Ask Stacy: Why Doesn’t the Media Vet Advertisers?

If you trust the website, can you trust the ads you see on it?

Today I’m going to once again address a concern I’ve talked about before — namely, the advertising you see on websites, television, newspapers and every form of mass communication that accepts it.

To get started, here are two recent reader comments. I’ve gotten many similar ones over the years.

You run articles warning us about rip-offs and then you post one on your website. … Explain why you allow this scam on your website. Thank you. — David

This one is about a different company, but the theme is the same.

I just want you to know that a company you sponsor on your website for cost-saving purposes is not reputable. I have reported [them] to Discover Card fraud services, the New York State BBB and Utah BBB. I am also unsubscribing from your newsletter.

I thought you vetted your affiliations better than that. It’s a shame since people rely on you to save money and not get scammed. I hope you do a better job vetting in the future. — Joe

These emails are painful. I’ve spent decades building credibility as a journalist. Without it, I’m out of business. So when I read things like “Explain why you allow this scam on your website” and “I thought you vetted your affiliations better than that,” it really makes me cringe.

Here’s the deal, guys: We can’t vet the advertisers on this website because we rarely know who they are. To understand why, here’s a quick lesson in how online advertising works.

How websites make money

Websites are inexpensive to build and maintain relative to brick-and-mortar businesses, but they’re far from free. Depending on the traffic they get, the computers that keep them available 24/7 are costly. Then there’s the people. Tech experts to maintain the site. Writers to write articles. Editors to review their work.

If the site sells a product, that’s obviously where the money comes from. But for sites like this one, where the “product” is information, there are only three ways to pay the bills:

  1. Charge readers a subscription fee. This is how The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and a few other sites bring in some revenue, although it’s not the only way they make money.
  2. Sell advertising. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s ever watched TV, read a newspaper or seen a website that advertising keeps the lights on at many media companies, both online and off.
  3. Sell leads. If you’ve done much Web surfing, you’re aware that many websites — including this one — offer lists and searches for everything from coupons to credit cards. This is called lead generation. The sponsoring site gets paid for sending potential customers to a product or service.

Money Talks News, as well as the vast majority of companies in the business of online news, doesn’t charge a subscription fee. Instead we use a combination of advertising and lead generation to keep the lights on.

How Google changed the game

You’re probably aware that Google changed the world of search by making it easy to find what you’re looking for online. But you may not know that they also changed the world of advertising.

Before Google came along, there was only one way to find advertisers: approach them directly. Not a problem for companies like The New York Times or CNN. Because of the size of their Web audiences, advertisers would come to them. But what about the thousands of smaller websites that don’t generate that kind of traffic?

Enter Google. Google allows smaller publishers to include ad spaces on their websites, then Google finds the advertisers to fill them.

Obviously, Google’s service, called AdSense, isn’t free. After we place Google ad spaces on our site, Google sells ads, puts them on our site, collects the money, and keeps part of it for themselves.

Something interesting about ads

You’d assume the ads you see around this article right now are the same that anyone else would see viewing the same article from a different computer. Wrong. Google, as well as other ad networks, serves ads it thinks you want to see, based on your personal online behavior.

In other words, if you shopped for shoes just before you started reading this, you could be seeing a shoe ad next to this article. If you were just reading an article on another site about new cars, you could be seeing car ads.

Ad networks also try to show you ads that might relate to the story content. So if the article you’re reading here is about free credit scores, odds are higher you’ll see ads from companies offering credit scores.

If you trust the website, can you trust the ad?

Now we get to what the readers above were actually suggesting: If you’re trustworthy, the ads on your website should be as well. Or, put another way, if readers can’t trust the people advertising on this website, maybe they shouldn’t trust us either.

I hope now you understand why our editorial content and advertisers aren’t related. I approve most articles on this website and all are approved by our extremely experienced editors, Kari Huus and Chris Kissell. Between the three of us, we have more than 60 years of journalism experience. You can trust us.

But Google picks both the ads and advertisers you see, and we don’t supervise them.

Theoretically, ads should be truthful. That’s the law of the land. And Google says they do their best to weed out bad apples. But you should always treat ads as what they are: ads. Whether it’s an ad on TV, online or on a bus bench, always do checks before making contact.

How to vet ads

I hesitated to write this post for a simple reason. If anything I say could be construed as a warning against clicking on our ads, that could put this site in peril, along with everyone who works here and their families. And we use the money we make from advertising to provide you with more awesome content.

But before you respond to any ad, wherever you see it, do the following.

  • Proceed with caution, especially in certain circumstances. If you see an ad promising you something that sounds too good to be true, be cautious. Expect a catch and read the fine print.
  • See what others say. Before entering your credit card information, go to your favorite search engine and put in these words: “(company name) complaints.” This will tell you if the offer you’re about to respond to has made other consumers unhappy.
  • If you see something, say something. As I explained, Google picks our advertisers. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. If you feel you’ve been misled, send two emails — one to us here and one to Google here. Because while we can’t vet our advertisers, we can individually ban them, and we will if enough of you tell us a company isn’t playing fair.

But before accusing me of “sponsoring” a crook, please remember: The news anchor you’re watching on TV isn’t responsible for the ads during the commercial breaks. The newspaper reporter didn’t sell the ad sharing the page with their story. And if a bad apple advertises on this website, it’s not because we invited them.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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  • FondaJane

    Thank you for the informative column on the trustworthiness of website advertising. I work for a newspaper in a small town. To the extent that we can, we do vet advertisers. If a single reader contacts us to complain about “false advertising” or being ripped-off by someone, we check into it. We occasionally refuse ads that we think are questionable, and we ask for additional information if there is a concern about the legitimacy of an advertiser or their ad message.

    These practices cost us some revenue, but they help to maintain the credibility of the publication. I get very few complaints from readers about the truthfulness of the advertising we do publish.

  • JimInPhila

    Stacy, Great article. Thank you so much for an explanation.
    I’ll be clicking….and thinking.
    “Let the buyer beware.”

  • Jcatz4

    Thanks Stacy for the very informative explanation. I am always interested to learn “the how and why” of things.

  • NoCellPhones

    This is why I never look at the advertisements. It’s been at least 20 years since I bought anything because of an advertisement. Instead, I look at a company or product’s review and usually try to find two different sponsors of review information for this. If it’s risky, I buy it on my credit card so I can dispute the purchase if there is a problem. When I bought house shingles last year, I went to Consumer Reports who had actually tested the shingles and also looked at people’s personal reviews. They can say almost anything in an ad and it means nothing.

  • Jon Vawter

    Perhaps there should be stronger protective consumer laws for fraud in advertising…. print, radio, tv, all internet advertising should have tighter scrutiny. Those who are receiving fees/money from those advertisers should be responsible for screening the fraudulent companies!

  • Edward Porter

    Thanks for the clear explanation, Stacy. Ironically, I had just been checking air fares to LA before coming here and up popped those ads for flights.))) Just as I started to curse you out I read your explanation, and now it all makes perfect sense. It is particularly annoying when I go on Facebook and almost every site that I have been to during the past week has sprinkled my page with ads from these sites. I am not happy about it, but as you say, this is the price we pay for using the internet.))Best wishes!

  • Robert

    Good article but,,, I used AdSense and other Google advertising options for over 10 years; your AdSense dashboard gives you substantial control. I had the option to decline class (product line, etc) and/or specific advertisers and their ads and/or banners. Has that changed? If my statement is still true then you can take action when you hear about a disreputable advertiser who is harming your readers (a whole other issue to verify this.) Is that a bit of extra work? Of course but, what price integrity. I can guarantee you one thing for sure; once integrity is lost it takes a whole heck of lot longer to rebuild it. Consumers just remember where and how they think they got screwed and word of mouth after that can be devastating. I believe you need to step up Stacey – Discover your options.

    • Thanks for your comment, Robert, but please read the entire article. Here’s a cut and paste:

      “If you see something, say something. As I explained,Google picks our advertisers. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. If you feel you’ve been misled, send two emails — one to us here and one to Google here. Because while we can’t vet our advertisers, we can individually ban them, and we will if enough of you tell us a company isn’t playing fair.”

      We absolutely do ban classes of advertisers. For example, porn. And as I said above, we will, and have, banned individual advertisers. I know my options, Robert, and everyone here steps up every day.

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