Pay to Play: Uncovering Online Payola

The folks at DailyTech have published a VERY interesting read for you this morning.  CEO and Editor In Chief Kris Kubicki and his team have dug into the less than ethical dealings of some of the major and not-so major online publications you probably read every day here in our Computer Hardware and Technology community.
"Over the past three months, DailyTech put together a series of faux companies, product portfolios and trademarks.  In a combination of phone and email correspondences, our team of journalists set out to find illicit and unethical review behavior in the English-print, computer hardware review industry. 

Specifically, these journalists looked for publications that were:
  • Willing to sell advertisements (receive funds) in exchange for publishing content.
  • Willing to sell advertisements (receive funds) in exchange editor's choice awards.
  • Willing to offer viral marketing in exchange for cash and resale hardware."

There are a couple things to remember here, that the article touches upon in spots but doesn't really cover fully.  First, if a site doesn't have a separate sales and marketing staff in addition to their editorial staff, that doesn't mean they're involved in unethical practices, obviously.  It may just mean that dedicated sales resources can't be carved out due to costs and overhead. 

Also, I don't think this area was touched upon enough in the article but needs to be underscored.  ANY method of giving preferential treatment in a product review/showcase to a company that spends ad dollars, over a company that doesn't, is not just "borderline" unethical, it IS unethical, plain and simple.  We treat our product reviews on a "FIFO" (first in, first out) basis here, wherever possible.  The only time that policy is influenced is when there is a major product launch embargo date that needs to be hit, or a breaking new technology-based item comes out, such that other non-time-critical items have to be shuffled in the queue.

Influencing the outcome or wording of content with ad dollars is something that we don't even need to cover for you here, since it's so blatently obvious.  The credibility of sites that do this will speak for itself over time and you won't see those sites around for very long, hopefully.

I do think Adam at TechReport said it best when he mentioned not to mix "Church and State".  IE:  Keep your religion (content and analysis) separate from your politics (the business of doing business).  I have specifically used this term a couple of times very firmly with more than over-zealous OEMs that were asking questions like "how do we get a product award?" at the same time they were asking for an ad spot.  We have lost more than one ad deal here, based on the fact that we've probably come back too firmly to OEMs that have requested this type of special treatment in the past.

And every time, we might go to bed with a few less dollars in our pocket but we sleep pretty soundly at night.  Also, let's not forget the OEMs involved here, because if they take this approach, they're just as guilty, if not more-so actually.   In the end, it's easy to cast judgment from the outside looking in.  We would offer that you should, as a reader, make your own judgments on the sites you visit every day and their journalistic integrity. 

What's amazing is that one of the products we were presented with by the faux DT team, actually leaked out a few days ago, though sites were told specifically it was under NDA embargo.  Gotta love it.  The reason the embargos were set, was so that sites wouldn't incriminate themselves and the DT team obviously wasn't naming names.  Too bad but as the saying goes, most times, if something doesn't smell right, where there's smoke, there's usually fire.

Tags:  Play, Online, cover, PLA