said Vizard.
Furthermore, added Vizard, "At no time does the existence of the IntelliTXT ads ever influence editorial content as the ads are applied well after the content is produced. The editorial team has no information or incentives related to the topics in the ads."
Ziff is certainly not the only publisher to implement the technology. Forbes.com editors rallied to have the service yanked from the site in late 2004, despite receiving no objections from readers during its brief implementation. Shortly thereafter, Vibrant Media announced signing 210 new publishers over an eight-month period, including Entrepreneur.com and Popular Mechanics. The company has its in-text ad feature in 2,200 Web sites. Publishers are paid on a CPM basis for each ad that’s displayed.
An About Face
Ziff’s recent IntelliTXT implementation is not the first time Conley (who has consulted for IDG, a competitor to Ziff Davis) has accused the company of breaking edit ethics rules online. In an encounter in January, Conley made repeated appeals to Ziff officials to dismantle the IntelliTXT feature on eWeek’s site. It’s reappearance in May inspired Conley to resume his campaign. And again, it seemed to work. The hyperlinks vanished only days after Conley’s outcry. But an official statement from ASBPE helped. Following a guideline clarification, Vizard removed the IntelliTXT feature from the Enterprise Group’s Web sites;eWeek.com, Baseline.com and CIOinsight.com. "We’re responding to the clarification of ASBPE policies concerning IntelliTXT," he said.
What the Committees Said
ASBPE president and CFO senior editor Roy Harris, after noticing Conley’s latest Ziff lashing, took a day to deliberate with the rest of ASBPE’s ethics committee.
"This debate has turned out to be a good opportunity to show how our ethics-code machinery works," said Harris after he met with the ethics committee. "The committee members came back strongly supporting the code’s statement that editors should have the final say about whether to use hypertext links in editorial;whether they are hyptertext edit links or links to vendors. That is our preferred editorial practice."
Furthermore, Harris and his team tightened a paragraph in the guidelines that had allowed some loose interpretation. The new statement reads: "Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader."
Harris described his committee’s statement this way: "Web-based journalism offers exciting new ways for b-to-b journalists to tell their stories, including through hypertext links. But it also presents certain dangers that exist in a form different from what print publications face. We feel the code offers a clear guideline: Editors, not publishers or ad-sales folks, should make the final decisions on ALL uses of links within edit copy. Also, ad links within editorial text should NOT be sold under any condition."
What Would Users Do?
Yet as the debate rolls on, publishers have still been using the service for the last few years;some with more consistency than others. Vizard’s Enterprise Group, shortly after Conley’s latest outcry, removed the links from its sites. And, in this case, the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the linking service is reflective of experimentation as publishers continue to look for revenue opportunities online.
Vibrant Media spokeswoman Laura Colona says user experience is a key indicator of online content performance. "Unlike the print medium, online content is interactive and users expect to be able to pull relevant information, both commercial and non-commercial, conveniently and on their own terms," she says. "We’ve consistently used the double-underline to signpost that this is not a standard editorial hypertext link, and users understand the distinction. Our internal reporting, research and user study programs demonstrate that users do understand that when they choose to mouse over a double-underlined term or phrase, a display or video ad will appear."
And Vizard, before complying with ASBPE’s new guidelines, noted users did not seem bothered by the hyperlinks. "Readers can turn off this feature at any time. Thus far, a negligible number have chosen to do so. And even fewer have registered any concern. In fact, traffic across all Ziff Davis properties continues to climb," he said.