Blog-driven debate about sponsored links in editorial content focuses on our ethics code.

Should publishers sell hypertext links within their editorial content—providing advertisers with a foothold there, while opening a new avenue of online revenue for the publication? ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices gives a quiet, unequivocal answer: No.

The power of the blogosphere, however, began turning cases of hypertext-link sales into a major issue in May. And the debate has raised the profile of the ethical position taken by the Society in the ethics guidelines adopted last year.

At the heart of the issue was B2B blogger Paul Conley calling publisher Ziff-Davis to task over its use of Vibrant Media’s IntelliTXT, a technology that can place advertiser links within editorial content, using a double-underlining that attempts to differentiate the paid link from regular editorial links. Its links were sold and placed after the content was written.

Conley cited ASBPE’s ethics code as an illustration that industry standards opposed the Ziff-Davis approach. In a dialog between Paul Conley and Eric Shanfelt (emediastrategist.com), president and founder of eMedia Strategist and former senior vice president of eMedia for Penton Media, the discussion at one point focused on the punctuation in one paragraph in the ASPBE guidelines, and how the paragraph might lead to misinterpretation.

Boston journalism ethics expert Jeff Seglin—a member of the ASPBE committee, who teaches at Emerson College and writes a syndicated business-ethics column—served as a spokesman for the Society in several blog posts. At the same time, the committee met by email to review the language of our guidelines.

After a review by ASBPE’s standing ethics committee, in May a minor change was made in the language of the code under the heading “Approve Hypertext Links.”

In our old language:

Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold, and generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader.

The ASBPE code says flatly that “hyptertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors.”

The new language, which ends that paragraph, reads:

Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader.

The issue has continued to spread through blogs, led by an article posted on Folio: magazine’s web site Posts appeared on Poynteronline and marketingvox, for example, and opinions were expressed by such bloggers as custom publisher Rex Hammock; Shiblog’s Prescott Shibles; and Frank Chloupek, who is web development director, manufacturing for the Supply Chain & Metals Group of Penton Media (see comments to this post). Other views were posted by content, marketing and eMedia consulting blogger Dave Iannone (see comments to this post), and by Sue Pelletier, MeetingsNet web editor and editor of Association Meetings magazine (and also an ASBPE Boston chapter board member). Wrote consultant and media monitor Tish Grier: “I so completely agree with Paul (Conley)…. This kind of thing is nonsense. Hyperlinks in text should lead to further information, as in related stories, and not to ads. This really is just bloody awful. …”

In a statement provided to Ziff-Davis, Folio: and Paul Conley, ASBPE president Roy Harris said: “We feel the code offers a clear guideline: Editors, not publishers or ad-sales folks, should make the final decisions on ALL uses of links within edit copy. Also, ad links within editorial text should NOT be sold under any condition.”

Within days of Conley’s original post, he noted that Ziff Davis pulled the IntelliTXT links. In the meantime, he reported, paid links appeared on some CMP web sites, but were later removed.

The Boston/New England blog has been keeping up with postings as they occur.

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