Back in 1998, February to be exact, I shared a stage at the TED conference with Bill Gross, founder of IdeaLab. Richard Saul Wurman, TED’s founder and impressario, introduced us both. I went first. I gave a short overview of my new magazine to a polite and curious reception. Gross then got up and in ritalin-starved fashion began a manic pitch. Imagine, he told the incredulous audience of tech and entertainment influencers, an entirely new search engine model, one driven not by editorial results, but by the raw metrics of the market itself – a pay-for-placement search engine, where the highest bidder wins top spot.
Afterwards a number of folks gathered around to congratulate me, and at the same time to ridicule Gross’s vision. After all, I was starting a magazine predicated on principles pretty much diametrically opposed to Gross: objective and high-integrity journalism. Pay for placement? Bah! It will never work. Keep up the good work, Battelle.
Well, what Gross presented six years ago was GoTo, nee Overture, nee AdWords. What I was pitching was The Standard. Enough said.
This was on my mind earlier this week as I chatted with Doug Stevenson, CEO of Vibrant Media, the company behind IntelliTXT. This is the service that has been much maligned by journalists for its inline advertising solution, ads which pop up from inside editorial content when you click on a word or phrase which is double underlined in green. (An example of the ads in action is here (doesn’t work on OSX).)
While the knee-jerk reaction of the press to this invasion of their hallowed editorial space is understandable, it’s hardly nuanced. And some nuance is required to grok this particular beast.
That the IntelliTXT approach violates one of journalism’s most sacred conventions cannot be denied. The ASME guidelines covering new media, in which I played a minor role as an ASME judge, do not specifically prohibit an IntelliTXT scenario. But that very fact belies how deep the nerve IntelliTXT has touched truly is: No one ever imagined that advertisers and publishers would have the temerity to turn a journalist’s very words into an advertising opportunity. The section covering this territory reads as follows:
Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, should be at the discretion of the editors. If links are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users.
It’s almost as if we knew that IntelliTXT was coming, but in fact, we did not. What we meant by “hypertext links” were the ad units already extant at the time – in particular, paid text links at the bottom of the page or to the right, which were proliferating when these guidelines were created (circa 2001). We presumed they’d be discrete, we did not imagine they’d be the actual content itself.
The guidelines also state:
All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled.
A case could be made that the green double-underline format is sufficiently distinguishing, and one could argue back that the opposite is also true. I’d like to move past that. If this approach can in fact make money for publishers, some version of it will be adopted. So now what?
Stevenson, the Vibrant CEO, was quite flummoxed by the negative press IntelliTXT has garnered. He said that Vibrant has been around quite a long time, had built a strong online advertising business with tens of millions in revenues, and was very deliberate in its approach to rolling out IntelliTXT – he had solicited the input of publishers and journalists, and built the product in a way that he thought was both appropriate and cutting edge. He argued that the system was created to be unobtrusive – the only way the ads show is if the user actively rolls the cursor over the keyword, then clicks. In a sense, he argues, he’s giving control back to the user, they can ignore the ad if they’d like; the double green underline is far less intrusive than pop ups, and far more relevant than contextual paid links. If you’re reading a travel story on Paris, for example, and the words “Paris hotel” are underlined, you just might choose to click on that link, and be offered an advertisement for a Paris hotel booking service. (Note I did not choose the Paris Hilton….) If you do choose that link, the ad is a service, not an intrusion, Stevenson points out.
Stevenson’s other point is even more direct: It’s the publishers who decide which keywords are linked to, and when. The entire system is controlled by the publishers, so if anyone should take the heat, it’s the publishers, and not the IntelliTXT system. While this argument ranks up there with insoluble polemics such as “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People,” Stevenson does have a point. So why might a publisher want to employ such a system?
I can think of many reasons. One, the publisher has no ostensible editorial boundaries. Cargo – one of a raft of new magazines that are essentially cataglog magazines (“magalogs”), or most of the Seven Sisters (Glamour, Vogue, etc) come to mind. These magazines pretty much exist to move product, and they don’t pretend otherwise. A system like this would work quite well for the online kin to these kind of publications.
Second, there are an entire classes of content-driven sites which claim absolutely no pretense of editorial objectivity. Whether they are fan sites, directories, blogs, corporate advertorials, for-profit domain-specific portals, you name it, the tradition of sites which carry their biases proudly or are baldly commercial in nature is rich and growing, and IntelliTXT may well give these kind of sites a new monetization model.
When it comes to true editorial sites, I think IntelliTXT portends an important opportunity for publishers to control and manage relevance, service, and context for their readers. But I think both readers and journalists are not ready for the context-jarring concept of ads directly in editorial text. It crosses a line that should be respected. But what if it were possible to break out keywords for a given article in a separate box, for example, and run that box at the end or to the side of the article? This addresses the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup problem (your advertising peanut butter is in my editorial chocolate….) but retains the power and reader service of the system. Stevenson replied that in fact such a hack would be possible. Should IntelliTXT prove a viable advertising medium, I’d expect publishers to try this approach almost immediately.
Now, I won’t get into other issues this service raises – that editors might start writing to high-value keyphrases, for example – but they exist, as they do for anyone working with AdSense or even standard print advertising, for that matter.
To conclude, I think journalists jumped all over IntelliTXT because it was easy to leap, just like we did with GoTo back in 1998. But we’d be wise to not dismiss so quickly ideas which might portend new approaches to monetizing our work. In this marketplace, a few minor tweaks can yield historic shifts. Witness Overture: Gross and his team ended up adopting an OEM model and outsourcing their pay for placement engine to others, who put the ads on the right of editorial results, clearly marked for readers (well, in most cases). The rest is history.
IntelliTXT backgrounder is here.