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Saturday, July 17, 2010

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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