Forbes.com has begun to embed advertiser links in its news articles, making it the first major Web news publisher to experiment with mixing ad units within editorial content.
Forbes.com is the largest and most prominent Web publisher to sign on with Vibrant Media to use its IntelliTxt product, which displays advertiser hyperlinks on content pages. Yahoo's Overture Services provides many of the paid links for IntelliTxt through its Content Match contextual listings program. Advertisers bid in an auction and pay only when users click through to their site.
Vibrant Media began offering IntelliTxt broadly in late April. The London- and San Francisco-based company, founded four years ago by former AOL executives, has signed up 150 content Web sites including IGN and Popular Mechanics.
Forbes.com, which Nielsen//NetRatings reports drew 4.8 million visitors in June, is the largest site to use IntelliTxt. It also has a reputation as a leader in online advertising, pioneering the use of ad-supported video and the half-page ad unit. It began showing IntelliTxt links in June as part of a test.
“We're looking for as many areas to push out into as possible,” Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller said.
While many Vibrant Media partners display the paid links in reviews, Forbes.com shows them in news stories. For example, an article about the Food and Drug Administration's approval of a cholesterol drug contained advertiser links from “Food and Drug Administration” and “bank.”
Vibrant Media claims such links garner better response than Google's AdSense listings, which reside off to the side or at the bottom of the page, and are less intrusive than pop-up ads.
IntelliTxt links are double underlined in blue to set them off from non-paid hyperlinks, which are in blue but not underlined. When a user hovers over an IntelliTxt link, the listings display a pop-up box with a “sponsored link” heading and site description.
Forbes.com does not include a separate explanation to users about the IntelliTxt links and did not post an explanation to readers alerting them that some hyperlinks are sold to advertisers.
“We'll see if there's confusion somewhere along the way here,” Spanfeller said. “I think it's fairly clear.”
Forbes.com plans to gauge user reaction in the next few months through periodic online surveys conducted by ForeSee Results. Spanfeller said he was unaware of any reader complaints since Forbes.com added IntelliTxt.
IntelliTxt, however, is not without detractors. Matt McAlister, vice president and general manager, online, at technology publication InfoWorld, said he evaluated IntelliTxt and decided against using it.
“As part of a pure financial play, it's a smart thing to do,” he said. “The problem is when you start [advertiser] linking in content, I think you're damaging the credibility of the content for the user.”
McAlister said the blurring of editorial and advertising was a risk for online journalism, which has struggled to be seen as legitimate as offline journalism and is suffering from Weblogs that masquerade as news sites. He can imagine situations in which reporters, resenting their words becoming ad links, would write in a certain way to avoid popular keywords.
“I think it's a dangerous path for online advertising,” he said.
Paid listing innovations such as IntelliTxt and contextual advertising programs will create more ad inventory for text listings. A report from Nielsen//NetRatings this week warned that paid search's meteoric growth might be slowed by a dearth of inventory on search engines.
Spanfeller said it was too early to tell whether the IntelliTxt links were generating much revenue.
“Our whole attitude has been that we'll basically try anything once,” he said.