Blogging Full Disclosure Debacle – Grow Some Brass Ones

I like to keep a fairly professional and level head when I am discussing various issues on this blog but unfortunately I have just listened to the pre-recording that Shoemoney did with Rand Fiskin about full disclosure when blogging, and quite honestly whilst I empathise with some of the points both made, I think in many ways both are missing at least a few vital points.

Regular readers however are going to be shocked about this but in my opinion…

Shoemoney’s Disclosure Is Better Than Rand’s

I am calling it a debacle rather than a debate, because in a debate there is at least a serious attempt to do some fact gathering. Maybe there were time constraints both in the planning and the delivery, and it is good to see disclosure being discussed, but I honestly expected after the previous round of blog and counter-blog for there to be a more in-depth look.

There Are Regulations For Bloggers

Major companies such as Clickbank require disclosure. As I pointed out in that article, they link through to the FTC regulations for Word of Mouth marketing.

How anyone can debate whether affiliates need to disclose without using the phrase “Word of Mouth Marketing” is just ridiculous.
There is a big difference between a recommendation and an advert in the sidebar.

It Is Not Who You Talk About, But Also What You Don’t Talk About

Why don’t you rip apart Google on their referral units, where they effectively prevent disclosure, whilst encouraging WOMM.
I mentioned this again recently in my post regarding the Feedburner acquisition.
People don’t criticise Google because it would affect their relationship with Google.

On the other hand, bloggers seem more than happy to jump on the bandwagon for linkbait talking about services that don’t pay the bills.

No Mention of Word of Mouth Marketing Association

I have had issues with the WOMMA and disclosure in the past, but at least I acknowledge they exist.

Disclosure Policy

It isn’t hard to do – Shoemoney now effectively has a disclosure policy, Rand doesn’t. All he really needs to do now is stick a link to it in his sidebar, or even better add it in some way to his feeds using something akin to my disclosure policy feedflare, and everything is 100% above board and he can drop as many affiliate links as he likes without feeling compelled by anyone to stick a little (aff) after links which not all visitors would understand anyway.

As I noted recently, John Reese is also using disclosure for AuctionAds affiliate links, follow his lead, as John rarely puts a foot wrong.

Shilling for Google and Yahoo? Grow Some Brass Ones

Maybe not, but I think the majority of people writing about SEO and the search engines in general need to grow some brass ones, such as Jack Humphrey has just demonstrated.

In fact lots of the blogs I have been reading up until recently on a regular basis seem to take no stance on major issues, and to just ask their reader’s opinions, or link out to people supporting their opinion, without actually stating it.


I deliberately didn’t link through to any particular article when I listed 32 kinds of linking Payola. It is interesting that the podcast highlighted at least one more form, and possibly more.

I actually like Dave Naylor’s take on this

I bet if I dig deep enough into any blog a can find a link out with a motive

How critical can you be of a company with whom you have an NDA, or with whom you might like to have a special relationship with in the future?

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  1. says

    I felt the interview was all over the place. However, I must say that in the end, shoemoney seemed to come round to Rand’s way of thinking.

  2. says

    Like other folks, I found you through Shoemoney’s blog, but while he feels that your content is very valuable and relevant to the discussion, I must say that I struggled to understand. Perhaps it’s just different writing/comprehending styles, but the links you point to, while certainly interesting and valuable to bring to a discussion on disclosure, don’t seem to address the singular issue that was up for debate:

    Shoemoney – Taking money to blog about a product/service/company you were paid to blog about without disclosing the direct financial influence is OK

    Rand – Nope, that’s not OK. There are other gray areas and other places where disclosure should/should not be required, but that is clearly over the line.

    And yet, while you say you agree with Shoemoney, there’s a disclosure at the bottom of your page here. Is it just a case of “do what I say and not what I do?” Maybe you can explain it to me. Feel free to shoot me an email if you’d like.

    • says

      Rand I am saying for legal compliance (though I am not a lawyer, Brian Clark is and thinks affiliates need disclosure, and Mike Young another lawyer agreed, back in December) he now has some disclosure, he just needs to link to it.

      Shoe could also include additional disclosure on a case by case basis where he feels it is appropriate, or when it is required by an advertiser, but he would be covered for all those unstated benefits that sometimes / might happen down the road, and for things like affiliate links.

      In the case of SEOmoz, and I am a regular reader and believe you have a high level of integrity.

      Post by post disclosure is a wonderful thing, but it rarely covers all those additional benefits of linking to or writing about someone.

      Are you in a position to go back through 2 years worth of archives every time you sign a new customer, just in case you said something about them?

      People rarely link to opposing views, they link to their friends, the sites they have in their bookmarks, and more often than not the people who share their views.

  3. says

    I think disclosure is important. I like how you have it set up on your blog, where it’s a fairly simple and unobtrusive link to a policy.
    The real problem has been that there have been blogs created to sell a product where they are written by a fictional character to do so. The blog is nothing short of an advertisement, yet those who visit it don’t realize that.
    I think, ethically, disclosure is the right thing to do. It doesn’t need to be taken to any extremes, it just needs to be accessible.

  4. says

    I wrote a similar post earlier this morning asking if there was a difference between bloggers writing about companies with which they have a business relationship vs. paid-posts. My contention is there is no difference, since most bloggers in such a position are there because of their blog and there is certainly an IMPLICIT expectation the company in question will receive blog coverage, even when it is not EXPLICITLY required. The net effect is exactly the same.

    Company pays blogger for something. Blogger writes about the company. Or, if you prefer, Blogger writes about company. Company pays blogger something. Quid pro quo comes in many forms.

    Your argument that all of these bloggers should have blanket disclosure policies is spot on.

  5. says

    What was annoying about the debate was that I had posted on Shoe’s site material about the FTC’s policy on testimonials.

    Neither of them chose to read it before debating the topic, which I agree is more than pointless. You have to start from a basic understanding of the law. Your readers should probably start off with this article from copyblogger for an introduction.

    On a different note, I found your observation about google very interesting and hope to see more critical commentary about google.

    • says

      As I mentioned above, around the same time there were a number of posts on the subject by lawyers, and the article by Mike Young on the Copywriters Blog is also a very good read.

      The FTC considers it to be a deceptive trade practice to provide consumers with allegedly independent information that in fact is motivated by monetary and other incentives. According to Mary K. Engle at the FTC, “if you’re being paid, you should disclose that.”

      I bolded one part in that quote, but the interesting part in this debate is the “other incentives”, plus also affiliate marketing has monetary incentive, just like writing a paid post, and maybe more so.

      • says

        Andy, I am also an attorney -from Ontario, which has in this case very similar laws to the U.S.

        The point I raised several months ago was that there were at least two disclosure issues.

        1. Section 5, of the FTC Act, pertaining to WOMA.

        But also, more importantly for affiliate marketers who are marketing a system for earning money,

        2. The new business opportunity rule promulgated by the FTC, which doesn’t have the force of law yet. But it is will require a 2 page disclosure, which most affiliate marketers won’t know about.

        (There is a current biz op rule which probably won’t catch most affiliate marketers.)

        In conclusion, it is not just word of mouth that affiliate marketers selling systems for earning money have to be worried about.

        And yes, the FTC goes after unregistered biz ops all the time.

  6. says

    I have to say I think full disclosure policy is best. I write a disclosure and I explain where the money goes. I dont like to let people think I’m whoring myself out there not so much as I care what they think I just dont want to lose readers if they notice more posts that are reviews or more ads occasionally when I need the extra money.

  7. says

    Andy, it’s about time someone call them out on this. I agree with you that they certainly didn’t do a lot of fact-checking before the debate. But, consider that they didn’t have a lot of time to do that fact-checking and research about the issue. Sometimes the best debates are those that come up on a whim.

    I have to disagree with your remark about “regulations”. How could you possibly call these disclosure requirements “regulations”? They are simply “requirements” that are made up by the company–and there are a lot of affiliate-related “companies” I won’t do business with or “endorse” because of those silly “requirements”.

    I agree with you, Amanda–it’s best to be honest with your readers and being honest means “full disclosure” when it’s appropriate to do so.

    El Yanqui, that’s a good point–I agree that bloggers would make it a lot easier on themselves if they added a “disclosure policy” to their site. Perhaps just like “privacy policies” us bloggers should be adding “disclosure policies”.

    • says

      Bill I do agree that Clickbank’s interpretation of the law is their own.
      Other lawyers, one of whom has already commented here and not disagreed, and there are references to 2 other lawyers, have also spoken about this, and in the past I have also linked through to more.

      Until these things are tested in court in the US, it is all interpretation.

      Clickbank have decided that their affiliates should comply with the FTC documents they link to. Just because other affiliate networks haven’t taken action might be because they haven’t been dragged through the courts recently on other issues (e.g. CAN-SPAM complaints against some of their affiliates)

      Clickbank definitely know about the golden rule of marketing – “Cover Your Ar*e”

      If you can find me a lawyer who has specifically stated that this does not apply to affiliate marketing, in public, and who has extensive experience in internet law, I would be glad to read it and link through.
      I myself can point to lawyers who selectively avoid the subject, such as Michael Arrington, but I am not sure if he is practicing, and his specialisation.

      I should note that Brian from Copyblogger used to work in Internet Law, and Mike Young specialises in it.

      I also don’t forget that my content gets distributed by email in 2 ways.

      1. RSS subscription by email
      2. Comment subscriptions

      Both kinds of email can contain commercial messages, either from me, or sometimes from spammers.

      I have links to contact details and my disclosure in feeds, and also have statements even in my comment subscriptions.

      If you followed the link to my article on Feedburner, you might notice that I dragged them over the coals slightly because of CAN-SPAM compliance.

      They have people who are non-practicing lawyers working in top management, you would expect them to have been in full compliance for years, yet getting a small change to allow you to include a commercial statement has been an uphill struggle.

      I live in Poland, my company is registered in the UK, but I still have to run my business complying with US regulations, and the FTC is regulations, not whimsy.

      • says

        I understand the logic here. But, affiliates chooose to do business or not do business with companies like Clickbank. And it’s my opinion that companies like Clickbank can make up any rules they want to. Since the affiliate is not a consumer then they don’t have to do business with Clickbank–and vice versa. Clickbank deserves the right to pay or ‘not pay’ companies or individuals who send them traffic.

        A company can decide that their affiliates must have a certain type of link on their site in order to get paid. They can decide whether or not the affiliate must disclose that they’re an affiliate. Of course the affiliate shouldn’t misrepresent themselves, though.

        When it comes to disclosure, I don’t personally think the USA’s FTC can get involved–this is a business transaction that doesn’t necessarily directly involves the consumer. It’s a referral…and the consumer clicks on a link and goes on over to another site where such things should be disclosed (like guarantees, warranties, etc. etc.).

    • says

      I had to make the link to the LA Times unclickable, because a while ago I unearthed that they don’t allow deep linking in their terms of service.

  8. Money From Home says

    I am with shoemoney on this. You have to assume that if I am talking about it than I will directly or indirectly be making money from it.

    • says

      You mean you either tell people up front (a disclosure policy), or explain that to the FTC or a jury at a later date?

      p.s. I have a comments policy too

  9. says

    I think there is just too much information to regulate i mean how many opinions, recommendations or advertising can one distinguish between.

  10. says

    I realize I’m late to the party on this, but this interview just finally made it to iTunes a couple days ago. I like and respect both Shoemoney and Rand Fishkin very much (not personally…don’t know them…probably never will). But in different ways and in different reasons.

    Jeremy is very much a street-level guy. He speaks very plainly, he’s out there hustling for every dime he can pick up. He’s got a high profile… but unlike John Chow, who seeks it out… Shoe just seems to draw attention because he’s pretty flamboyant in his bluntness. He doesn’t want anyone looking up to him. He investigates everything himself. I think that’s just fine…and so is his “blanket disclosure”. There’s plenty of room in the world for scrappy guys like this… always challenging the status quo.

    Rand is a completely different animal. His knowledge is solid, he’s very well-spoken and chooses those words carefully. I love his stuff. Very informative. But his reputation is everything to him. You can’t behave like a hustler and get people to throw 10K of their hard-earned money your way every month. And I believe his approach is the right one…in his case. He needs for people to know that his objectivity is not for sale. Otherwise, his business is gone.

    Shoemoney couldn’t give a rat’s ass about his rep for the most part. Take away what he’s accomplished so far…and he’ll just get up and start from scratch tomorrow.

    Of the two, I found myself identifying more closely with Rand. But, whether focused and on point and well-researched or not…I still enjoyed the discussion. The only downside was that they were clearly having a difficult time hearing each other on the phone. That made for some awkwards gaps, and some lapses in communication.