Ask Stacy: Can I Trust Your Ads?

Ask Stacy: Can I Trust Your Ads? Photo (cc) by Neubie

Here’s a smattering of emails I’ve received over the last few months that have a common thread. Take a look…

Hi Stacy, you had a link for [redacted] on your site. I clicked it and signed up for three free credit scores. However, they did not disclose the monthly cost until after I signed up. Furthermore, they indicate that you can cancel via e-mail, which is not true. Thanks Stacy and love your site.

Re [redacted]: Misleading. It’s not free and requires a form of payment of debit or credit card, and a follow-up call within 7 days to cancel. These offers are often misleading and after canceling still get charged. Sorry, but you need to be honest.

Just tried to access my ” free” credit report as recommended on your website and on your spot on the news just this morning. Unfortunately, I was required to allow my credit card to be charged $1 (refundable) and after 7 days would be charged $29.95 monthly until I called and cancelled. In my world, this is NOT free and is a SCAM! Am disappointed that you would promote this kind of thing, if you do. Is there no way to get a truly “free” report as we are continually being told we can and should do?

We recently rented a house from [Redacted] which you featured in an interview. We were sorely disappointed in the service that we received and we feel you should be made aware of their business habits. We just wanted to make you aware of the company that you have attached your name to.

The first three emails were from readers who responded to an ad on this website for free credit scores. The last one refers to a TV news story we shot with a business that arranges vacation rentals.

Three of the four imply that I’m in some way responsible for the business practices of these companies: “Sorry, but you need to be honest,” “Am disappointed that you would promote this kind of thing,” and, “We just wanted to make you aware of the company that you have attached your name to.”

Before I answer the question of “Can I trust your ads?” let’s take a look at how online advertising works in general and the implications for you and other readers…

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 to either buy or rent. But the main expense in websites, as you’d guess, is people. Tech experts to maintain the site, update it, and keep it humming. Writers to write the articles. An editor to review their work…you get the idea.

In order to stay in business, a website needs to bring in money. If the website 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, Wall Street Journal, and a few other sites bring in revenue – although they do something in addition to charging a subscription fee. They also…

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. But there’s one other way to make money that may be less familiar…

3. Sell leads. If you’ve done much Web surfing, you’re aware of the plethora of websites – including this one – that offer searches for pretty much anything and everything: coupons, mortgages, savings accounts, credit cards, insurance, you name it. 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 most other companies in the business of online news, use a combination of advertising and lead generation to bring in money.

Advertising: 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 online 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 small publishers to include ad spaces on their websites, then they find the advertisers to fill them. Result? Sites like this one and countless others let Google supply the advertisers. All we have to do is produce the content that brings in traffic.

Obviously, this service 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 Google ads

You’d assume the ads you see around this article right now are the same as anyone else would see viewing the same article from a different computer. Wrong. Google serves ads they think you want to see, based on your 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.

Google does 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 good you’ll see ads from companies offering free 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 you choose to advertise on this website, maybe they shouldn’t trust you either.

I hope now you understand why our editorial content and advertisers aren’t related. I read every article that goes on this website – you can trust what we write. But Google picks both the ads and advertisers you see here. While I’m sure Google does their best to weed out bad apples, you should always treat ads as what they are: ads. Wherever you see them – TV, online, or on bus benches – be cautious.

What about the subjects of your stories?

When I’m doing a story on something like vacation rentals, don’t assume I’ve vetted the business. I shoot a lot of stories on location with lots of different businesses. I’m doing that to make the story more interesting, not to endorse the business. While I obviously wouldn’t deliberately do a story with a dishonest business, seeing one in a news story doesn’t suggest anything about them, good or bad.

Bottom line? This is a site run by journalists. We don’t have a hidden agenda. We don’t get paid under the table by the subjects of our stories, nor does their appearance in a story mean we’re “attaching our name” to them. Unless you see specific wording to the contrary, we don’t endorse anyone, ever.

We do hope you occasionally click on ads – that’s the primary way we keep the lights on. But we don’t know anything more about the advertisers you’re seeing on this site than you do.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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