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The quest by both brands and publications to fool the reader continues. In response, the FTC has made a push for disclosure on sponsored content and native advertising.

But what about the online search for news?

I was reminded of this challenge during a client campaign that included a sponsored content spoke. If you plug “Robert Scoble virtual reality’ into Google News, the following page 1 results come back. Take a scan through the results.

 

Everything looks in order, right? USA Today. Huffington Post. VentureBeat … and the list goes on.

All legitimate publications.

There’s just one not-so-little detail buried below the surface. The VentureBeat story, “France’s VR Renaissance On a Tear” is sponsored content crafted by our Business France team. If you look above the headline, you’ll see the “Sponsored” label.

 

VentureBeat article on virtual reality

 

Lest you think this is an anomaly, use the Google News engine for “reasons for an electric bike,” and it serves up the following search engine results page (SERP):

 

 

Again, a solid list of publications, but a deeper look reveals The Next Web article, second on the list, as sponsored content for our client at the time, Mando. Furthermore, there’s no disclosure at the top of the article.

 

 

We don’t find out until the end of the story that the “post was brought to you by Mando.”

I’m sure Google would like publishers to flag sponsored content and native advertising in the URL to make it easy for the News engine to identify and keep paid content out of the news feed, but Google has not mandated that this be done. As a result, a few publishers like The New York Times flag paid content in the URL while VentureBeat and others take a pass.

A few years ago I pointed out that the same issue surfaces when searching within a publication. Here’s an example of sponsored content in The Wall Street Journal with Deloitte clearly identified as footing the bill for the real estate.

 

 

Yet, a search on “cybersecurity” using the Journal’s search engine turns up the following results:

 

Wall Street Journal paid content search

 

Right. The Deloitte content shows up fourth in the search results, and, oh by the way, a second piece of Deloitte content “earns” the sixth slot. The Journal’s search engine doesn’t distinguish between sponsored content and journalism, raking through a database that blends the two.

Whether you’re searching news across the media universe or within a specific publication, paid stories get sprinkled into the results.

Which brings us back to fooling the reader.

I used to believe that the publications trying to fool the reader were putting their brands at risk, that if readers discovered the ruse, they would think less of the publication. Now, I’m not so sure.

It could be that if the content serves the reader — educates and/or offers fresh insights and/or entertains — the reader doesn’t care about the source.

The skyrocketing dollars going into paid content seem to support this.

 

native advertising graph

 

Paid content will tip $20B next year, perhaps the best indicator that readers increasingly don’t care about the source.

And that the FTC’s quixotic task for disclosure on paid content might be a waste of time.

 


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