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August 18, 2014

Is it a News Story or Is it an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:48 am

 Every day, MrConsumer scours the Internet to find the 25 or so stories that we feature in Consumer World each week. And it should come as no surprise that Google News is a primary source. Last week, when searching for news stories one day, this was what Google News presented:

Google result

The very first result looked like a great story to bring to the attention of Consumer World readers — “10 Ways You’re Throwing Money Away Daily.” Upon clicking the link, one is brought to that story on the LA Times website:

Click on picture to expand to full size,
click resulting picture if necessary to enlarge,
and scroll to the top.

It is a very long story offering all these tips, with appropriate graphics for each one. Tip #3 caught our eye, suggesting that money could be saved on eyewear by purchasing a vision plan:

eye tip

The link presented in the tip takes the reader to VSP — Vision Service Plan — where it purports to show dramatic savings on a pair of eyeglasses. And one can enroll in the plan right there.

Pretty clearly, this whole long story providing savings tips had a single purpose — to drive readers to this insurance plan. But it was a news story, right?

Scrolling back to the top of the page, the secret is revealed:



There it is. “Advertisement” in tiny letters (actual size). Did you catch it when you first looked at the full graphic above? Do you think that most people caught it?

This whole “story” that went on and on, page down after page down about eight times, was actually an ad, and not editorial content presented by the LA Times. This is called “native advertising” where the content is made to fit it more with the surrounding content on a webpage and appear less like an advertisement.

We wrote to the LA Times and explained how something like this could mislead readers. We asked some very pointed questions about this manner of presenting advertising with such a small disclaimer, how it wound up in Google as a news story, and if they were going to try to fix the problem. They responded:

“…the advertisement in question is clearly labeled as such and the only path for readers to find that content was intended to be via an latimes.com panel that is also clearly labeled as advertising. However, your inquiry brought our attention to the fact that although this ad – and others of the same ilk – is not included in our News SiteMap and the page has “noindex nofollow” directives, there appears to be a technical glitch with Google News. We are working with Google to find out why the content is indexed incorrectly and have the issue fixed as soon as possible. In the meantime, we have removed the advertisement from our site to eradicate potential for further confusion.” — V.P. Communications, Los Angeles Times

While we are gratified that the paper acted so quickly to remove the advertisement, they seem not to have a problem with such a small disclaimer at the top. We hope they will reconsider that position, and if they continue to display advertisements that look identical to news stories, that they will take further steps to more clearly identify and differentiate that kind of content.

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  1. Native advertising is getting shiftier by the minute. I don’t have a problem with native advertising, but the less of an effort put in to inform readers the more the practice should be chastised.

    The Facebook and Twitter buttons on that advertisement are larger than the advertisement banner itself.

    Edgar comments: Isn’t that part of the deception too? They don’t generally put Facebook and Twitter button on ads, do they?

    Comment by Wayne R — August 18, 2014 @ 8:11 am
  2. Next thing is you will tell me those Amish heat furnaces are an ad. LOL! Google is making money. Then comes the news stories about investing and the expert(s) giving the advice also are selling a book. Mere coincidental.

    Comment by Rick — August 18, 2014 @ 8:26 am
  3. If what LA Times says is true, that the advertisement is clearly segregated from articles on its own news feed and is tagged accordingly, I don’t see what they are doing wrong. After all, print magazines have had “special advertising sections” spanning multiple pages as far back as I can remember. The problem is with Google and, again, unless LA Times is not telling the whole story, Google has nothing to gain by displaying someone else’s advertisement as a news story, so they don’t have incentive to do something like that on purpose (Google makes most of its money through its own ads. Why would it want its users to see someone else’s?).

    Comment by BZ — August 18, 2014 @ 9:59 am
  4. If what the LA-Times is saying is true, I beleive they are being responsible here. Google has the problem and the Times has said they will work with them to prevent it. The question is, after a reasonable period of time will the problem with Google be fixed?

    Comment by Robert — August 18, 2014 @ 11:01 am

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