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CNN.com slips ads into news slots

The online news site begins running paid links next to headlines, leading some media watchdogs to warn that readers could be fooled into mistaking ads for news stories.

CNN.com has begun running stripped-down ads that look a lot like editorial links, raising some concern among some journalism ethics experts.

The online news site, owned by AOL Time Warner, is featuring advertising text links that appear at the top of Technology, World and U.S. News pages, adjacent to news headlines. Examples of text include: "If you Love Coffee," "Up to 80% off Ink!" or "Avoid Bad Retailers."

Though the tags link to marketing Web pages rather than news stories, they are not clearly labeled as having been sponsored, or paid for by advertisers--a concern for some journalism ethics watchdogs.

"Clearly (CNN.com) needs to mark this 'adv' or 'advertisement' in that gray space, because it looks too similar to the rest of (the news site)," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, who runs the new media journalism program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

CNN.com spokesman Jim Weiss said the site opened up the links to advertisers in recent weeks. Previously, the space promoted internal stories or content from other Time Warner publications. Weiss said the company plans in the next few days to label the text links as sponsored.

CNN.com is the latest Web publisher to get creative with advertising to combat the challenges of a grim economy. As the Internet ad market has withered, publishers have devised new forms of advertising to lure reticent marketers, including selling a number of pop-up ads and even "floating" commercials.

"Online news companies generally tend to be much more adventurous with new forms of advertising, including pop-up ads and things moving on the screens," Sreenivasan said. "But everyone is trying to make money, and this is a constant process of evolution of editorial standards online."

CNN.com's strategy takes a page from search engines and directories, which often feature sponsored text links in their results. This formula was pioneered by Overture Services and has proved lucrative for the likes of Yahoo and others. Under the standard system, marketers pay for Web links only when site visitors click on them.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission urged Web companies, including America Online and Netscape, to label paid links as such in their search directories to help readers distinguish between advertising and editorial content.

The use of sponsored text links, or contextual advertising, is on the rise as an alternative to popular video, audio and other rich media ads.

Text-only advertising links could soon find their way onto other sites. At least one company is hoping to sell text ad links on major news sites such as ABCNews.com, according to a promotion sent to a popular advertising e-mail list.

For news outlets, blurring the line between advertising and editorial may be risky. The CNN.com ads, for example, were called into question Wednesday on a discussion group run by the Poynter Institute.

"CNN has advertising text links on the right corner without pointing out that they are advertisements," one person wrote. "We know they are effective in terms of click-through. After I've got fooled by one of them (and felt like I have been MADE a fool) I'd like to ask: Do you think it should be pointed out that those are ads?"