The Context of Character: Are the Links in Your Blog Posts for Sale?

The photo from my blog's previous design. I love that cat! 😉

I really like the Cyber Journalists Code of Ethics and have referred back to it as things have come through my inbox lately.

I've often been asked for advertising space and have toyed with the idea of the little 125 x 125 boxes like Techcrunch does.

However, as my husband and I've discussed this at length, it comes back to, what is this blog for?

This blog is for sharing with you what I'm learning, reflecting on technology trends as they happen, and most of all for inspiring teachers and educators (and yes, even parents) to realize the nobility of the calling of educating this generation of wonderful, beautiful, and oft misunderstood students.

But the advertising requests of late have had me a bit irate. Let me tell you why. I want you to know about this, so you'll be ready when it comes your way. Let me give you the three flavors of request I've seen in the past week.

Request Flavor #1 Contextual Editing of a Past Post
1) A solicitation asking for an advertisement, but then requesting that I EDIT AN OLD POST to include a contextual link to their site and even a small insinuation that I'm recommending the site.

My response:
First I was shocked, but then, I realized that this is just plain unethical. I don't care if others are doing it, but the content on my blog should be from the author it is intended. It is not for sale. (The ethics of this have been discussed for some time.) Business sites are doing this like crazy, but most have a contextual link generation tool and WE KNOW THEY ARE DOING IT when we see those odd green links.

As Kip and I discussed it, we agreed about the old proverb that I have hanging beside by bed – the first thing I look at every morning – stitched in cross stitch by my guidance counselor from high school.

“A good name is more desirable than great riches.” Proverbs 22:1

Right or wrong – this blog is me — warts and all. I'm a full time teacher- no hired guns writing for me, and my blog content is not for sale. If I link, it is because I want to. I may test equipment, test products, talk to friends, read my email, and read books – but if I write a review it is because I decided to and not because someone paid me.

But the biggest issue with this is DISCLOSURE. According to the bloggers code of ethics:

“• Distinguish factual information and commentary from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

and the section on accountability

Be Accountable
Bloggers should:
• Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
• Explain each Weblog's mission and invite dialogue with the public over its content and the bloggers' conduct.
Disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence content. When exceptions are made, disclose them fully to readers.
• Be wary of sources offering information for favors. When accepting such information, disclose the favors.
• Expose unethical practices of other bloggers.
• Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

For me, the items in red here are the most at issue. These weren't disclosed link requests but to look like I wrote these links in context.

My Conclusion: If you are asked by an “advertiser” to edit a past post or write them into a future post without full disclosure, they are asking you to be unethical as a blogger.

Request Flavor #2 Editing of Student Content

Request in my inbox:

Edit a past wiki of the Flat Classroom project to include a contextual link to an advertiser.

My response:
Again, it is one thing to place a banner ad on a page and if that is what they were asking, that is another issue.  However, this is clearly beyond unethical. Student work should be STUDENT WORK. I saw red on this request when I REALIZED what this person was asking!

(Think of this – what happens when schools start seeing monetization of student work as an income source? Is that ethical? Be ready and talk about it now! What happens if businesses approach our students with monetary offers to put links into content they are producing?)

Request Flavor #3: Box on the Sidebar of My blog

Request: Will you sell us a 125 x 125 place on the right side of your blog?

My response: No.

(Not now. I can't say not ever but not now. If, God forbid, something happened to me and my children wanted to make income off the traffic on this blog and weren't going to write – that is another matter and their decision.)

If you look carefully at leading authors like Seth Godin, you'll see he's clearly selling his books. He's shunned other marketing. But of course, Seth Godin, is… well, Seth Godin. He can do whatever he wants with his blog and he's still going to make money from other sources.

Now, Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Workweek fame, chooses to do affiliate marketing and banner ads. The book ProBlogger (my definitive favorite book on blogging) it really comes down to an individual choice and the purpose for your blog.  Problogger says:

“If your primary monetization strategy is to use indirect methods or sell your own product, you might want to consider using your blog real estate for those channels. Also, you have to consider how tacky the advertisements tend to be in your niche.”

My friend Miguel Guhlin used to have Google Adsense, but now it seems to be removed. In the education field, I definitely think Google Adsense sends up red flags. For example, if I talk about writing a term paper, it will place ads selling term papers in my sidebar. That would contradict and counter to the purpose of my blog and what I'm trying to teach. Adsense is not for me.

And honestly, though the traffic on this blog is tempting to sell ads for, right now as Kip and I talk about it – it is not what I'm selling. I didn't really start this blog to SELL anything but to share and to help and to learn.

But now, if people call me to speak, or write for them, or give them advice on issues at their school and I can do what I love and get paid for it on the side – sure, that is a great thing. When I've shared my stats with some, they've called me crazy for NOT monetizing it. But as Kip and I talked, it comes back to:

“A good name is more desirable than great riches.” Proverbs 22:1

Besides, I've been hugely blessed with some great speaking opportunities into which I throw my whole heart and soul (and practice like a fiend for, I might add! I think my mirrors in the hotel room get tired of watching me!)  With many friends around the world, this is only the beginning for me. I feel that long term, this is the right decision for what I'm doing, my audience of readers AND, education as a whole.

Like it or not, others are watching and now that so many of you read my blog, I take that seriously.

(And know this, as I tell you OFTEN, I have ONE affiliate program that I use – Amazon – because I would be writing about and linking to those books and products anyway. Research shows most people expect links to the products that are mentioned on blogs and if they choose to support me in that way, then great. If not, that is fine too.  However, I would never use an affiliate link in any other blog except those I personally own as that would be unethical!)

Could Bloggers You Know Be Selling Out on the Sly?

But this raises a huge question and thus the point for my pontificating openly. If I'm getting these solicitations you can bet the ruler in your desk drawer that other educational bloggers are getting them too!  (Unless, for some reason, I am the subject of some investigative report or “sting operation” on contextual linking – but honestly, I doubt that is the case.)

Three of these have come in the past week and more before it!

Don't get me wrong – DECIDING to advertise or be an affiliate and fully disclosing it is an individual, personal decision – one that is different for each blogger.

However, CONTEXTUAL LINKING, editing of past work to include an advertiser without full disclosure and, God forbid, EDITING STUDENT WORK TO INCLUDE LINKS is repulsive, offensive, and down right WRONG.  Don't do it!

I've tried to remain distant from this and reflective, but I cannot. Is your integrity worth $40 or $50 dollars? Is mine?

Is this the beginning of a problem?

Request for Disclosure
To me, it is evident that we truly need to start having a blogging code of conduct on our own blogs. I'd like to have disclosure from the blogs I read if they sell contextual links or not.

I will tell you in this post, I do not sell contextual links and should someone sponsor Flat Classroom projects or the Conference, for example, if I write about their product it is because I use it and find it useful. I would have written about it anyway. They don't pay me to write anything, they don't approve my posts, and they don't tell me what to write.

I don't have a suggested, except perhaps we should have an edubloggers code of ethics? Or maybe just a personal code of ethics as it will be different for each. The bottom line is that it should be disclosed.

I've put a start on the bottom of my blog on my personal code of ethics statement.

Request for your Input
So, on this blog post, I am asking input. I know that many of you will be shocked and outraged at two (and maybe three) of these solicitations, and rightly so. Some of you may not see a problem with them and we'll have to respectfully disagree.

But my biggest concerns are this:

a) That educational blogging content is uncontaminated by embedded contextual advertising without full disclosure of affiliations. (Thanks to commenter Susan Ens Funk below – I've revised this and the next statement by striking the word “sanctity” and using “uncontaminated”!)

b) Student contextual content should be uncontaminated from advertising influence within the links in their writing.
(What happens when educational institutions start “monetizing student content” to raise money? What happens if we don't talk to students and they get solicited?)

c) Raising awareness that this practice is out there.  
Starting the discussion is the first step.

So, when you state your opinion, please also suggest any ideas for courses of action that should be taken. If you have a code of conduct on your blog, I'd appreciate links below for both myself and others.

Teach me, my friends. Enlighten me. Sometimes I think I  know what I'm doing with this blogging thing and then something happens to make me feel like a newbie all over again.

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28 thoughts on “The Context of Character: Are the Links in Your Blog Posts for Sale?

  1. If you have ads on the pages of your website – that isn’t an issue. Are you putting the banner ads on teacher and school websites? Student websites? Is there full disclosure.

    To me, this is about disclosure and ethics. In the past, I’ve always advocated all student spaces should be ad free – which led to the original taking off of ads for the Ning website. Wikispaces also does this. That is adsense.

    I don’t know – if the students have ads on their blogs, it is a matter of who OWNS the content. There certainly should be some policies at the school level and I think that parents (and students) should always be able to “opt out.” But honestly, I really hadn’t thought of it.

  2. Interesting take on the matter. There will be a link or two in this post – feel free to keep it hidden….

    I work for LearningEarnings, an we’re trying to use the internet ad craze to the benefit of teachers. We’re coming out of private beta (Alabama) this year and our site is as follows:

    We give Learning Earning “Bucks” to teachers (current 100/student/month) to distribute to students for any reason they see fit.

    Students login to our site and redeem those “Bucks” for REAL goods – snacks, toys, etc. We even have larger items (gaming consoles, etc) that require a lot of points.

    We send an initial “inventory” of goods to each school that signs up (Cheezits, Airheads, silly bands, pencils, balls, etc) and replenish the inventory when it gets low. Larger items are mailed to the school.

    Teachers distribute the “rewards” to the kids in class to reinforce to all kids what the LearningEarnings program is about.

    This program is FREE to the teachers/school/student – no money changes hands.

    We are advertising supported. Yes, we have a few ads on each page. In our world, pageviews, click throughs and CPM are king. We had ZERO complaints last year from our schools about advertising.

    We’re a small company. We’re doing everything we can to keep costs down so that we can keep the prices of the rewards low for kids.

    I’m interested in your take on this business model. I’m one of three employees (developer), and I’m trying to make Learning Earnings a part of the education community by reading and participating as much as possible. Sometimes my comments mention Learning Earnings, but mostly I’m just trying to help out with technology issues.

    Feel free to E-Mail me – you should have my E-Mail address from this post.

  3. Thanks for your take….

    There’s no “content” in the sense of a blog there, it’s basically a shopping cart site with a few educational games. We don’t sell links – we just have advertisements (typical banners and tiles). There’s no personal information about the kids, and it’s not “open” (login required). We’re really sensitive about all of the whole bullying/sexting/etc issues so we don’t allow students unfettered ability to send messages to others, etc. We do list classes and schools that give the most to charity, what classes and schools are best at our games (answer the most questions right). Since we don’t store personal information about the students, it’s sometimes hard to diagnose and fix an issue that a student has reported to a teacher.

    Every advertisement on our system is listed as a “sponsor” (although, in all fairness, lots of kids wouldn’t understand). As far as “opt out” goes, teachers and students aren’t required to use the system. If we allowed opt-out, we’d have to charge for the system.

    Whenever we give a presentation to a school or teachers, we always get questions about how we keep it free. It’s part of our presentation now.

    So, from an ethics standpoint, if we’re not storing and selling personal info, we’re not purporting to be an “independent voice”, and we’re not exposing others content under the guise of our own, then we should be OK.

    10 years ago, we weren’t nearly as sensitive about computer security as we are today. I’m just trying to stay current on these issues, so that as the ethics issues are fleshed out in one section of the Interwebz, I can make sure we’re applying the same principles in our section.

  4. I advertise in three ways on my blog. 1) I do have Google Ads. I went back and forth on it for quite a while, even going so far as surveying my audience. People who read my blog on a regular basis responded almost unanimously in saying, “If you can offset your costs by advertising, go right ahead.” There’s been a few times that I’ve had to go to Google and block an ad, but for the most part it hasn’t been a problem. And the net result is that it completely offests my hosting and bandwidth costs. Not a huge deal, but every little bit helps.

    2) I advertise for my host, Bluehost. Yes, I get a kickback when someone signs up, but I’d evangelize for them anyway. I think they’re a fantastic company and at least once a year put up a post explaining why I think every teacher should have their own hosted domain. I’m a huge fan of what they do and the service they provide and can’t recommend them more highly. The affiliate piece is just icing if someone decides to sign up through me.

    3) The person who created my blog theme. Sean did some great work and I would love to help him out in any way that I can. I don’t get any sort of commission from him, but since I love the work he does and hope he succeeds as a designer, I have a large ad for him on my site.

    That’s it. And all three of them I feel I can disclose (and have done so before) in good faith. I don’t do any inline ads, or anything that would make me feel icky. But if someone has an issue with those three things… well, so be it. I can only do what I feel works best for me. If you chose to put ads on your site, I don’t think it would make one whit of difference to your audience. We’re adults, we know how to navigate around ads if we want to. And if it helped offset the costs of CoolCatTeacher, then it’s a good thing in my book. Ads don’t bother me, especially if they help keep the good people around!

  5. We don’t have any control over the official school, teacher or student sites. We do encourage schools and teachers to place a link to our site from their site, but there’s no payment involved, and it’s not mandatory.

    We’re always trying to find a way to reward teachers, and this discussion has been very enlightening in that regard. We haven’t considered the issues surrounding full disclosure. If we devise a system for rewarding teachers, we’ll certainly need to make sure that some type of full disclosure is hard to circumvent.

  6. I agree with not embedding advertising in educational content and particularly in student content. I do have trouble with the term ‘sanctity’. I think it would be better to say ‘protected’ or even ‘sacrosanct’. If you are saying teacher and student work, the work of educational institutions, particularly public institutions, should be protected from undue outside influence and should be unpolluted by advertising, I heartily agree. If you believe student and teacher work is holy, I’m not so sure.

  7. I refuse to advertise on my blog. Sometimes I worry that when I promote a specific site (a teacher blog community I frequent, for example) or when I review a book that I enjoyed, people might assume it is contextual advertising or “product placement.”

  8. I have a simple blog policy. I write whatever I want to.

    I dont do ads. I dont do link requests. I ignore all of those emails from people requesting to blog about their software, books, products, etc.

    I write whatever I want to. Period (comma, semi-colon, exclamation point.)

    But it’s a personal decision so I dont begrudge anyone else’s choices.

  9. Yes, it is very much a personal decision. However, I think if someone is selling contextual links without full disclosure that seems unethical. So, I guess your opinion is more of — to each his own.

    I don’t know, in the educational space, the thought of selling contexual links without disclosure is a bit disconcerting.

  10. Ah — so guilt by association. If you sell advertising, then people would wonder where you’re selling it. That is a good point.

    I’m thinking full disclosure is just sort of something we should start looking for in bloggers so that the expectations of readers align with the intent of bloggers. None of us are perfect and people don’t read all of our blog posts. I’m just thinking out loud here — should bloggers disclose their advertising policies?

  11. lol — not sure that I believe the word “holy” is right and I think your point is well taken – I need to think on this word. I guess I meant sanctity in terms of unpolluted – it is what it is.

    Word choice – that is a good point – getting out my dictionary.

  12. Yes. Full disclosure is important as well as the integrity of what they are doing. I don’t, for example, accept gifts from vendors (except maybe the cookie jar that I share with the other staff members.)

  13. That is good to know on the ads, Steve. There are those, nonetheless, that steer away from those who do advertising, specifically in the education space – although I’d read your blog anyway.

    This is what I like – you know exactly in what cases you’d “advertise” or “monetize” your blog and you are up front about it. That is what is important. Disclosure.

    Each blogger has to make their own choice.

    Now, as for student created content – that is an entirely different case and one I think worth discussing.

  14. Yes, the storing personal information is a huge issue and one that you do have to be aware of. Of course, if you’re getting compensated through something like adsense, that does store tracking data. You’ll have to have some tracking data.

    so, it sounds like you advertise within the school. Hmmm I’d just have to look at your site. I know a lot of people are doing it and starting to make “money” off advertising to their students. I know that schools have to pay for themselves. Any time the school gets off mission they can forget their mission. Our students are to be cared for and protected and provided a place to learn.

  15. OK, so I’ve edited and am using the word “uncontaminated” — that is a strong word but perhaps it fits. Still mulling it over. Thank you so much for giving your thoughts.

  16. If I advertised, I would do full disclosure for sure. But my problem is how to do full disclosure when I don’t advertise.As a non-ad-supported blog, I’m afraid that full disclosure makes me look arrogant. If I say, “My blog contains no advertising,” I think it sends the message that advertising is inherently unethetical (which it’s not).

    I don’t do ads or link requests or software placement or anything like that. It’s not my style. Yet I have enthusiastically supported certain software (I’m a Google fanboy) or books (love Neil Postman for example) and I sometimes wonder if that comes across as sketchy when it’s not meant to be that way at all.

  17. Thanks to Steve and CoolCat for the great discussion on Google Ads. I still wrestle with this one. I want to provide great content and usability on my site without advertising for something I don’t truly believe in. Steve would evangelize for his hosting company, as would I. I think that is fine. I just took down my Adsense today after reading this, because I was advertising for U of Phoenix and I don’t really believe this is the best way to go. I have nothing substantive against U of Phoenix, in fact, their business model is one to envy; however, I didn’t like letting them “hover” over my site.

    Disclosure and Control are the most important in this case…oh and integrity! I have Audible on my site, because I LOVE them!

    Thanks so much for a great discussion both here and in my household!

    Jeff @ (Twitter: @TeacherThink)

  18. I have the same policy as Alan – no ads – I write what I want.

    I did update my “About Me” page on my blog after reading your post, Vicki. Even though I give workshops about VoiceThread and Google Apps for Education I am NOT a paid consultant and I clarified that on my blog. Thanks for the reminder.

  19. Vicki, glad to see you are still putting ethics right at the front door of learning. For ten years I was the webmaster of our school site and of course there were continual requests for advertising or ‘mutual links’ as some of the businesses would call it. This never happened until the web site was taken over by our marketing office so now we post links to people who give us money – and want that of our readers in exchange.

    Do you remember when the school was an institution, not a business? Before our community became customers. Now we are told everyone is shopping for diplomas and we should rejoice we are their convenience stop.

    Sorry to sound jaded but today teachers are having a harder job living up to the spin our marketeers are turning out to the public. Next thing they’ll be writing the curriculum – with a little help from their sponsors, of course.


  20. Although I’ve never been asked to rewrite or add links to a previous post, I get four or five requests a week either for me to write an entry about a particular issue or for them to write a “guest post”. All are ignored, even those offering free books or software. I also don’t accept ads (I get several requests to place those a month) or even maintain an Amazon affiliate account (when I discuss books, the link is always to the author’s web page).

    Leaving aside the fact that income ads/links would likely be minuscule, none of this qualifies me for sainthood or a Murrow award or whatever prize is given for honesty in journalism. I just don’t view my blog as a business or potential income. I’m an educator, in the broadest sense of that term, and my purpose in blogging is to have a small amount of influence on those issues about which I have some interest and expertise. If I expect that to happen, I must be honest and open with my readers and encourage them to be open and honest with me.

    Those are the very same values we should be teaching our students when they write for the public. Changing their words or embedding advertising in their work is both educationally and morally wrong, and would likely corrupt our relationship with them. They need to understand the need for people producing content of any kind to be honest with their audience if they expect to retain credibility. And that credibility is a very fragile thing, becoming even more so as the world becomes even more transparent.

    I’m wondering what you do with comments which are ads in themselves. Most I get are pretty obvious since the comment has nothing to do with the content of the post and usually gets caught in the spam filter. Some, however, seem to be writing to the point (such as the first one on this post) but still are linking to a commercial site. Does that constitute an ad on my site?

    Thanks for poking my head this morning. 😉

  21. It seems like every conference I attend lately, I’m asked if blogging is my full-time job or if I somehow make money from my blog. The answer is yes, I make money from my blog. No, I do not blog full-time. The money I earn comes through three advertising forms.

    1. Adsense, the filters for Adsense have come a long way in the last 18 months.
    2. Direct advertising sales. This is something I started doing only in the last three months. I’ve had dozens of companies express interest in advertising and so far I’ve accepted only two.
    3. Affiliates. I use Amazon when I mention books or other tangible goods that I like. I also have an affiliation with a company that runs an education job board.

    How does all of this affect what I write? It doesn’t. I write whatever I want about the services, websites, and products that appear in my blog posts. Never has advertising affected what I write about a company. I’ve had companies request to buy a link and edit a post and all of those requests are flatly dismissed. In the contract that I send to the advertisers that I work with all have language that allows me to pull their logos/ advertisements if I find that their webpages contain material that I deem innappropriate. Likewise the same contract contains language excluding advertisers from any editorial role.

    I make enough money through advertising streams to help pay the rent, but it’s not enough to blog full time. Nor would I want to blog full time because then I would have to be less selective in choosing advertising partners.

  22. I like ‘uncontaminated’ too. Thanks for your thoughtfulness on the word choice. I recall hearing or reading Madeline L’Engle talking about word choice and how rich the English language is. We usually have the right word for each circumstance, but finding it, that can be a trick.

  23. My perspective on this topic appears online at Around the Corner:

    A few points from that blog post sans links…

    It’s funny that as I was introducing folks to Twitter and Plurk earlier this week, one of the tough questions I wrestled with was how to convey the tenets of blogging. For example, some of those tenets (IMHO) include the following:
    Honest – When you make mistakes about content or assertions (not typos here), you admit them as comments or labelled updates in the original blog entry. You also share your opinion honestly.
    Transparent – When you write about something, you are up front about any biases, prejudicial thought you may have, and you explain the reason why. You want people to know exactly how you came to have an opinion, formed a position on a subject or issue, and your goal is transparency of thought and action as modelled in a blog post.
    Predictability – While unpredictability is highly valued, I certainly think one can be so within predictable parameters. The goal here is that people know what you’re going to be exploring or writing based on your previous entries. For example, on Around the Corner I write about a heck of a lot of different things…but you know I probably won’t be writing about some specific topics or doing product endorsements for which I’ve been paid.
    Full Disclosure – As a blogger, it doesn’t hurt to include a full disclosure statement that ensures everyone is aware of your biases, affiliations, etc. Here is my full disclosure.

  24. I should add that in addition to a disclosure page on my blog, I make it clear in a weekly post who my direct advertisers and affiliates are in addition to Amazon and Adsense. This serves two purposes 1. disclosure 2. thanking the folks that really do make it easier for me to justify to loved ones the 25+ hours/ week I spend on blog-related matters.

  25. The weekly post isn’t specifically for that purpose. I’ve run a “week-in-review” post for the last two years. The week-in-review gives me a chance to share a little bit about myself and what’s happened with the blog. I also link to the most popular posts of the week. When I started taking direct advertisers I just added a line at the end acknowledging them.

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