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Forbes.com Removes Paid Links From News Stories

Forbes.com has quietly removed paid advertiser links in its news stories after objections from its editorial staff.

The Web publisher recently stopped using paid listings provided by Vibrant Media's IntelliTxt system in its news articles. Forbes.com was the first major online news publisher to include IntelliTxt links in editorial content. The links were removed after editors objected to the appearance of advertising influencing editorial decisions.

“It was a perception that existed more in [editors'] and their colleagues' minds than the public,” said Jim Spanfeller, Forbes.com's CEO. “At the end of the day, we are an editorially driven company.”

The removal concludes a four-month experiment of dynamically embedding advertiser links in editorial content. IntelliTxt scans a Web page for keywords to convert into hyperlinks that direct users to advertiser Web sites.

Vibrant Media sells listings, and Yahoo's Overture Services provides the rest through its Content Match contextual listings program. Advertisers bid in an auction and pay only when users click through to their site. Web sites typically carry fewer than five IntelliTxt links per page.

A Forbes.com news story on the Federal Reserve adjusting interest rates might have included a paid listing from ING bank tied to the word “bank.” Forbes.com will continue using IntelliTxt in company profiles.

Spanfeller said user surveys showed readers mostly did not object to the paid listings in news stories and understood they were advertising.

“In this case, the end users are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for,” he said.

Yet some Web publishers have balked at IntelliTxt, claiming it further blurs the line between editorial and advertising and also risks confusing readers and eroding a site's brand value.

“This is really, really sensitive ground,” said Chris Schroeder, former publisher and CEO of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “One would have to really look at it if it's something that would work. I would have to go at it with a lot of suspicion.”

Forbes.com has pushed the envelope with online advertising. It was among the first news sites to offer video advertising and half-page ad units. The site uses technology from United Virtualities that changes visitors' browsers when they visit. Visitors to Forbes.com using Internet Explorer have their browser altered to include an ad for Chevrolet, along with links to information from the company.

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 330 Web sites, including Entrepreneur.com and PopularMechanics.com, to include paid hyperlinks in Web content.

“This is going to be a prevalent ad unit in the future,” said Doug Stevenson, Vibrant Media's CEO. “It just takes a bit of time to get comfortable with it. Over time, we will get IntelliTxt running across all the major sites.”

The Sunday Times (UK) and PricewaterhouseCoopers recently named Vibrant Media the second fastest growing private technology company in Great Britain. Their report put the company's 2003 sales at $5.5 million. Vibrant expects to generate $25 million in sales this year.

Vibrant Media boasts that IntelliTxt has response rates 24 times that of banner ads and outperformed Google AdSense listings relegated to banner placements. Stevenson said IntelliTxt links garner click-through rates of 1.4 percent to 3 percent.

Spanfeller said Forbes.com saw a “not insignificant” revenue stream from IntelliTxt, but not enough to risk the discomfort of editors.

Stevenson said acceptance of IntelliTxt is growing. Sympatico/MSN in Canada soon begins testing IntelliTxt, marking Vibrant Media's first appearance on a portal.

“It's about finding the right place and right time for the product,” he said.

MedicineNet.com, a health publisher that draws 18 million page views monthly, has used IntelliTxt since July. The text links have generated incremental revenue without alienating readers or the doctors who write articles for the site, according to the site's ad executives.

“I was expecting more [negative] feedback,” said David Sorenson, vice president of marketing for the San Clemente, CA, Web publisher. “We have not seen any complaints.”

IntelliTxt links typically are double underlined and in a different color than non-paid hyperlinks. 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 includes a “What's this” link in the pop-up box directing users to an explanation page that offers the ability to turn off IntelliTxt for that site. Vibrant Media said fewer than 1 percent of the site's users chose to banish IntelliTxt.

“I felt pretty comfortable … that it was a rather benign thing from a user standpoint,” Spanfeller said.

Nate Elliott, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said marketers would see better returns for links in sections like product reviews rather than news stories.

“It's always going to be harder to make this work in a pure editorial environment than in a commercial environment,” he said.

Sorenson disagrees. He said IntelliTxt links in editorial content do not distract readers, like some intrusive rich media ads and pop-ups, and the links can even enhance the user experience. One skeptical doctor who writes for MedicineNet.com was won over after an article he wrote on a particular cancer included a paid listing looking for participants in a medical trial.

“He thought that was a great experience for the viewer,” Sorenson said. “We were adding value to that page of content.”

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