Friday, May 06, 2005

USWeb remakes the art of the Shill into the art of the Shull.

Update 05/13/05:This article has been updated. The only changes made were to the editing so that it conforms to professional journalistic standards, and the third paragraph was re-written. It originally quoted the full text of the email. It now contains only a portion of the email quoted, with the rest being summarized. Thank you to Anthony Lappé, Executive Editor at GNN (Guerrilla News Network), and everbody else over there for working with me on the editing.

Blogging for dollars

Leading Internet marketing firm pays bloggers to shill

It looks like the folks at, a leading Internet marketing firm, have taken the idea of shilling one step further and could very well be in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

While searching the online postings at CraigsList, I came across an interesting post, which read, “Get paid for blogging… We will pay you to post to your blog. We pay $5 via PayPal per blog posting. To start earning cash, email me with your name and blog URL. We are looking for people to pay today. If you don’t have a PayPal account, we can also send you a gift certificate for iTunes if you like.”

So I sent off an email requesting further information. The reply email came from Ed Shull ( and read, “This is pretty simple. I will provide a subject, you write a short (50 word min.) post, we pay you $5. The first subject is a flower site. You should give a favorable review of the flower site, Dot Flowers.” The rest of the email went on to explain that in the review I must link to the Dot Flowers website using the anchor text “buy flowers online.” It also included a list of things I could write; such as “they have better pricing,” and that their site loads faster than the competitors sites. There was also info about the technical aspects of the site, such as the code used behind the pages and that it’s “error free.” After completing the post, the instructions were simple, “…please send me a URL to the post and your PayPal address. Also, let me know how often you wish to post for us, and we will send over more subjects. Thanks, Ed.”

Being a poor unemployed tech worker hoping to get into writing as a way to make money, the first thing that came to mind was, Hey that’s a pretty good deal to make a quick five bucks, and possibly more while doing very little work. Being a one-time journalism major, the second thing that came to mind was, to go ahead and do something like this would be unethical and possibly illegal. The problem is that the posts are not reviews at all. They are in fact paid advertisements disguised to look like the actual view or opinions of the person or consumer writing the blog.

The blogger is not required to say anywhere in the post that the views presented have been paid for by the advertiser. Even though it’s common practice for advertisers to write copy that has the look and feel of a news story or a consumer endorsement, according to the FTC they are required to include that the information in the article or review is in fact a paid advertisement.

In section 255.2-(b) of the “FTC Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials In Advertising,” it clearly states that, “Advertisements presenting endorsements by what are represented, directly or by implication, to be “actual consumers’’ should utilize actual consumers, in both the audio and video or clearly and conspicuously disclose that the persons in such advertisements are not actual consumers of the advertised product.”

So who’s responsible for violating the FTC guidelines? Would it be the responsibility of the agency or company that approved and paid for the review (ad) or their client, and not that of the person writing and posting to their blog. In other words, the blogger is merely writing poor copy that amounts to a deceptive ad. Or does the responsibility rest on the shoulders of the blogger posting the paid review on their site without disclosing that the reviews are actually paid advertisements?

I phoned the FTC to ask how these rules apply to bloggers. Unfortunately they were unable to answer my question. I was told that they could not answer my question in regards to how the rule applies or offer any legal interpretations as to how it may be applied. In addition, I also sent the FTC an email asking the same question and stating that I was writing an article regarding bloggers and advertising on the Internet. I did receive a reply back from the senior press officer at the FTC, Claudia Bourne Farrell ( She wrote me back to inquire as to whom I was writing the article for. I informed her that I was a freelancer and not working for any particular publication. After my reply I received no further emails from her regarding the matter and additional emails went unanswered.

As far as any legal issues, I can only surmise that if the opinion filed February 14, 2003 by The District Court of Appeal of Florida Second District which states, “the FCC’s policy against the intentional falsification of the news, which the FCC has called its “news distortion policy,” does not qualify as the required, law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102,” sets any precedence, then the rules under the FTC Guidelines are also not applicable laws but are merely suggested guidelines, which leaves only the ethical issue.

So who is Ed Shull and what company does he represent? A quick search on the Internet and I found out just who he is. He is in fact the C.E.O. of USWeb. His profile on the USWeb website refers to him as a “marketing genius” and a leader in the field of online marketing and advertising who has been featured in publications such as The New York Times and Newsweek.

Shull was kind enough to answer some questions by email. According to Shull when asked if this was a new approach to advertising on the Internet or have they done this before, he replied, “We have been doing this for a few months now, but I do see it growing. The more people create and read blogs, the larger the opportunity to create buzz for our clients.”

When asked if he sees this form of advertising growing in the future and what kind of benefits their clients will have using this form of advertising, Shull replied, “With blogs we have seen the business of online publishing change. Some Bloggers have press credentials and get readership in the thousands. When most people think of blogs they think of a younger demographic, this is not a bad thing, but it’s also becoming less true everyday. I see a lot of blogs popping up in the area of financial advice and health.”

I went on to ask Shull how the response has been regarding the use of bloggers to promote their clients’ services? According to him most of their clients have had reservations regarding the type of exposure they would received and many of them insist on reviewing the postings before hand. Shull felt that doing this was “…counterproductive for the blogging idea. We want blogs that provide good information and speak in the candid, loose manor that makes blogs appealing to readers.”

In regards to the reactions of the bloggers, Shull says, “Bloggers have had mixed reactions to earning cash to blog. Some feel it’s a betrayal to their readers. We encourage bloggers to express themselves as much as they like. They don’t have to write about a particular blog if they choose not to. The blogger writes what they want to write, and how they want to write it. We simply ask them for their honest opinions and let them know some of the benefits we see in the service or product.” …”We just ask that the blogger review the site and let us know. If they find it to be a site they don’t like, we just move on to the next posting for them.”

Yet I have to question the part about asking for their “honest opinion” since in his reply to my original request for more info on getting paid to blog, Shull clearly stated that I should write a “favorable review.”

Just how much does a client of USWeb expect to spend to get reviews posted by bloggers? According to Shull, “Our blogging budget varies from client to client. Most start at around $5,000, with the expectation of getting 500 blog postings. We verify every blog posting to make sure that it followed the guidelines.”

To the reader of blogs, just remember that what you think may be the honest opinions of consumers could really be nothing more than paid-for advertisements.

© Copyright J. Ryan (, 2005. All Rights Reserved.