Links are context; so are link ads

Chris Sessums has written about the educational WordPress Multi-User hosting provider Edublogs’ switch to inline context ads. These turn words within each blog post into ads, without the original author’s knowledge or permission. This is annoying in the wild, but takes on another meaning entirely when the blogging service is marketed for students and teachers:

For example one student mentioned the word “energy” in her blog entry and I found a pop-up link directing me to Exxon/Mobile. Hmmm? I thought and I read on. This same student also mentioned “college” in her entry wherein a hyperlink associated with the University of Phoenix popped up. I found this rather odd, since the student was currently enrolled here at the University of Florida.

The rest of Chris’s post is understandably angry. Links in blog posts are part of the flow of the text; they provide context. The link above allows you to read Chris’s blog so you know I’m not misrepresenting him. The following sentence in isolation:

I hope the criminals in our society receive the sentences that they deserve.

Is different to this one:

I hope the criminals in our society receive the sentences that they deserve.

By auto-linking words to sites for money, a new thrust or subtext can be added to the post. In other words, with this kind of advertising – even when it’s been marked out in the user agreement and everyone knows it’s there – advertisers are buying a little bit of your intention. (Users may not always understand the full scope of what they’re agreeing to, as they don’t see the ads themselves.)

Print publications often have very separate advertising and editorial departments, for similar reasons. Ads on pages should be clearly marked out as being such, and they should never, ever, ever infringe on the actual content itself. This on any site is bad; on a site for use in education is clearly immoral.

As a footnote, one of the user forum posts Chris highlights says this:

Content Links in the middle of my posts which include unauthorized advertisements is unacceptable. One of the reasons I moved my blog to Edublogs was to avoid ads in my blog, and this is even worse than Adsense found off to the side which people can easily ignore.

There is a very simple consumer protection maxim that it’s worth remembering for any product: if it seems too good to be true, it is. Everyone needs to make money; if you’re using a commercial product with no clear business model, ask yourself how they’re going to claw back their investment – it’s not always going to be in the ways you’d like.

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