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PayForPlay, PayPerPost … The Bane of Online PR and Marketing – Link Fraud

Pay for play isn’t new. Think Armstrong Williams, VNR scandals, CEO vanity magazines, advertorials and more. Now, there is shock and horror about PayPerPost.com (PPP). It is a bane. It is a poison. But, it is as old as hemlock in digital years.

…as the web grows, more mature or less mature, aren’t these attempts to monetize blogs (for good or bad) inevitable?…

I’ve been waiting for some enterprising federal prosecutor to pump out a string of indictments for link fraud online. Is this the perfect opportunity? I’m not a lawyer, so maybe one will jump in here and help out with a definition.

Payola online? Hey, I imagine it has already happened too many times to count. Will Google and Yahoo! and others join with prosecutors to help keep their link rank / page rank algorithms free (or, as free as possible) of taint? Why not. They have a lot of advertising dollars at stake here. Link ads have been propping up Google from the beginning, haven’t they?

In a conspiracy charge, “a group of conspirators (have) banded together to achieve some harmful or illegal purpose” and if that purpose is fraud – well, do we have the open door to a trial? I imagine that intent plays a role here. If the company seeking the links can be proven to use blog posts knowing that the testimonial is insincere and the blogger can be shown to have made the post solely to make money, well we have a beginning. However, that’s not likely to be easy to determine from the willing participants – after the fact. So, what we can expect is a sting operation. Yes, just like the guy on NBC that has been phishing for perverts, some industrious blogger or reporter (TV or print) can at least make a pretty good expose out of all this. How long do you think it will take for that to happen?

as seen on tvPayPerPost.com has a pretty funny tagline on its header – “As seen in BusinessWeek.” That brings back some scary memories. Just check the logo to the right. Now, most people that see that logo, I believe, think of the product as schlock.

as seen on tvThe funny thing about the tagline at PayPerPost.com? Jon Fine decries it – and the ensuing online meme about it – in BusinessWeek as “a rhetorical race to the bottom.” He’s probably right.

Wonder if PPP will be asked to take that tagline down. And, what hubris does it take to use a negative article to help promote your own product? You’ll notice that there is no link to the BW column so people can see what it is about. Makes sense from a company willing to foresake transparency in their own business model.

It isn’t as if this hasn’t been happening all along, is it? My feeling is that anyone believing that these types of scams haven’t been occuring – under the table – for a long time in blogs is quite naive. And, it is a scam if the intention is stated that disclosure may not occur. That’s fraud, no matter how you spin it.

Think about it. The link loving bloggers – linking in faux adoration circles – are just one such example. How so? Think of the many feigned adoration posts by bloggers about some a-lister (just praying for a link back) and think of the lil’ chunk of their soul given up for that link. Don’t think it happens? Wanna buy a bridge?

If that doesn’t do it for you, then think of all the splogs out there. They are playing the links, too. But this one (PPP), using blogs with heretofore legitimage page ranks, is particularly sleazy. I think the hubris of admitting that disclosure won’t necessarily happen is the sleaziest part of all. No, it isn’t transparency to admit you are not practicing transparency. OK, if you mean the people behind the endeavor are being transparently sleazy. Yep, that’s transparent – in so many meanings.

A poster in Adrants Soflow Network says it (PPP) “is going to destroy the credibility of all bloggers even the ethical ones like myself that have even forgone monetizing my traffic via advertising so as to maintain an independent perspective on the industry that I choose to cover.” Funny thing is, on his mobile blog (not his personal one) I found this ad among a plethora of ads.

FAKE Testimonials?
That’s what Your Visitors Think. Get the Seal and ProveThey’re REAL! (Ad by TrustedTestimonials.com)

You will note, I hope, that the Trusted Testimonials site and the Pay Per Post site both have the same “Secured by GeoTrust” logo on them. Wonder if that Adrants poster knows he is running an ad for what may be the same type of site he abhors?

That company – GeoTrust, like those blogger associations (honesty police), will no doubt fail in securing trust among readers of blogs. And, of course, given the relationship noted above I am curious as to whether any of them are legitimate.

Let’s face it. Blogs are a combination of facts (as they are interpreted by the author) and opinions of the blog’s author that you cannot – with any hope of universal accuracy – trust to be truthful. At least you cannot trust them until you have done a lot of your own research and fisking. And, who’s going to do that – really?

Take a lesson from journalism. Approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism – even traditional mainstream media. I trust blogs, in general, much less than I trust traditional media. The blogs I do trust are always as upfront as possible. They also only gain that trust after a great deal of time spent reading them and following links – researching what they write – to see if I agree. And then, even if I do agree, that’s just my own infopinion, too … isn’t it?

Gee, just look what social media has wrought. Anyone ready for another update to EPIC?



  • http://elliottback.com/wp/ Elliott Back

    I’ve played with it a little bit, and the incentive isn’t enough to get me to write dishonestly about a product. Hell, it’s probably not going to be enough to get me to ever write about something. The only way I see PPP being useful is for people who already want to write about a topic, browse PPP, and notice they can make a few bucks doing it.

  • http://www.auburnmedia.com/ Robert

    Hey Elliot,

    I agree. It could attract those with a desire to vent or praise on a variety of topics.

    I just don’t see how anyone can make that much money off of it. Even the $10 a post offers will no doubt not allow you to post once a day. So, you’d have to be doing $5 posts (and several of them) to make some cash.

    Just looking at the possibilities, if someone decided to (and was allowed to) post for 5 different clients 10 times a month, that’s only $250 a month. Will any client of PPP’s be willing to pay $5 ten times a month? let alone per day for the same blog? I doubt it. And, they only have 17 listed opportunities now, as of my last reading.

    How long, really, will it take participants to make each post? 15 minutes minimum? I bet it takes most more than that – say 30 minutes each? So, you’re making $10 an hour. Not bad for a side job akin to fast food work.

    And that fast food crowd is about the quality level the practice is going to attract – at those prices. Would you want those people writing about your company? What’s next – talking points (or prewritten posts) being provided by the advertisers. Actually, I bet that’s already happening, too.

    Now, add to that the reality that no one is required to disclose the relationships and you have a pretty sleazy endeavor. The advertiser doesn’t disclose. PayPerPost doesn’t disclose. The blogger doesn’t disclose. It is one big fraud being perpetuated on unsuspecting readers – or, more importantly – a fraud on search, link rank and page rank for all involved. That could wind up further diminishing the value (perceived or real) of online marketing and advertising.

    PayPerPost isn’t the first to do this (despite the claim in their blog) and they won’t be the last. Each new fraudulent activity serves no positive purpose.

  • http://www.mikespoints.com Mike Driehorst

    I read Fine’s column over the weekend and, while I don’t like PPP, what’s the big deal? Did we think nothing like this would ever come about?

    There are enough TV shows — just check out Florida for the production companies — where companies can pay $15,000-30,000 for a five-minute spot. Then, there are advertorials and product placements in movies. It’s all advertising. (Oops, giving away some of an upcoming post here. Oh well. ;) )

    PPP is just another form of advertising.

    And, while it may make PR pros’ jobs more difficult in some ways (like contending with our advertising brethren for budgets), it makes the “hits” we do play a role in all that more valuable.

    PPP is just another communications vehicle we all have at our disposal.
    Mike

  • http://www.auburnmedia.com/ Robert

    Hey Mike,

    Oh, I think these types of tactics have been going on since the Web launched.

    Is it advertising – like product placements? I can see the analogy. But, if it is advertising, it is bad advertising. Product placements in TV and movies irk me, too. Some will probably call me an unrealistic idealist. Ideals are important. They give us something to shoot for and try to live up to. Not that I live up to them all the time, or even once, but they are comforting to keep around.

    Your point about “contending with advertising” is a good one. How many clients would opt for the sure-fire placement – even if at a price – as opposed to coverage with transparency? Too many, if only one – because one is one too many.

    PPP may be another tactic at our disposal, but I’d prefer to put it down the disposal. PPP is, essentially, saying, “Hey, we’re splogging and we’ll pay you to help. Telling the trugh about what we’re doing is optional. Embrace the disposal of transparency because there is money to be made.”

    Sure, it was inevitable for PPP (and others) to appear, as there are always those looking to take shortcuts to a dollar. That doesn’t surprise me, at all.

    Darn, back to those ideals. They always seem to get in the way.

  • http://www.mikespoints.com Mike Driehorst

    Robert,
    Maybe being in PR has eroded my idealistic journalistic views. Sorry for the realistic or pessimistic acceptance.

    Yes, PPP and other forms of bastardized PR still makes me cringe and a bit sad. Idealism is good and is something we should keep at the forefront — especially your students.

    Unfortunately, there’ll be enough unscrupulous people out in the real world who’ll wear them down. Help them keep up the good fight.

    Mike

  • http://www.auburnmedia.com/ Robert

    Hey Mike,

    Oh, no need to say sorry. I’m probably too idealistic and didn’t mean for it to come off as picking on you.

    I agree with you. There will always be those looking to crawl around the edges to make something work to their advantage, even if it can harm or mislead others. I’m not surprised that PPP (and others) are seeking to play the system. I’m also aware that, no matter how much I may wail about it here, I’m not likely to make it stop ever.

    But, I do think it is good for the students to see us talk about the issue. After all, I think we can envision some employer / client down the road suggesting that they use these tactics, too. At least this way they will have heard it called what it is … bad practice.

    Thanks Mike.