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 and 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 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 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? 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 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.

  • These ads are really really tacky. When I see them, it makes me not want to return to a site. I think that there are big ethical questions because it does blur the line between content and advertising, but even more importantly the ads are just as annoying as the popup ads that spawned a whole industry dedicated to stopping them. Publishers should use these at their own risk because consumers are smart enough to learn what’s quality and what’s not and with so many news sources out there, they’ll start ignoring the sites that rely on this.

  • Bob Caswell


    Well said. Bringing up the whole popup ad fiasco really helps put things into perspective. Though I feel similarly to you, I’m puzzled by all these “official” studies huge companies do that somehow reiterate their tendency to think consumers aren’t bothered by this. Who are these consumers providing this I’m-not-annoyed-by-in-text-ads responses?

  • I wasn’t going to say anything, but since you brought it up with this article here we go… The WSJ has the right idea in not wanting to “interrupt the reader’s experience.” But right between the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of this article is a set of Google Ads. Now you might argue that that is “prime” advertising space, but I would counter that interrupts the flow of the article, and I am hardly in the mood to click on an ad when I am in the middle of reading an interesting article. So by placing ads in the middle of an article you are in a sense saying, “Don’t worry about finishing this article. It’s really not worth your time. Just go ahead and click on that ad instead.” So which speaks louder, your ad placement or the words around it? Just a thought.

  • Bob Caswell


    Honestly, I’m torn. I’m all for the unobtrusive approach, but those middle-of-the-page ads do better (more click throughs) than any other ad zone on the page!

    I compare it to watching a really good TV show. When I watch The Office on Thursday nights, I actually sit through ads. Sure, I might mute them, but the show is good enough that I keep watching until it comes on again.

    The online experience is even better in that it at least it doesn’t waste two minutes of your time for seven minutes of real content. Muting/skipping the ads is not very difficult at all. Here’s a thought: Just think of the ads in the middle of the page as an incentive for editors to be that much more interesting. 🙂