Ads Embedded In Online News Raise Questions

February 24, 2005 (NAT IVES, New York Times) — Online sites are generating new revenue by steering readers to advertisements when they click on certain words. But when those keywords are embedded in the text of a news article, those sites are generating debate as well.

Two months after Forbes.com ended an experiment with such keyword ads, citing unease among its reporters, The New York Post is considering adopting the practice for its site. In the process, the newspaper is raising questions about the ethics of keyword advertising online.

Business news articles appearing yesterday on www.nypost.com included words that were underlined and in green; when a visitor rolled a mouse over those words, a small box labeled "sponsored link" appeared with an advertising message and a link to more information.

An article about rising oil prices and the falling dollar, for example, referred to the Conference Board, the business-sponsored nonprofit research group that issued its latest consumer confidence index figures yesterday. The word "conference" in "Conference Board" appeared in green and underlined; pointing the mouse at "conference" brought up a pitch for GoToMeeting, an online conference service from Citrix Online.

Using a news article's words as ads poses new questions for reporters and their publishers, said Aly Colón, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization. The biggest risk, he said, may be turning off readers. "If we want to be taken seriously for the work that we do as journalists, we should try to devise a way of presenting our material so the users, the readers, know that we are first and foremost about the news," he said.

Articles scattered with paid advertiser links could create the impression that advertising shaped the reporting, Mr. Colón said. That, in turn, could undermine the value of advertising in those articles in the first place, he said, adding, "advertising wants to be associated with a news product that has integrity."

Howard J. Rubenstein, a spokesman for The Post, which is owned by the News Corporation, said: "That was a test of new technology that was not intended to be live. They have not debated or discussed it internally. They are not making any prediction whether they are going to use it."

Mr. Rubenstein said executives at The Post were unsure how an internal test of the new ads wound up on the public Web site. By 6 p.m. yesterday, the ads had disappeared.

The Post is not the first to use the system, called IntelliTXT, to wring extra ad revenue from its Web site. About 400 online publishers have so far adopted IntelliTXT, said Doug Stevenson, chief executive at Vibrant Media in New York, which developed it. But if The Post adopted IntelliTXT in its daily reports, it would stand out among news organizations, particularly after Forbes.com restricted IntelliTXT to non-news areas of its site in December.

Internet-savvy advertising industry observers quickly noted the appearance of paid ads in Post news coverage. A blog at www.adjab.com first reported it yesterday morning, calling the practice "not normal."

An industry blog and newsletter called Adrants, edited and published by Stephen A. Hall, was more intrigued. "The links are easy to ignore and don't alter the content," Mr. Hall wrote. "Given the choice between an Internet full of flashing graphic ads or only passive text ad links, which would you choose?"

Mr. Stevenson said Vibrant guidelines prevent reporters, editors or publishers from tailoring articles to include or exclude IntelliTXT keywords. Company guidelines provided yesterday say, "The identification of keywords by IntelliTXT is an independent and automated process that takes place after the article has been posted online. At no point can this process be controlled or influenced by an editorial team."

The same guidelines say, "IntelliTXT will not be implemented in late-breaking news, political coverage or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate."

Most publishers using IntelliTXT focus less on breaking news and more on reviews, features and entertainment, Mr. Stevenson said. Other current users include IGN.com, a popular network of gaming sites operated by IGN Entertainment; the Experts Exchange, a site for information technology professionals; and the Web site for Popular Mechanics magazine.

The Popular Mechanics site, for example, includes IntelliTXT keyword ads within a review of satellite radio services, offering ads for those who hover over terms like "satellite," for the VOOM satellite service; and "speakers," for an audio equipment marketer.

The challenge for most offline publishers today is finding ad revenue growth. The TV Guide Publishing Group, in one approach, plans a magazine called Inside TV that would allow marketers to pay for their brands to appear in its reporting.

Kaizad Gotla, an Internet analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings, said there was more demand for places to advertise online than there was original content around which to sell ads. "There is definitely a shortage of supply," he said. "That leads to this kind of experimentation."

About Vibrant
Vibrant is a world leader in contextual technology, aligning billions of words across the internet with relevant video, information, tools, and advertising. With over 4,000 premium publishers, reaching more than 135 million unique users per month (comScore, May 2009), Vibrant gives top brand marketers the opportunity to deliver highly targeted advertisements within premium Web content and offers publishers premium editorial tools to re-circulate users throughout their websites. The company, founded in 2000, has offices in London, New York, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and Hamburg. For more information, visit: www.vibrantmedia.com, www.vibrantmedia.co.uk, www.vibrantmedia.de, www.vibrantmedia.fr.