Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Commercialization of Weblogs

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Jason Kottke takes up the issue of advertising inside blogs and the apparent commercialization of a publishing movement that had initially appeared as being not only advertising-free, but in many ways also openly against traditional, intrusive ad practices.

He writes:

Lots of interesting observations to be made about the commercialization of weblogs...

a) the quick uptake of advertising on blogs, the increasingly false perception of blogs as inherently unbiased by commercial interests (and therefore preferable to "big media"),

b) the continuing shift from blogging as a hobby to blogging for a variety of reasons,

c) the number of weblogs launching lately that have ads from day one,

d) the demographic difference between the typical circa-2002 blogger and the blogger of today, etc.

Just a couple of years ago, almost every weblog on a top 100 list would have been non-commercial and the blogosphere in general was mostly opposed to advertising on blogs. Now it's accepted to the point where I haven't heard anyone complain about it in months...even Boing Boing's audience didn't protest too much when they added advertising a couple of months ago."

And I agree this is truly an important, strategically critical topic for all the independent publishers, bloggers, news reporters out there.

Many have been asking themselves whether or not this is appropriate, ethical, in line with what they wanted and useful.

And the answers to this, are indeed very relevant issues to be talked about. Mostly because we tend to apply our mental models from the past to situations that in the meanwhile have drastically changed (from print to online publishing), and now rest upon a totally different set of variables and assumptions (ethics, drives and monetization opportunities of the blogosphere vs. the online mainstream and offline traditional media).

Some of the most interesting contributions to this topic come from the readers' comments to the above post (over 45 of them in less than three days), providing an ample spectrum of relevant ideas on which to further reflect upon.

I have here selected the ones I thought to be most representative, though hardly anyone takes up the point I will later expose about this issue. Here is what they say, and right after my own personal take of where we should look too:

Doc Searls says:
"I guess I could put advertising on my blog. I've thought about it. But I've avoided it, mostly because I don't want the blog to be a "medium" for anybody but myself.

I think of my blog as a public form of email: kind of a "To: Whomever." So you might say I don't put ads in my blog for the same reason I don't put ads in my email. It would be in bad taste.

I also think it's a drag on whatever horsepower the blog has, just being itself. It's an energy fork. It shunts blog energy -- journalistic energy -- off to some other purpose that's not my own.

Some, of course, have a second purpose on their blog, in making money. Which is fine. Yet I think I make more money because of my blog than I could ever make with my blog.

That said, I have no beef with people who do put ads on their blogs. If it works for them and their readers, cool. It's just not for me.

I am, however, open to other opinions. It's an interesting topic. That's one reason I'm moderating the Making Money session at Bloggercon. Details here."
» by Doc Searls on Oct 20, 2004 at 02:31 PM

Scott Johnson says:
"I think AdSense really changed the non-commercial web world permanently.

Let's face it: nobtrusive, context-sensitive ads are a nice way to pay for your hosting costs without making your site appear overly commercial."
» by Scott Johnson on Oct 21, 2004 at 10:19 AM

Adam says:
"Personally, I think the "I'm paying for bandwidth and hosting" excuse is disingenuous. At most (unless you're hosting all kinds of audio and video files) that's, what, 20 dollars? (and that's if you're getting taken to the cleaners by your hosting company).

I would much rather hear someone say, "I'm paying for all the time and effort I've been putting into this for the past 2 years" (definitely my case and quite a few other ones who somehow fear of speaking up of their relative success). We all know good content takes time, so if the author isn't in it for the sole purpose of creating good content, I would feel better about them if they just said so."
» by Adam on Oct 19, 2004 at 03:30 PM

Andy Budd says:
"Being somebody who runs a blog that has advertising on it, I though I'd throw in my 2 cents worth.

Personally I'd argue that just because a blog contains adverts, it doesn't make it commercial.

I see a commercial blog as one where the purpose of the site is to make money. There are a few blogs such as those run by Nick Denton and Paul Scrivens where this is the case, however the vast majority of blogs are, and always will be, non commercial.

Sure site owners put up ads as they can help off-set their hosting costs (I'm currently paying over $60 a month for my hosting and bandwidth) and maybe even get the odd free computer book, CD or DVD off Amazon. Some bloggers used to ask for donations to help cover their costs, however the donations rarely came flooding in.

That's because people expect content on the web to be free, even if there is a material cost to publishers. The motivation behind these blogs isn't to make money, and I doubt it ever will be.

As such I think it's unfair to assume that just because you place AdSense ads on your site, you'll suddenly become biased.

If Google did something I thought was wrong, it wouldn't stop me from saying so if I felt it was appropriate. I definitely wouldn't not mention it for fear of upsetting them and losing my ads, so I don't see where the bias is."
» by Andy Budd on Oct 20, 2004 at 07:06 AM

These opinion pretty much summarize the view, of those that are at least open-minded, and at best favourable to some commercialization of blogs.

The points that I don't see being made or reported about are critical ones. Here is a first set of the ones I see more glaringly missing:

a) AdSense is not "advertising" in the traditional sense. I am sorry but I don't see AdSense as being the same as those truly annoying banner ads, walking pop-ups or other major colorful items standing in my view. When you work and refine your site so that the AdSense can do is job effectively, you get some really outstanding complementary information, just as valuable as related articles or relevant books rolls. This adds value to the content, it does not intrude, and provides potentially wonderful matches between advertisers and publishers that would have been very hard to achieve otherwise.

b) Blogs can be better categorized as commercial, in my very personal opinion, when they have little ethic, no personality or character, and when they stand behind no ideals. Though there weren't many such blogs, there is a growing number of them. Blogs, as a matter of fact should have always been identified by the character and style of their writers rather than by the technology they employed. So, that solves the problem at its start, as you can clearly say that purely profit-driven blogs are really commercial news sites (I don't think anyone would be offended). One good example is the growing network of Movable Type blogs that make the empire. Though these are supposedly "blogs" since they do post news items in reverse chronological order, they have evolved much beyond that stage, first becoming group blogs and realizing their best abilities now as effective commercial news sites.

c) The issue raised by Jason Kotke at the beginning of his piece when he reports "... increasingly false perception of blogs as inherently unbiased by commercial interests". This is not a false perception by my own standards. Point is, what is the reference that we are using to say something is biased or not. Well, I am using mainstream traditional media online, the type that asks for a registration, doesn't use readers as reporters, doesn't allow for open comments or trackbacks on their articles and still makes large use of banner ads and intrusive pop-ups to garnish the largest share of its income. So, if I look at the blogs I read, with or without Google AdSense ads displayed, I have a much greater sense of trust for the authors behind them, and I perceive them as much more credible and sincere than any of the mainstream media sites.

More than anything, I find the blogger personality, much more competent than any average traditional journalist online or off.

d) "The continuing shift from blogging as a hobby to blogging for a variety of reasons." This should come as no surprise. When adopting a new technology humans go always through a neophyte phase in which they experiment, play and explore the new discovered tool. It is only later that we are able to better conceptualize and understand its best possible uses, and then to integrate them in our personal daily life. Right now we are still transitioning from having discovered blogs to fully understanding their best applications and uses.

e) Just another anonymous kook commented that "The fact of the matter is, owning a blog is a personal desire, not a commercial endeavor." But who said that? What about craftsmen and anyone having a real, high-quality business in the pre-industrial era. Isn't that what real business used to be? And isn't this to be considered even a higher form of business expression? Think of jewelers, designers, car mechanics, investigators, nurses, (some) doctors and a thousand other professions. Aren't these people following a personal desire/passion while going about making a personally profitable and socially valuable business? So, why shouldn't this apply to the Web too?

f) And as Jonah made this popular comment: "having ads on a site inherently causes the author to create content that they wouldn't have done otherwise. Rather than posting interesting links and commentary, people get wrapped up in making more posts to drive up traffic." Again, it depends. Commercial news sites have all the right to do so, so maybe it is just me and you being stuck with wanting to classify them as blogs. Two, you may also see a different smarter pattern at work: authors that want to capitalize on their reporting passion will write more extensively and in depth about their preferred topics as this is the only way that you can get more and more people to read your content. It seems fairly evident that the moment you deviate from being as sharp, direct and timely as you used to be, readers will notice, and given the amount of good alternatives will not need more than a few clicks to replace "too shallow" (what you call too commercial) with "in-depth".

g) Finally, for those who are still thinking about charging mini-amounts for allowing people to read their content, please think again. This is another utterly counterlogical road. Let the content be free, extend reach and visibility as a consequence and offer premium content, anthologies, guides, and re-edited essays as one alternative content income stream. AdSense is not the only monetization opportunity out there, and that there are other serious alternative options to be considered when trying to make your reporting passion a sustainable and professionally executed online business. Here a few:

1) Amazon books

2) Sponsorships

3) Text links (and this is a whole thorny and fascinating topic by itself)

4) Micropayments

5) Personal Premium content

and many more.

I also would like to answer some of the Jason own public questions, which you can find interspersed inside the comment section. These are all very reasonable questions, and I am glad that Jason has had the desire to ask them up front.

He asked:

1) How do you feel about advertising on weblogs?

Advertising to me is equivalent to "intrusive", frequently "non-relevant", one-to-many message, pre-packaged at the source and highly designed so that it can make as many people buy into it over any competing one.

Related contextual ads, sponsorships, and sell-side ads have nothing to do with the above. Visually there is a ocean of difference, communication-wise one is relevant related information bursts on useful products and services, the other is often deceptive, super-hyped sell-out of a "brand" or "concept" to the largest number of people.

2) On personal weblogs?

Blogs are all very personal by definition. If they were not, they would be commercial news sites. So, there is nothing wrong with contextual, non-intrusive complementary commercial information on any personal site that can keep its own mission and integrity free of the needs and wants of traditional advertisers.

3) What's wrong with defying the cost of hosting and bandwidth?

Nothing is wrong with it. That is actually only the tip of the iceberg. Reality is that if you work seriously enough at it, anyone pro-blogger can make a serious professional job out of this, having no regret for the previous position she may have held at a major company. Yes, you don't get any benefits or company shares here, but you are finally your own boss.
I am dreaming? Boasting? Ask Chris Pirillo what he thinks of this.

4) Hypothetical: what if I put advertising on

That is exactly the point everyone misses. Though Google tells you differently, only on very few blogs or sites will AdSense provide ads so precisely targeted and diverse to produce a significant stream of income. Everyone thinks that to be just the way it is. Not so. AdSense has its own needs and only if you study and analyze them enough you can reap the benefits of providing a useful additional information channel while increasing your sustainability. It takes hard work to make AdSense work, but given the time anyone needs to become "someone" at any art, most anyone can create a truly profitable blog in some extremely reasonable time (meaning you need to invest at least one year of intense and passionate content writing, linking, commenting and participating in the many online conversations relative to your topic, to obtain a return that can be counted in the thousands of dollars per month. Of course I agree with you that nobody cares about the $20/month to pay back the hosting.)

5) Would you flip out or would you not mind so much?

I would only care to see some extra useful info relevant to what you talk about providing you so much extra income, that you could devote much more time to writing and researching the very topics that have brought me here today. If not, you would be only filling my screen with uninteresting stuff.

6) What if I couldn't continue doing without money from advertising?

You would appear as a smart, intelligent human being, realizing that times have changed, that online is not print, that ads and AdSense are not the same thing, and that realizing one's own mission without selling out your soul is truly possible and it is not at all dependant on what appears next to your content. It depends on your personal ethics. Because the new times we are in say that WE, INDEPENDENt PUBLISHERS ARE NOW THE KINGS.

Rafat Ali may not agree with this but then again ask yourself this: do I care more about the major ads intruding on his site and daily newsletter, or do I care more about the quality of news and truthful, uncensored commentary he provides me with?

Is he praising services and covering tools because they are giving him money?
That's not the issue. The issue is: does he report with total frankness and honesty about these tools or does write what his advertisers want to read?

Can you tell?

What do you think?

Robin Good

Readers' Comments    
2004-10-29 15:34:43

Jonathan Briggs

I have a slightly strange take on this! I run an educational blog for my university students and have found the ads useful in getting them to explore some of the companies that provide the technologies that we discuss on the site. Sort of win-win.

2004-10-23 17:17:33

Sepp Hasslberger

Let me just take up one point: One of Jason Kottke's observations is

a) the quick uptake of advertising on blogs, the increasingly false perception of blogs as inherently unbiased by commercial interests (and therefore preferable to "big media")...

This assumes that advertising slants the basic reason for a blog, which is to make your personal point, to tell your views to a larger audience, an assumption that is not necessarily true.

I believe you can report and have advertising side by side, and one need not (overly) influence the other.

Certainly one would try to not have adverts that contradict what is being said on the blog, a problem anyone will find who reports outside of the mainstream of going ideas.

But there is another assumption in that quote, that blogs are seen as "inherently unbiased by commercial interests".

First of all, I would say that blogs are as biased as you can get.

They provide a unique viewpoint that is biased towards the views of who is blogging.

The beautiful thing is that as a group, or rather as a universe, bloggers finally provide, for everyone to see, all those uniquely different points of view which we have lost in the media.

Media respond to an owner and they represent the owner's view (inthe vast majority of cases). Publishing policy is set at board level, and the writers of the news will conform to that policy.

If the policy reflects the interests of a multinational conglomerate - most of them do - then as larger and larger media empires are formed by buying the competition, and as the owners of media interlock, we go towards one view.

Well, blogs break through that wall and provide that multitude of views that we need to form an unbiased opinion of our own.

posted by Robin Good on Friday, October 22 2004, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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