Earlier this year news about how the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) will start to regulate web blogs began surfacing. This announcement has stirred up some controversy in the blogging community, which is why TM felt it was necessary to provide some professional insight on the topic.
A blog by definition is a personal journal that is written online. Blogs were originally intended for people to write about anything they felt compelled to say. The main responsibility of the FTC is to protect consumers against false claims presented in advertisements. So what does it mean if the FTC regulates blogs? If the FTC regulates blogs then bloggers will need to disclose any information they present to the public, in regards to products or anything where they mention specific information and receive particular benefits for blogging about it.
Up until now, there have not been regulations for the blogging community. Web blogs, sponsored links, were designed to be self-regulated, however, some web bloggers took advantage of that freedom and wrote about fancy trips they went on to certain resorts or new products that were about to be launched while receiving benefits from the companies, without disclosing. The FTC is concerned because they feel that this is false advertising and delivering inaccurate information to the public. They have stepped in to protect online consumers & regulate blogs that are making these outrageous claims.
TM recently sat down with two leaders in the sponsored conversation industry online, Ted Murphy and Michael Gray, to discuss what they think about the FTC regulations that are planned to be enforced on bloggers and how they see these regulations impacting the blogging community.
Ted Murphy is largely recognized as the father of paid blogging and the catalyst behind the sponsored conversation industry. He is currently the CEO of a large social media company, IZEA. To learn more about IZEA’s newest innovation, Sponsored Tweets, continue reading.
Michael Gray runs his own company, Atlas Web Services, where he helps private clients with their web strategies that include development, SEO, and social media. Michael’s blog, Graywolf, discusses events going on in these industries. TM brought these two together to discuss this topic because of their backgrounds in social media, SEO, and blogging in general, in hopes of shedding some light on this issue.
Gray and Murphy both agree that some kind of universal disclosure policy will be welcomed in the blogging community. A universal disclosure policy would level the playing field for everyone involved and create a more honest business environment online. People will be able to make decisions easier if they can trust bloggers when they are discussing a particular product, event or whatever it is they are blogging about.
Murphy discussed how IZEA has been very cautious about disclosing information on their web blogs. SocialSpark, an IZEA Innovation, is a blog marketing network that connects advertisers with bloggers through an online marketplace, where they enforce their universal disclosure policy. Interestingly enough, Murphy recently met with the FTC to discuss the regulations that are intended to be enforced on blogs and he believes that they are taking the “right approach.” How people will be penalized and what the guidelines actually are, is undecided for now, but Murphy discussed how the FTC regulations for blogs are more like guidelines for people to follow, and says the bloggers who will be penalized are the ones who do not follow those guidelines and who are trying to be deceptive.
“If all bloggers were forced to disclose then it would level the playing field,” stated Murphy.
Gray stated how the FTC regulations for blogs are an “overreaction”, but said he feels universal disclosure is a good idea. He gave an example about a particular situation with Guy Kawasaki, a venture capitalist, and well-known blogger, who has blogged about sports cars that have been loaned to him for an extended period of time. Guy Kawasaki is a popular online blogger but is not a car expert. The only reason he was loaned these cars was to blog about it.
“Is he (Guy Kawasaki) the right guy to be reviewing a sports car? I necessarily don’t think so, but the people who are doing it, they’re doing it for public relations to try and get people aware of their cars,” stated Gray about this issue.
This is when it becomes a gray area for the FTC to regulate. Should Kawasaki be penalized for putting this on his blog? He does state that it was loaned to him in his blog and even mentions how a sports car is not for him since he is a family man. Does that mean Kawasaki is following the regulations?
“Google chooses not to go after him because he’s someone high profile,”stated Gray.
“I don’t think we are going to see that type of special treatment moving forward. Based on the conversations I’ve had (with the FTC) I think that you are going to see a more level playing field,” stated Murphy. “What does it mean to be celebrity? Is it someone that has a huge following on Twitter or U-Tube? Or are movie and TV stars the only celebrities? They all need to be all in the same bucket and treated the same way.”
Gray believes the bloggers that will be targeted will be the bloggers who make outrageous claims versus the ones who occasionally blog. It depends on the volume of blogs that the person produces. If they are everyday bloggers then they need to establish a disclosure policy.
“They’re just trying to get rid of the people who are making unsubstantiated, completely made up claims just so that they can turn a buck,” stated Gray.
The debate over what constitutes a paid link has been widely discussed by both Murphy and Gray in regards to Matt Cutts. What constitutes a paid link is a bit of a gray area because it seems that certain people are being penalized while others are not. Michael Gray discusses this issue on Graywolf saying that if Matt Cutts is going to go after paid links, then he should be fair about it. In our conversation, he stated how,
“People like Robert Scoble and Sarah Lacey. They come out and they’re very big advocates of full disclosure, yet I know they all just have gone on several all-expense-paid trips to Israel. And yet you know, Google sort of turns a blind eye to them because they’re saying oh, okay, what they’re doing is okay. We’ve decided that it’s for public relations and not for links. But yet everybody who they went and saw on that trip or who sponsored that trip definitely got links out of that. So how does that not constitute a paid link?”
Gray’s suggestion is to apply the same rules they enforce on marketers to A-list bloggers to level the playing field. Gray believes that Google should start employing nofollow on all the links you see on Google pages, to demonstrate how they follow their own regulations.
Google takes the weaknesses of their own algorithm and forces everyone else to do things differently because their algorithm isn’t smart enough to figure things out.
Murphy mentioned how he feels about the nofollow concept saying it is “ridiculous” and how requiring certain bloggers to include nofollow and others not to is unfair.
We asked Murphy how he felt about Twitter and how it will be impacted by the FTC regulations. He told us that IZEA is actually launching a new “innovation” called Sponsored Tweets that will be open to the public later this year. “We’ve actually done quite a few sponsored tweets, and some of those actually we’re going to have celebrities in the platform,” said Murphy. He sees this as a big opportunity since Twitter has become such a major social media tool that reaches a variety of audiences.
Overall both Ted Murphy and Michael Gray agreed the universal disclosure is a good idea since up to this point self-regulating has not worked. They do not see how the FTC regulations can do any harm to the blogging community, but if anything they hope that it will force everyone to “play by the same rules” and create a stronger and more trustworthy blogging community. At this point, all we can do is just to see how this all plays out.