Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 22. Ethics for Bloggers
The Complete Writer
Part IV: Blogging
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The Sanity Discount: Integrity, Small Businesses, and Bloggers
Bloggers who run ads are small businesses, of course. A couple of ripples in the daily flow of things led me, over the course of several days, to ruminate about integrity and ethics, and about how they should direct the course of the seemingly ubiquitous American side businesses, including our blogs.
Fair play for a client
First, a very nice new client had recently wandered in through the door [his character is irrelevant to the issue, but nevertheless: a very sweet human being he was]. He said he wanted someone to edit website copy for a successful small business in the trades. I sent my rate sheet, which frames my rates on a per-page basis. He wanted to know what I would charge by the hour. I said sixty bucks, not an unreasonable amount in the large scheme of things (twenty years ago a friend here was getting $120 an hour for similar work). He, doing business in a large city far, far away where employees’ and independent contractors’ pay is not throttled by right-to-work laws, didn’t even blink.
So I dove into the project, which was kind of fun. “Kind of fun” because it didn’t entail a lot of technical language or esoteric theory, unlike most of the stuff I do. Mathematical biosciences this was not, nor was it abstruse postmodernist blather. But there was a fair amount of it, and it needed substantial reorganization, rewriting, and new research and writing. I enjoyed this little endeavor over the course of about twenty-two hours. Eventually I wrapped the job and added up my bill, and . . .
Holy mackerel! At $60 an hour, the tab came to enough for me to buy a condo in the guy’s expensive city. It really did seem out of line, given the relative ease and mild entertainment value of the work.
Okay, it’s true that if I based my fees on how much fun the job is, I’d have to edit novels for my favorite genre publisher for free. But still . . . there’s a limit.
Seeking a fairer arrangement, I calculated what it would cost the client if I charged my highest page rate—justifiable, I figured, because of the amount of actual writing I did—and came up with an amount that was enough for The Copyeditor’s Desk to buy itself a couple of laser printer cartridges. Fairly respectable, but not enough to break the bank.
So that was what I ended up billing: about four or five hundred bucks less than the hourly rate would have commanded. But at $60 an hour, the bottom line added up to a figure utterly beyond reason. It didn’t seem right to charge that much for that kind of work.
Call it the Sanity Discount.
Hard on the heels of that exchange, an ongoing conundrum resurfaced.
Black-hat “advertising” in the blogosphere
Funny about Money is large enough to attract the attention of various individuals and groups who bill themselves as advertisers. Almost all of them want me to run paid text links. And they’re willing to pay pretty well for the privilege. I could easily double or triple Funny’s revenues by selling paid text links.
These people and their brokers approach the blogger by saying either that they want to buy ad space on the site or that they are generously offering a guest post, “absolutely free to you.”
Trouble is, doing so puts one afoul of Google’s arcane rules, designed to protect its search engine algorithm. To simplify a complicated story, if Google catches you publishing paid text links (as sooner or later it will), your page rank (a metric that dictated where your site appeared in a Google search but that has, in recent months, been abandoned in favor of “blog authority”) would magically drop to zero.
So, after you’ve worked for months or years to build a respectable page rank, these folks come along and take advantage of it; then when their practices kill your page rank, they of course abandon you.
That particular aspect is not at issue here, though. What we have at issue is the so-called advertiser’s strategy to evade discovery, which is to produce copy for a post that fits the blogger’s site theme. The paid link is then embedded in the post, in such a way that the link appears to point to something relevant to the post’s subject.
It’s important to understand that paid links are not advertising. They’re a device to suck link juice from a site with a relatively decent page rank into the buyer’s own site, as a strategy to cause the other site appear at or near the top of a Google search.
In other words, what looks like a real post is a deceptive device to mount self-serving links whose purpose has nothing to do with the host site’s content. Often it contains a link pointing to some outfit selling a service or product that runs counter to the host site’s reason for being. Why, for example, would a personal finance blogger who urges readers to get out of debt, manage money wisely, and avoid loan sharks recommend taking out a payday loan?
Why? To collect a hundred bucks for publishing two words attached to a live do-follow link, that’s why.
Such a post is, in short, advertorial. Actually, it doesn’t even rise to that level, because the articles are not really intended to be read; they exist to carry the links, which exist to use the host’s page rank to jack up the search engine page rank on the link seller’s site. While they’re billed as advertising, they’re actually a form of black-hat SEO.
Editorial vs. advertorial
Over the years since I started in journalism, I’ve worked for some of the most prominent regional periodicals in my part of the country. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as journalistic ethics, and after some thirty-two years of practicing and teaching, they tend to inhabit your thinking. When I came up, there was a sharp divide between advertising and editorial—in fact, the ad and circulation departments were housed on the other side of the building from where the editors and artists worked.
Magazines did publish crass little “articles” written by highly paid ad copywriters—earning far more than any of us did!—whose purpose was to plug paying customers. This was not surprising: magazines survive on ad revenue. Subscription income doesn’t suffice to support a print publication. However, ethical publishers mark advertorials as such: with a running header or footer saying something like “Advertisement.” Often advertorials are set off typographically and even printed on slightly different paper from the rest of the rag.
To publish advertising or SEO masquerading as a normal blog post without cluing the reader to the fact that the stuff is paid advertising: that’s dishonest, in the same way passing off an advertorial as real journalism is dishonest.
That is why many publications don’t print advertorial at all, and why those who do, if they have any decency at all, label it prominently as advertising.
Times have changed, of course, with the advent of the brave new world that is the Internet. And blogging is and is not journalism, though it has readers who presumably expect some standard of honesty from their writers. Here’s what journalistic webmaster Robert Niles says about the issue, writing at the Online Journalism Review:
The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.
The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.
Drawing the line in the shifting sands of ethics
Accordingly, I marked the paid-link peddler’s copy as a Sp0nsor3d P0st! The numerals were intended to throw off Google’s nosy bots, which go around searching for clues to paid links.
This elicited a squawk of dismay. When I refused to remove the notice saying the post was a paid article containing links to the author’s clients’ sites, the deal fell through. Cheerfully, I removed the post from my site, and good riddance to it.
To cope with the practice of secreting paid links in fake stories, Google began to demand that all links to commercial sites be coded as no-follow links, robbing them of the coveted “link juice.” Would-be advertisers hated this, of course—because the link juice is what they were paying for—and usually they would then decline to place a paid link unless it was do-follow. Many bloggers simply take a chance that Google will never catch them, and they justified the potential swat-down by arguing that PR didn’t matter anyway.
Maybe it didn’t, maybe it did. The technicalities of page rank were way above my pretty little head, and so I didn’t trouble myself with them.
But one could argue, with some justice, that Google’s policy on paid do-follow links was hugely unfair, since Google AdSense places plenty of paid links on your site. And because Google pays nothing like what these sometimes sleazy “advertisers” will pay, Google itself takes on a whiff of the exploitive.
About that, I say it is what it is.
Ironically, while Google’s policy is self-serving (its motive has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the way the company’s business model works), it in fact fed into that fundamental journalistic ethic: the effect of the rule was to discourage deceptive content and to encourage separation of advertising and editorial.
Old-fashioned . . . but then so is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
 Check out Martin Langfield’s discussion at NiemanLab: http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/03/the-flip-side-of-black-hat-seo-if-your-news-site-publishes-paid-links-you-risk-googles-wrath/
 Eventually Google tried to suppress PageRank as a device for assessing a site’s influence. Today an advertiser will ask what a site’s “authority” is. Danny Sullivan discusses this in “RIP Google PageRank Score: A Retrospective on How It Ruined the Web,” March 9, 2016, Search Engine Land, http://searchengineland.com/rip-google-pagerank-retrospective-244286
 “Link Schemes,” n.d., Google. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356?hl=en&hl=en&rd=1