Why the FTC's guidance about blogging product reviews is wrong

Today, the Federal Trade Commission issued new guidance about product reviews on blogs and on testimonials in advertising. The rules are scheduled to go into effect Dec. 1, 2009, and they have disaster written all over them.

I’m going to be writing here as if I thought the FTC really had a role in this area, even though I largely don’t. But even if we accept the FTC’s role as proper, we’re left with some big questions [that apparently didn’t occur to the FTC]:

  • How is a blogging reviewer different from a print-publication reviewer?
  • Why is the FTC issuing guidance on a largely journalistic matter [blog reviews] in conjunction with guidance on an advertising matter [the use of endorsements/testimonials in ads]?
  • What happens when a newspaper or magazine writer wants to blog about a book or product the publication received?

Michael Hyatt posted this link on Twitter, and it’s a great summary of a lot that’s wrong with the FTC legislation.

My big complaint here is that [as I said recently about the privacy legislation rumored to be coming in Congress] the FTC doesn’t actually have a clue what it’s talking about. Check out the interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. The FTC is assuming that say, a book sent to a newspaper writer and a book sent to a blogger come to fundamentally different ends [both the physical book, and the review that results from it]. They seem to think that somehow, providing a review copy to a blogger will more predispose that person to writing a favorable review than would the same publisher providing a review copy to a printed publication.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Hey, FTC. Let me catch you up on a couple of realities. I’ve worked in both print and online media over the last 20 years, and I can explain this pretty easily.

1. Publisher sends a book, CD, whatever to publications and bloggers.
2. Sometimes, people in the mailroom, or the blogger, say, Hey, cool! A free book! That’s the end of that.
2a. Sometimes, the writer at the publication or the blogger looks at the book and says, What a waste of paper! and tosses it in the recycle bin. And that’s the end of that.
2b. Sometimes, the writer [print or blog] actually reads the book and writes up a review. I can assure you that at no time does the writer ever say, Well, that book sucked, but they did send it for free, so I’ll give it 3 stars instead of 1. Writers are a pretty cynical lot.
3. The book comes to one of two or three ends, generally: It gets donated in a large lot to the writer’s favorite charity, often after collecting dust for years on the writer’s shelf. Or maybe it gets sold on eBay. Or perhaps the print writer hands it to an assistant who, in turn, probably sells it on eBay.

Some serious outcomes here that I think are ripe for a court case — if not a favorable court decision. [Please, do not assume the courts are any savvier than the FTC or Congress.] Why is the FTC treating bloggers different from print journalists? I don’t think there’s sound reasoning behind that.

And if bloggers can be considered journalists, wouldn’t they be afforded the same First Amendment protections that presumably have kept the FTC from ever attempting to regulate printed product reviews?

I have more thoughts, but I’ll stop here for now. We’ll see what else happens over the next few days.

Critical guidance issued by the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission today announced that it’s issued revised guidance on a couple of issues critical to the online world:

  • Product reviews/endorsements by bloggers
  • Testimonials in advertising/Celebrity endorsements

These issues are tightly related in some ways. I’m still reading all in the info out there this morning, but I’ll have a much longer post up tonight or tomorrow.

My short thought: It’s not a good regulation or a fair one for several reasons.

Blogging: Technology or communication?

I was talking with a client today about using blogs and other social media functionality. We quickly ran into a distinction in our conversation — though we might talk about using a blog [or a community, or whatever] in conversing with customers, and we might use the same tools on a private corporate network, the point and the end results would be completely different.

I’ve been waiting for years for us to get to the point where blogging is the technology — like paper, or the telephone, or TV,  which you can enjoy with a home theater austin services to set up your audio and TV system at home.

Just like paper lets you print and share your ideas and images in a physical way, blogging lets you share your ideas and images online. Ideally, it lets you broadcast those ideas via related technologies like feeds, or via email.

So, the technology here is practically beside the point. Yet we often spend our days discussing the technology.

The point is sharing ideas. When we’re not focusing on how best to communicate, and what to communicate, we’re missing the point.

This study matters

In a recent post, I was considering online privacy and data gathering. Today, a study came out on those topics — and the results aren’t good for advertisers or laissez-faire thinkers. But they may enable us to begin re-thinking the promise of the internet.

The New York Times does a nice writeup on the study, including a prominent link to the study [PDF, 411 KB] in the first graph. Way to use the internet. [It’s a shame I have to compliment the paper on that, but most publications don’t use links correctly or even at all, so let’s give props where they’re due.]

The study, conducted by professors from Penn and UC Berkeley, demonstrates what I’ve long believed to be true: People hate being tracked online. It makes them nervous. And they have no idea how the information is used, even when the use of the information is helpful to them.

Note I didn’t say that targeted advertising in particular is helpful. That’s one of the most common uses of personal data today. While targeted advertising does influence purchasing, people still don’t like the idea of it [as this survey demonstrates].

Now, I’m going to say something a little crazy here. Right now, the Internet is dominated by corporate interests. It is a marketing vehicle. Even in places where you believe yourself to be in control of your information, you are likely feeding a corporation’s self-interest. [Facebook, anyone?]

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I continue to believe the Internet is a force for good, on the whole. But I also believe its full promise isn’t even close to being realized.

Doc Searls wrote an important post over the weekend, talking about the promise of the internet, and its current siloed existence. Searls is one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me remains the most important book written about the internet. Right now, your information is being used online to help companies make money. Sometimes, that’s also good for you.

When the promise of the internet is realized, you’ll be able to use your personal information to your own advantage, choosing to work with the companies you like. There’s a big difference.

Crazy-smart small detail in Flickr search

So I’m looking up some Creative Commons images on Flickr for a presentation I’m finalizing. And I just noticed a crazy-smart detail in the Flickr search.

I’m clicking from page to page in the search results, using the numbered buttons shown here.

Screen shot 2009-09-22 at 2.01.25 PMI noticed that I was just clicking over and over as I paged through the results, without moving my hand on my trackpad. That’s because Flickr moves the numberline each time I click. So now that I’m on page 14, page 15 is under my cursor. When I click that button, Flickr moves the line so that 16 is under my cursor.

I love this.

Ghostwriting and transparency

Over the years in this business, I’ve found that the general public rarely thinks about ghostwriting — when someone [often a busy executive or celebrity] hires someone else to write in his or her name. Most people assume that when your name is attached to an article, you’re the one who wrote it.

As a professional writer and editor, I know that’s not true many times, but neither does the practice generally bother me. Honestly, if the CEO were spending a lot of time fiddling with the “Message from the Home Office” in the newsletter you get every month, I’d say his or her priorities were out of whack.

But wow, this article in the New York Times today really caught me off guard. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for drug companies to author papers that researchers then submit under their own names to scientific journals.

I can be pretty cynical. I watch The Daily Show. I know how corporate America works. But this one caught even me off guard.

So, we can sum up why this is wrong in a pretty simple manner: When the drug company is writing the article but putting an independent researcher’s name on it, they’re failing to disclose their bias. Perhaps that’s a good test for when it’s OK to have a ghostwriter and when it has to come from the source in other areas, as well.

Are we failing to reveal a bias if the CEO has someone in marketing write his monthly column in the newsletter? No. Presumably, the CEO and the marketing department are singing from the same page of the hymnal.

Related: Should newspapers, magazines and bloggers make it clear when they received a free copy of a book or record to review? Absolutely. While the potential for bias is small, it should be transparent. This is part of the reason why Consumer Reports is in business. By purchasing everything they rate at market prices, they eliminate even a whiff of bias from their reviews.

In the corporate world, we often don’t think twice about ghostwriting. But it’s critical to ensure that our customers know exactly who’s talking. Many large corporations have learned this lesson the hard way in the past few years, as the Internet creates a heretofore-unknown level of transparency. Make sure you’ll be comfortable if the real writer is revealed.

Your software is hiding your people

I’ve worked with content management systems since the late 1990s. And I can tell you there’s not been a perfect one invented. But some are much, much better than others.

I’m a technology geek [n., person who enjoys new stuff], but sometimes I get annoyed with the constant focus on newest, brightest, shiniest. For one thing, there’s so much newest, brightest, shiniest, that it’s practically impossible to keep up unless you either define your niche very narrowly, or unless you spend your whole day doing that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not paid to keep track of the latest goo-gahs, no matter how easy they make my life.

And yet.

I have worked on a number of web projects in my life where the software will just drive you to drink. I think most people want the end result — the website, the marketing campaign, whatever — to be elegant and easy to understand. And often they don’t understand why that doesn’t happen. It’s tempting to blame the designer, the writer, whoever. And sometimes, that’s where the blame lies. But far more often, I’ve seen the blame lie in one of two places:

  • Corporate politics [a subject for another post, to be sure]
  • Crappy software

I can go on a web tour right now and show you dozens of sites that aren’t achieving their objectives because the software makes it too hard. [I’ll let the guilty remain anonymous today.]

A related problem is when people don’t realize they’re using bad software, or don’t realize that it’s the problem.

If your software makes it hard to post, it’s not working for you. If your software makes it hard to link things together, it’s not working. If it makes it hard to connect people to other people, it’s not working. If all you see is the software, it’s not working, that is why you should always use quality assurance software to make sure that is working fine.

Don’t blame “the web being ineffective” or “inability to measure results in social media” if the real problem is “your software hides the people.” Therefore, you need good quality software that does not do this, for example the POS System is great software for restaurants as you can manage your employees better, you may want to check out RestaurantPOSSystems.com and check the quality for yourself!

Keep an eye on Congress

As long as I’ve been in digital media, there have been few political issues that have really riled up the industry. There’s a long-standing discussion about the right path for digital rights management to take — the copyright protection particularly for audio and video files — and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act enacted in 1998. There was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also passed in 1998.

While the telecommunications industry that much of the Internet rests on is heavily regulated, what we’re doing here online is not.

Regular laws still apply, of course, but the Internet has largely benefited from both a hands-off approach by Congress and federal agencies, and perhaps also from a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the technology.

Congress is beginning to catch up.

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and he’s reportedly working on a bill to protect our Internet privacy.

I look at issues like this from two perspectives:

  • Hey, I don’t want you collecting a bunch of data about me!
  • Wow, look how cool it is that my iPhone knows where I am!

Unfortunately for the sake of innovation, a lot of what we can now do online requires the latter response from regulators, Congress and the general public. Here’s what worries me: As Internet innovation has sped along the past dozen years, the industry has depended on the public and lawmakers ignoring the man behind the curtain. And Congress tends to act with a very blunt sword when it approaches issues like copyright, privacy and technology.

But in the industry, we haven’t helped ourselves with things like:

  • Inability to protect customers’ information from data theft
  • Opaque and lengthy terms of service and privacy policies that only make lawyers happy
  • Ignoring opportunities to make our customers our best defense against harmful legislation

I don’t think Boucher’s intentions are to in any way stifle innovation or hamper the industry. But he’s clearly targeting consumers’ sense that their privacy is compromised just by being online. As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating our customers about why our innovation and information is so critical to them — and we have to give them easy ways to opt out if they can’t get past the squeamish factor.

Recently, several Internet advertising groups released a set of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers and forestalling damaging privacy legislation. We’ll see if it’s enough.

A big, urgent question

The other night I was at a board meeting for a nonprofit agency I serve. And as sometimes happens at those kind of events, we participated in an icebreaker — you know, a get-to-know-your-fellow-board-members-better activity. Each person drew a question to ask the person to her right. Someone earlier around the table got the inevitable, “Who’s your hero/who has influenced you the most?” question. At the time, I breathed a huge sigh of relief — I can never answer that question. It’s not that many people haven’t influenced me. I could start now and go all day naming the good role models I’ve had. But “hero”? That elevates it too far, in my mind. In our society, we see heroes debunked daily [or hourly, this summer], and I struggle to burden another person with the hero moniker. We’re all just doing the best we can, I hope.

But I received my copy of the Good Experience email newsletter today, and I may need to revise my answer to that question. Mark Hurst may come pretty close to being my hero, after all.

In 1997 Mark Hurst founded the firm Creative Good, which remains groundbreaking in evaluating and improving the customer experience. I was lucky enough to attend his Gel Conference several years ago, and it remains far and away the most inspiring, useful conference I’ve ever attended. I continue to use what I learned there — mostly about your mindset in approaching your customers’ experience, as opposed to the specific tools you’re using at this moment. If you’re communicating well with, and responding well to the needs of, your customers, you’ll be successful.

Today, Mark highlighted a post on his blog that reminds us to review the big questions. Are we doing what we love? Is it worthwhile? What’s our real goal?

These questions seem critical to me. It’s so easy to get absorbed in a. the rat race b. media-fueled speculation about anything c. self-induced stress — whatever the economic or political situation, but perhaps more now than ever. And Mark gently reminds us, we need to remember what we’re doing in the first place. Take a look, and take stock of your own experience.

What to do with your SEO keywords

Recently, I wrote an article using a rewriter sentence online about finding the right SEO (search engine optimization) keywords to use on your website.

Step 1 may be just as big a mystery: Using them appropriately. Whatever your goals may be, working with an expert SEO Sydney agency can be the best way to ensure that your strategy is designed to succeed.

First, let’s clear up a couple of things. Here’s what you DON’T do with them — nor should you let any sort of vendor do these things for you:

  • Re-write all the copy on your website so that it’s got a terrifically high “keyword density” but doesn’t actually make a lot of sense when you read it.
  • Add “invisible text” full of keywords to your site.
  • Write a bunch of “SEO articles” that don’t offer any value to you or your customers.
  • Spend a lot of time creating extra pages and sites that link back and forth to yours. You should probably check out http://www.johntking.com/check-bulk-urls-google-sheets/ so you’ll know exactly when a link goes down.

Some of those things are just annoying, and some will actually drop your rankings when Google and other search engines notice you doing them, but all of them are bad.

I’m going to list several things you can do with your keywords, but keep in mind that your overriding goal should be: Create a really helpful website for customers. If you do that, you will most likely be using keywords well in the process.

Use keywords in your URLs. If you’ll check the address bar in your browser, you’ll see I’m doing this, with the keywords “SEO” and “keywords” in this URL. If SEO were my primary business, I’d do a bit of research to determine exactly what are the best words to use on a post like this. But, I concentrate on other things, so that’s not worth my time on this post. To get keywords in your URLs, you can do one of two things:

  • Use a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, that I’m using here, that lets you edit your URLs
  • Bug your IT people until they figure out how to let you edit your URLs

I find the first option is a better choice for almost everyone, though for many people, it will also involve the IT staff to get a Marketing Agency Exclusive for Roofers services friendly CMS. It’s worth your effort.

Write keyword-rich headlines. Some CMS let you have separate wording in the title bar of your browser and as the headline on the page, and some don’t. Either can work, because both your page headlines and your title bars should be using keywords. More flexibility is often nice, but sometimes, more is just more complexity, instead of more better. This may be one of those places.

Speak your customers’ language when you write your site copy. This one is hardest for many organizations, in my experience. We all like to have our insider language and acronyms (like, SEO or CMS, for instance!) and we convince ourselves that our customers are searching for the XTVC 337 Widget because in our catalog, that’s what we call it. Your customers want their problems solved. They couldn’t care less what you call the solution. So be sure you’re using the right keywords in your descriptive copy. An SEO Company like Pro SEO Group Buy is constantly trying their best to speak their customers language at all time, therfore you should be too!

Forget about keyword density, but don’t write too long, either. If you’ve been working on the web as long as I have, you’ve undoubtedly run across a few companies that are still obsessed with a term called “keyword density,” meaning, how often does a given keyword appear in your copy. In SEO marketing, it’s unclear how much this ever really mattered to Google et al, but it’s certainly not a valid measurement now. Make your copy informative and useful to your customers, and use the right keywords when called for. And remember, on the web, shorter is usually better you can see more about this interesting topic on my blog.

Link to other people you find useful. You may have a great website, but if you’re not linking back and forth with other great websites, chances are, no one knows you’re there. The best thing to do is to use links in context, so, don’t just create a page on your site listing a bunch of links. Instead, use links throughout your site, whenever they make sense. This post on Search Engine Journal talks more about using links effectively.

Next time: What should you pay for, SEO-wise?

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