Monday, January 15, 2007

SponsoredReviews: A New Assault on the Blogosphere's Credibility

In the blogosphere, credibility and transparency is everything. Why should you believe me? Because hopefully what I've written in the past is fundamentally reasonable and, even when you the reader disagrees 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.


Todd said...

I figure that supply and demand will solve this problem.

Either the pay will suck (in which case bloggers won't stick with it enough to build value) or it won't (in which case more and more bloggers will try and enter the scene, flooding the market).

Eric Berlin said...

I hope that you're right Todd, but I see the problem as being less about the business arrangement between bloggers and businesses seeking their services (I'm all for web people getting paid, believe me!) and more about what happens if the market is flooded. I'm fearful that the credibility of the blogosphere could be tarnished, search engine rankings will plummet, people will be fearful of information promoted by anything that smells like a blog, etc.

Thanks for the comment!