The Rise (or Fall?) of In-Text Advertising: Is It News…or Is It an Ad?

IntextadsThe latest trend in online advertising (you know, that thing that feeds all these websites with otherwise free information) is in-text ads. If you see a word on a website with a double underline (supposedly the “double” part makes it so you won’t confuse it with a link), click on it and chances are an ad window will appear (see picture).

This embedded advertising has been online for a while even if only a few dozen larger sites have used it (such as IGN.com and ScienceDaily.com). But that’s all changing now with mainstream journalistic sites trying it out (such as Fox News and Popular Mechanics), which is already causing some controversy. The tradition in the print medium was to keep editorial content separate from ads, and many were hoping the tradition would hold true online.

“It’s ethically problematic at the least and potentially quite corrosive of journalistic quality and credibility,” says Bob Steele, the senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. Though, of course, anyone with “ethics” in his title is likely to say that.

Publishers implementing these ads see little wrong with the idea, putting it all under the umbrella of “continuing experimentation” to see what is “most effective for readers and advertisers.” And, of course, publishers making money from the ads are likely to say this.

U.S. online advertising is expected to grow to $15.9 billion this year from a record $12.5 billion last year. But in 2005, in-text advertising was less than 1% of that spending, according to estimates. But that could all change if the big boys start playing.

Who’s accepted the use of in-text ads?

Fox News only uses Ask.com ads in its news section but allows other in-text ads in its business, technology, science, and entertainment sections. Interestingly enough, the company doesn’t consider the Ask.com ads in its news section to be advertising because they’re more for users to “find out more information about a topic.” Don’t we all wish we could claim that our ads are so useful that they’re not really ads…

Who’s rejected the use of in-text ads?

Forbes.com tested in-text advertising on its site in the summer and fall of 2004. But the ads were pulled after its reporters complained. “While the general feedback from [users and advertisers] was more positive than negative, our editorial staff was very uncomfortable with the concept,” a Forbes.com spokeswoman said.

The New York Post also tried out in-text advertising. But after a site redesign in September, it pulled the plug on the ads, claiming they didn’t perform well enough “from a business and an editorial perspective.”

The Wall Street Journal Online will not run in-text ads. A spokeswoman explained that the ads blur the line between advertising and editorial and “interrupt the reader’s experience.”

I admit that I’m never thrilled by a site that uses in-text ads even if I understand the need for online advertising. But I’ve learned to recognize the ads when I see them. Though from a publisher’s stand point, now is probably the best time to take advantage of in-text ads just because users are likely to click on them accidentally. I’m not sure what advertisers think about that, but perhaps if in-text ads catch on, users will adapt and learn to treat them as any other intrusive media.

“Right now, when you’re in an editorial article, users are trained that they’re going to be linked to something that is going to further explain that article, not necessarily an ad,” explains Caroline Little, chief executive and publisher of the online section of the Washington Post.

So how do you feel about in-text ads?

See this article in the Wall Street Journal for more on in-text advertising.