Scammy Company Trying To Get Writers For Major Sites To Engage In Pay-To-Link Arrangements

from the shameful dept

Okay, everyone, sit back, relax, and strap it down, because this is going to take some time, but it's time well-spent. I don't know if I can call myself a blogging veteran or not at this point, but perhaps the fact that there are apparently people and companies out there that pay blog and website writers to include links to client websites within their posts comes as a bit of a shock to me. First, I'm curious as to just how useful such an arrangement could be. Second, and more important, who the hell would want to risk their credibility as a writer for a couple of bucks and some links?

Yet, according to this report by Gawker, that appears to be exactly what's happening, and it appears to be happening at some serious players in the web journalism space.

These firms are hired by clients to enhance their Google results and overall SEO. The firms then offer to, essentially, bribe writers at various websites to place links to their clients in editorial content, because Google looks kindly on such links when calculating search rankings. The writers get paid; the links go in quietly; the cash is slipped into Paypal accounts; the news organizations are never informed. It's stealth marketing, and it's designed to deceive both the employer and the reader. It's an unethical scam.
Now, this all started when Gawker's Hamilton Nolan received a letter from one of these shady firms, inquiring as to whether he'd be interested in such an arrangement. From there, Nolan essentially strung the emailer along to milk as much information as possible from him, and then posted the exchange on the Gawker site. The company, Backlinks.us, claims to charge hundreds of dollars for this type of "work", which also includes spamming blogs with comments, manufacturing social media bookmarks, and utilizing buffer sites for forum backlinks.

Now, as Nolan kept at it, he was able to get some information out of the Backlinks rep. It's all couched in language designed to keep from appearing too shady, but it's fairly transparent how dirty this whole thing is.
Hi Hamilton,

thank you very much for a quick response. The arrangement would be that we give you a keyword and URL and then you write an article that is relevant to that keyword and embed the link inside the article with the keyword we give you. Like I said, we are not looking for promotional posts, but for high quality informative posts that have a link back to our specified site. You can also link out to sites like Wikipedia and similar to make the article the best it can be. Would that be of interest to you and if so how much would you charge per such an article?

Kind regards, Rock.
Lest you think this is some kind of line-walking on an ethical ledge, it isn't. As soon as a writer takes payment to specifically include links surreptitiously, with no mention of the post or links being sponsored, you've sold yourself to the devil. It's over, your credibility is gone, and you're off the list as a trusted source of information (and probably violating FTC regulations). More to the point, a willingness by a writer to engage in this kind of thing is even more damning as an indication of what else you could get him or her to do for a bit of coin. It's why most website operators (and I've confirmed this would be the case with Techdirt as well) would immediately shit-can any writer who did this kind of thing. Something Rock from Backlinks is well-aware of:
We are looking to establish relationships with authors directly. Sure, run it by your boss, but he will most probably said you can't do it because the company will want a piece of the pie. That is why we are looking for direct relationships to authors. : In any case, let us know if you decide to want to work with us. We would be happy to have you in our team and you would probably also happy with earnings some more money each month by doing what you are doing.

Regards, Rock.
No, he or she would say you can't do it because it's less ethical than punching a nun in the crotch, and that's pretty effing unethical.

Now, look, there are all kinds of shady bastards out in the world and there's probably plenty of people looking to bilk small-time folks on the internet for their ethics in exchange for some pocket money. But, hey, it's not like any writers for sites of any stature would do this kind of thing, right?
Yes, we are doing this on HuffingtonPost, ChicagoTribune, UTSanDiego and other such big news sites so the Gawker wouldn't be any different... The compensation would be $50-$80 per post that you write. How does that sound? Here are 2 HuffingtonPost.com posts that were made for us. The first one is: [Link], here the keyword of our client is freelance writer (which links to our clients site) and the second one is this one: [Link] here the keyword that is linked to our client's site is UppSite.
While both are HuffPo links as examples, if there's any credence to the Chicago Tribune and UT San Diego being involved with this, amongst others, that's a serious problem. Not because including links for pay in and of itself is a horrible scandal, though it is pretty bad, but because it indicates a willingness to break from ethics for money when it comes to the content of stories. That's a huge problem. I won't go to the Chicago Tribune, my home newspaper, without thinking of this story each and every time.

Now, it should be noted that the Gawker post was later updated with a response from Rock of Backlinks, who hurriedly said that all his previous emails were lies, that his examples of clients weren't actually clients at all, and that he was just trying to make the company look impressive. That may be true, but it might not be. The very admission is proof that Rock is a liar, either in his early statements or those that came later, and you'd expect him to disavow his client-writers to protect their reputations even if they were in on the program. In other words, his denial doesn't really solve any of the mystery or worry here. This isn't to say you can't trust anything you read on the web, of course. You just have to use your head, gather multiple sources, and analyze actual facts for yourself. Or, if you're lazy, just read everything I write and take it as gospel. Because it is.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:03pm

    Let me make a few points here.

    First one is I don't use Google. It has a bad rep with me and it's getting worse with the stuff the NSA is pulling out of it. Since Google was never worried until lately about securing it's data from authorities earlier, I consider that a good decision. Assuming other search engines work the same way to SEO, doesn't mean when I arrive at the page I will stay. There's lots of sites I land on through various means that if they don't measure up, I don't return. I seriously consider quality while at that, which is one reason I'm here.

    The next point comes down to creditability. This is today a serious point with the US government and all this Snowden affair. Their creditability is nonexistent. It shines through every time they go to do the latest justification on why it should continue rather than looking at it and realizing they long ago exceeded their authority and are breaking the intents of the law/Constitution. In the same way, as pointed in this article once creditability is gone, it doesn't come back without serious changes. Changes for authors participating in this sort of thing aren't really believable after that believability is lost. When I see an article by a hack, I tend to stop reading as a waste of time and move on. (Yes that includes OOTB)

    I rarely read much on Huffington. Much of it I question the bias and sincerity of the writers doing their articles. Many of them have already lost that important intangible asset.

     

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  2.  
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    Idiocracy, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:03pm

    I like money.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:24pm

    Timmy, you're a baby in deep dark woods. This SHOCKS you?

    "that there are apparently people and companies out there that pay blog and website writers to include links to client websites within their posts comes as a bit of a shock to me."

    Here's just ONE drop of the ocean of corruption you've MISSED, Timmy for AT LEAST SIX YEARS:
    6/22/07 3:19pm

    Microsoft pays star writers to recite slogan

    http://gawker.com/271485/microsoft-pays-star-writers-to-recite-slogan

    These aren't difficult to find if you've the least suspicion. Maybe you never heard of Judy Miller at New York Times who deliberately repeated lies told her by the Bush administration to gin up the Iraq war. Or you don't want to hear it, as you once wrote you hadn't heard that no WMD were ever found in Iraq; another total fabrication. So too the "yellowcake" and "mushroom cloud'. Journalists ginned up WARS out of nothing, Timmy. -- But down to minor here. Think they balk at the merely commercial?

    I admit that about twenty years ago I was stunned to figure out there's enough money around to corrupt EVERYONE of any significance: politicians, journalists, judges, lawyers, bureaucrats at all levels, EVERYONE. Only take a few billion, absolute tops to corrupt the entire system. And it's been done, down to cops now directly get money for tossing people into jail whether should be or not. EVERYONE. And that's just the fairly open bribery, not even counting secret payoffs made by CIA to ignore drug smuggling, or to prepare sheriffs to follow illegal orders to confiscate guns or implement martial law. From Iraq again are stories that ordinary soldiers were literally handed a few thousand in cash just to keep quiet about the everyday atrocities they were ordered to commit. Money is corrupting, period, and it's been spread freely as part of an overarching plan.

    Anyhoo, for you to be shocked... Hoo boy! Been playing video games too much, Timmy. The real world has been taken over by real live evil and no superheroes are going to save us.

    Growing anger and violence among the 99% is mostly due to deliberate actions of the 1% to dumb-down, impoverish, harass, divide, and conquer. Here's a typically lousy article that merely puzzles:
    http://www.myfoxny.com/story/24039954/americas-anger-epidemic-why

    17:23:57[t-530-3]

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:51pm

    Re: Timmy, you're a baby in deep dark woods. This SHOCKS you?

    How much did it take to corrupt you?

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:56pm

    HiFi audio magazines?

    HiFi audio magazines?

     

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  6.  
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    Just John (profile), Dec 11th, 2013 @ 9:58pm

    Timothy's gospel

    "Or, if you're lazy, just read everything I write and take it as gospel. Because it is."

    So Timothy, when do we get a copy of the full gospel? I am waiting to read it, and am wondering how you will make the begat parts funny. And no, no sarcastic troll face. I think you could make it funny.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 11th, 2013 @ 10:39pm

    The only thing that really bothers me about this story is Gawker standing up as some beacon of journalistic ethics.

     

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  8.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Dec 11th, 2013 @ 11:29pm

    The shortcuts people take to manage their "fame".

     

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  9.  
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    Singh Gunjan, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 2:21am

    I like money more than anything else . :)

     

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  10. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Peter Wakefield Sault, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 2:32am

    Re: The Gorgle

    No real person posts comments on youtube any more, since it was gobbled by google. Now they have to pay for posts or there wouldn't be any at all. It's all about keeping up false appearances, like everything else in this post-9/11 world.

    Embedded hyperlink ==> http://www.odeion.org/cruisemissile :-)

    Google please note.

     

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  11.  
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    Allena Tapia, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 3:43am

    Wasting my time...

    1)The genius who wrote to gawker later admitted those were " examples," and rumor is that's because one of the named writers served a cease and desist to both parties. (?)
    2) The link that I supposedly was paid for was to my OWN website, which makes no sense.

    3) Yesterday I wrote a blog post about a person who was deported after 20 years in the US, 15 of them legal, leaving *4* children behind. Last week I wrote about a 1st grader slaughtered in her own classroom, but you know, ethics and morals and outrage and stuff.

     

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  12.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 4:10am

    Re: Timothy's gospel

    "So Timothy, when do we get a copy of the full gospel? I am waiting to read it, and am wondering how you will make the begat parts funny. And no, no sarcastic troll face. I think you could make it funny."

    Actually, I recently started this, writing a modern day gospel in which everyone is completely loony, it's written in a sort of Monty Python-esque vogue, and the modern day Jesus Christ, who is named Bob, has no idea why everyone around him is acting so insane....

     

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  13.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 4:15am

    Re: Wasting my time...

    and you missed no chance to link to your own site
    and you wrote a bunch for about.com

    And yes micro managing your web presence is a waste of time, there is a story here because of scammy dude linking you to it you are in hyper holier than thou mode... yet no one but me is taking shots at you.

    So it is ALL about you, has nothing to do with companies trying to do this scammy sort of thing, it is all about salvaging your 'I write for About.com and HuffPo' reputation.

    I once wrote a story about a little choo choo that could, if I do 2 more things can I be made a saint too?

     

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  14.  
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    Chris ODonnell (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 4:26am

    Somebody from England paid me $150 just two weeks ago to post an article they wrote on my personal blog. My blog gets maybe 50 unique visits a day on average? I can't imagine how any Google juice from my site could be worth $150, but what the hell. I'll certainly take their money.

     

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  15.  
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    Ninja (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 5:38am

    Re: Re: Timothy's gospel

    Get some ideas from "Lamb" from Chistopher Moore. I await anxiously for the results!

     

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  16.  
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    Ninja (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 5:42am

    Really, put your reputation at risk for 50 bucks per article? The examples still have said links in their bodies. If I were Huffpo and the others I'd delete at least those links and proof check if the links are on par with the stories for their bloggers. You know, credibility is hard to earn back once lost. Even if these lil links did not alter or influence the content of the articles themselves one will think twice on how ethical the author is when readin their stuff.

     

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  17.  
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    AJS (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 5:57am

    I get requests like this frequently

    I write a fairly popular blog on a niche topic (the events industry) and receive similar requests several times a week. The only difference is that I'm offered a "high quality" article as a guest post, so I don't have the write the post myself—so considerate!

     

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  18.  
    icon
    Juan Villar (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 6:38am

    links

    Here's a sausage link! http://www.jimmydean.com/products/

    Here's a chain link! http://www.lowes.com/Lawn-Care-Landscaping/Fencing/Chain-Link-Fencing/_/N-1z0zgvk/pl#!

    . . . and now, for my personal all-time favorite . . .

    http://missing.com

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 7:11am

    I tried to comment on one of the HuffPo articles, but of course, they don't allow anonymous comments. So, here it is:
    Allena Tapia, it's too late. You've already destroyed your reputation and that of HuffPo. Even if it's true that you weren't paid by this company, you ADMIT that the link is to your own company. Despite your insistence of full disclosure, I saw no disclosure in the article that this was your business. Do you really not see the conflict of interest? Of course you don't. Even if I believe that you weren't paid cash to insert the link, you admit that it is a link to your own company, so you DID benefit: you perhaps didn't get a cash payment for the link, but you DID benefit. THAT is what destroys your credibility. Not the article accusing you of taking a bribe (let's not split hairs, that's exactly what it is). This situation is ENTIRELY of your own making. I honestly don't understand why your services have not been terminated by both HuffPo and About.com. Until they do terminate your services, neither will be a source of news or reference for me.

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 7:11am

    The spammers at backlinks.us are hardly alone

    My spamtraps are full of solicitations from similar "companies" (some of which are no doubt fronts for others) who are willing to pay for text and link placement of their construction. It's apparently quite a lucrative business, which means that SOMEBODY with deep pockets is bankrolling it: professional liars like "Rock" aren't going to work for free.

    As always: follow the money.

     

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  21.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 7:19am

    Re: Re: The Gorgle

    Embedded hyperlink ==> http://www.odeion.org/cruisemissile :-)

    Oh FSM, my sarcasm meter just exploded! Can't tell if I should hit report or funny... It seems like funny, but the link is a crappy conspiracy theory website so it might just be batshit insane. Go with my instincts on this one?

     

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  22.  
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    TJGeezer (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 7:37am

    re: Juan Villar's links

    The only thing missing.com needs now is an extra tab on the bottom for a creative "404" no-such-link page. :-)

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:06am

    Re: Re: Timothy's gospel

    Sounds like Life of Brian to me.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:14am

    Re: Re: Timothy's gospel

    That's been done before - by Monty Python, no less. It was called Life of Brian. (And I know they may not have "set" it in the modern day, but they certainly filled it with modern day anachronisms.)

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:17am

    Re:

    What would even be better is if The Onion put out a story about standing up for journalistic ethics. THAT would be epic.

     

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  26.  
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    Dirkmaster (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:24am

    Do these guys actually LOOK at your website?

    I was thinking about creating a page that was nothing but posts for these assclowns, and call that page "Shit I don't believe, but was paid to write". Gather them all together, put a nice disclaimer at the top, then bullshit away. Fun, funny, and I get paid.

    Or would they notice? They seem kinda dumb, so I'm thinkin' I might get away with it.

     

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  27.  
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    Chris ODonnell (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:39am

    Re: Do these guys actually LOOK at your website?

    The company that paid me didn't care (or didn't notice) that I posted their story to my archived Wordpress blog that hasn't been updated in almost a year, until that post.

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Crusty the Ex-Clown, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 8:53am

    But, but, but .....

    Ponies! (Hat tip to Popehat.)

     

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  29.  
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    madasahatter (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 9:32am

    Online practice

    I wonder how much of this is nothing more than the electronic version of actions that have been occurring earlier. Some of the comments in Gawker link mentioned the cosmetic industry as will known practitioners of this.

    Also, the so-called SEO optimization firm appears to prey on the lack of sophistication of the client. There are several very cheap or free steps one can take to improve SEO results. Also, search engines are aware or these methods and probably have methods to discount the supposed positive effect.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Matthew A. Sawtell, Dec 12th, 2013 @ 9:49am

    Hm... shades of the old 'payola' scandal?

    For those in audience of a certain age, or is a bit of media history buff, then this should not be a 'surprise' per se, given the rather public DJ payola scandal back in the 1950s.

    http://www.modestoradiomuseum.org/payola.html

    Then again, this can be considered the commerical extention of the '50 Cent Party':

    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/10/china%E2%80%99s-paid-trolls-meet-50-cen t-party

    Goes to show that while the tools are available to verify, it does not mean that most people are going to do not such thing.

     

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  31.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 1:43pm

    Re: Re: Timothy's gospel

    the modern day Jesus Christ, who is named Bob


    Don't you mean "Bob"? ;)

    I don't think sane people exist. At least, I've never met one. Everyone is crazy in one way or another, it seems, but we mistake our own flavor of crazy for "normal."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    John85851 (profile), Dec 12th, 2013 @ 2:50pm

    Don't these sites have editors?

    I was contacted by some of these people to put their links on one of my software tutorial site's pages. The requests were odd: they wanted me to link the word "computer graphics" to a university's library's site or link the word "tablet" to Wacom (or something like that). I still have no idea how this affects their company's SEO or rankings.
    Or is this an "open the door" strategy: they pay for innocent sounding links at first, get the website owner (or writer) hooked on the income, get the writer to ignore where the links go, and then hit them with the real links?

    The bigger issue is why a "professional" journalist would fall for such blatantly poor e-mails? I understand that not everyone speaks English, but if you're approaching an English-speaking person with a business deal, shouldn't you learn more than a few basic phrases? And don't get me started on how business e-mails should be spell-checked and grammar checked. Shouldn't a poorly written e-mail be the first sign that something is a scam?

    Or does this go back to the greed of writers who don't think they're getting paid enough by the website, so they think they need to make some extra income? Or do the writers really not know this is a breach of ethics? Do they not understand that their article is the property of HuffPost, the Tribune, etc, and they can't go around putting their own links into stories?

    And where are the editors? Doesn't anyone check the articles (especially for links like these) before they're posted? Or do the writers have access to upload stories without being screened by editors? If this is the case, then we have a much bigger issue than just inserting a few links for $50.

     

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  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 20th, 2013 @ 10:14pm

    Re: Re: The Gorgle

    Uhhh, yeah... Tin foil hat time, there, skippy. Commentary and discussion is alive and well on Youtube. Just avoid those conspiracy sites/videos, and you'll do fine.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Mark, Dec 29th, 2013 @ 3:56pm

    Why is this unethical?

    How is selling links in your page any different then selling banner ads on your site? All these sites many money off selling ads, and this is no different. To say a site 'destroyed its credibility" by selling another form of advertising is laughable - their mission isn't for journalistic integrity, it's to sell more ads.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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