As blogging became more mainsteam — first in 2000 with Blogger, then after 2001 with all the political blogs that arose from seemingly nowhere — new business models developed. On one front, bloggers have convinced the corporate world that blogs should be an integral part of a company’s marketing and public relations plan. It’s a great way to reach the customers, etc. This way, individuals who enjoy online journaling have found a way to to make themselves marketable to companies.
Warning, this is a long one.
Search engines scour the web, looking for sites with quality content to serve to those who utilize the search. If I search Google for red lace lingerie or political conservative book, it’s in Google’s best interest that the best sites are returned first.
Companies want to be the first results in searches, so they pay other companies or hire people to make it happen for them. This created the search engine optimization craze. Clever people have determined that the best way to increase ranking among search engine results is to have already-highly-ranked sites link to the business that wishes to climb.
Since blogging is an activity heavy on links, it’s targeted by those in search engine optimization. Techniques they use include creating topical websites for the sole purpose of promoting one or more businesses. Hey, it’s what they get paid for.
As a result, the web gets filled with so much junk, and it’s getting harder to tell the quality sites from those that exist solely to boost someone’s paycheck. On top of that, the topic of personal finance is an easy target. There are a lot of varied financial services companies out there, and they’re all trying to make a buck.
I’ve seen personal finance weblogs where it’s easy to tell that the only reason the author created the website is to promote their or someone else’s business. There are some where it’s harder to tell, but I’m suspicious.
But what makes this website (and others I enjoy reading) different? Well, I’m a real person, with a real story to tell. (At least, I like to think so.) I talk about my mistakes, my financial problems, and what I’ve done to succeed in minor amounts. I don’t necessarily give advice; who am I to do so? I’m not a personal finance professional, I’m just a fan. Does the biggest Mets fanatic think he can coach the team better than the current management? Well, he probably does think that he can bring the team to the Series, but it’s not going to make him a manager in reality.
Every once in a while I’m pointed, through e-mail, to a finance-related website whose purpose I can’t determine. There’s no personal information. The site is filled with financial information, which may or may not be quality. There are links to different companies who offer services (through affiliate marketing), but what’s the point of the website?
I started accepting advertising (through Google Adsense) on this site last year, but I like to think my intent is different than those sites who exist solely for financial reasons. My goal isn’t to mislead the public or drive my readers in any direction that isn’t the best option from my point of view. The ads seen are randomly generated based on content and in general I have no experience with the companies advertised.
Last week, I accepted an offer from Emigrant Direct (actually, their outsourced marketing promotions consultant, Flying Point Media) to place an ad on my site, but I’ll only be compensated (a small amount) if a new customer opens an account through the link. I don’t think I’ll be making much money for either Emigrant Direct or myself, but that’s okay, since that’s not my purpose here. In fact, I was skeptical of Emigrant Direct at first, but over the past few months, they’ve held my money and deposited interest without any problems. The company doesn’t pay me for anything other than new accounts through the sidebar link; when I talk about them, or any company, it will always be my honest feelings.
But you, the readers, need to know this. You should expect full disclosure from any web publisher or blogger. The web is becoming a place where it’s hard to tell whether an article or blog entry is driven by true feelings or by a company at varying levels of visibility. At Consumerism Commentary, even though there are ads on the side, I must be trusted to be completely honest about recommendations and experiences.
It comes down to this: if you are getting paid to talk about and promote a product, your readers should know. There’s nothing we can do about blog spamming, but if readers expect the most from those they regularly read, I think there would be more quality out there. So ask! Most blogs accept comments from visitors. If you’re unsure of someone’s motivation, ask whether they’re getting paid to promote the business or not. Maybe they are, maybe not, but it’s better to know.
For an example of a thorough disclaimer, take a look at Free Money Finance’s Ground Rules. I’ve always had a disclaimer at least mentioning that I’m not a finance professional, but I’ll get around to expanding it.
Update: This post is featured in The 150th Carnival of the Vanities.
Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published July 30, 2005.