Feb 1, 2009

Garden Blogger Code Of Ethics?

Back in October of '07 a mini-controversy hit garden blogs after Stuart Robinson published a list of 14 garden bloggers he thought people should "watch." Number 14 was Tricia from FeverishThoughts.com. At the time Tricia was participating in the PayPerPost program. Below Tricia's ranking Stuart added the following:

"Ed's note: The reason Tricia is at the bottom of the list even though she is highly favourited and works tremendously hard on her blogs, I hate (is that too harsh) her Pay PerPost. It's not that I'm against sponsored posts it's just that Tricia seems to write about anything and whore her garden blog to topics about Payday Loans, Coupons, Vacuum Cleaners and copious other unrelated material. If I wanted that stuff, I'd go and read blogs about it. Needless to say, I no longer subscribe to her feed. I get enough spam in my Inbox...."

At the time I was surprised by what I thought was the unnecessary and harsh note he added to her listing. In particular, I thought the accusation that she would "whore her garden blog" was pretty much out of line. Maybe I'm too PC but as a son, brother to two sisters and now an uncle of a niece that word and the associations just turn my stomach. I'd seen Stuart commenting on ProBlogger so I figured he was just following the tips and creating controversy and link baiting.

Then I saw that Susan Harris at GardenRant had a post up on the subject of PayPerPost and linked to Stuart's post and quoted the note added to Tricia's ranking and the public flogging of Tricia began. I left my comments where I could while clutching my pearsl but mostly shook my head at Susan Harris falling for the link bait. A month or so before this whole PayPerPost thing erupted I had been contacted by a company that was selling an organic fertilizer that was offering me a link to my personal garden blog from their blog- if I wrote about the fertilizer. I declined and suggested that if they wanted people to write about them they should offer garden bloggers more than just a link and recommended they at least provide the next blogger(s) they contact with samples on top of the link. Then one day I was catching up with blog posts at GardenVoices when I see that GardenRant is writing about the company that asked me to write about them in exchange for a link and they're giving out samples. So I was really confused by Susan Harris and the shock she expressed over PayPerPost because I see no difference between what Tricia was doing and the post on GardenRant about the fertilizer.

I really don't have a problem with people writing about a product or service if they're getting something back (links, money or products) mainly because it isn't my blog. Maybe my indifference comes from learning at the knee of the beast (I have a degree in marketing) or perhaps I'm too apathetic for my own good. I know it bothers me when I see garden bloggers writing about a product or company and I know all they were "paid" with was a link. My personal garden blogs are monetized with Adsense and I'm pretty happy with my results. As of the writing of this post I don't have ads on this blog but I did put them in the feed. That being said, I don't feel like I'm in a position to judge a garden blogger who writes posts for some kind of pay because of my Adsense blocks. Back in '07 I tried unsuccessfully to explain this to Stuart Robinson in the comments of this humorous post of his.

Where is all this going?

"Let he who is without Adsense cast the first stone."

The subject is once again on the minds of garden bloggers because a company is going around asking people to write a post about them (even offering to write the post) in exchange for pay. They asked me to do it last year and I said no and when they contacted me earlier in the month to ask me again to write about them I declined and gave him a link to some negative comments by customers online and suggested they do something about their online reputation. I know they've been doing the rounds because they've asked other Chicagoland garden bloggers who are helping organize the garden blogger meetup in Chicago this May.

Pam at Penick.net has been approached by the same company and has a post up with numerous comments on the subject. There is also an idea floating around that a code of ethics should be developed by garden bloggers. Once again my thoughts are: "Let he who is without Adsense cast the first stone." MSS@Zathan Gardens pretty much expresses my thoughts on the subject better than I could back in 07 in the second link to Stuart's blog. I know people like to make a distinction but I don't see any. It is like film nerds who think documentary films are the purest form of film making and the people who disagree because once you focus a lens on something you automatically alter the behavior of the subject. In this analogy of mine Adsense is the lens, once you add it you change your behavior- even if you know it or not.

I think that creating a code of ethics for garden bloggers is a slippery slope. What comes next? A badge so we can openly exclude those "unethical" garden bloggers? What about those garden bloggers who don't keep up with the memes/badges/awards who won't know about this code of ethics? Will they get branded "unethical" by default or will we make a list to keep track of the really unethical garden bloggers? Maybe hold hearings where we shout; "Have you now or have you ever been a member of PayPerPost?!?!?!" loudly into microphones as we wave around handfuls of paper?

Who gets to be part of committee that decides what is ethical and what isn't? Will we do background checks to weed out the tax cheats, adulterers, speeders, people who fudge their age, height or weight? If we've learned anything from our politicians it is that people who want ethical behavior don't always practice what they preach. Looking over the comment section of Pam's post I see a couple of people who I don't feel comfortable deciding ethical behavior. The garden designer/landscape architect/or whatever that I recognize from a gardening forum. Hardly a question is answered without the answer being accompanied by a photos, links to the designers/landscape architect/or whatever's own work. Recently, I saw him/her provide an answer to a question with a link to an example of some garden design on a blog. The example was done by the designer/landscape architect/or whatever and the photos were on his/hers blog but the person never mentioned owning the blog. Was that ethical?

Another poster on Pam's comments has a garden blog/website with Adsense right in the beginning of the post. People who place the Adsense blocks in the beginning of the post so that it takes up half of the first paragraph of text do so because it is the first thing the reader sees and because there is a good chance the reader will accidentally click on the ads. Is that ethical? I've been tempted to do it myself but I find the practice tacky because of the deception involved. Instead of trying to decide what is or is not ethical maybe we should just follow our own moral compass and hope we aren't lead astray. How many of the garden bloggers who are interested in a code of ethics for garden blogs and who have ads would go one step further and follow a link disclosure policy on their blog? If we're going to be ethical lets go all out.

Pam deserves kudos for treating this subject with a lot of sensitivity. I'm not sure I would have thought to protect the identity of the company or the blogger the company ratted out, it is nice that she did.

Feel free to add your thoughts and comments.

In response to a comment by Susan Harris I've updated this entry with a link to my personal garden blog where I make reference to the company contacting me and I linked to GardenRant's post about the fertilizer company. At the time I didn't think to save the email pitch but a Google search shows that someone posted the email they recieved.

“We came across your site while conducting research on agriculture, gardening, and farming. There is a lot of great information on your site, and we are impressed. Many blog sites have been analyzed and when we came across yours we hoped that you would help us spread the word about Great Big Plants. To show our gratitude, we will also provide a link back to your site once something is written. Please take a look at the flyer to get a glimpse of what Great Big Plants has to offer. This organic, liquid compost has the equivalent of 8 large compost bags in one 32 oz. bottle. We believe your readers would find good benefit in knowing about Great Big Plants. If you feel the same, we encourage you to post about it. If you are interested, please check out the official site for the product at www.greatbigplants.com or visit the blog site at greatbigplantsblog.com.
Thank you, and we hope to hear from you soon. “.

That's the same email I got. Probably the same email everyone else received too. Unfortunately, the blog in question is down but you can see the web archive of it here for the month of December, 2007. Look at the content of the blog- does it seem like it generated a lot of visits? Make sure to scroll down to see the blog roll. They do indeed give the link they promised in exchange for the blog post. And since this post is about ethics, take a look a what is happening here. The company has a domain for the fertilizer they make and a separate domain for the blog about the fertilizer they make.

Why not use the empty blog at the domain for the product? Why not create a page for these links there instead of reciprocating on a blog nobody reads and that isn't even viewable right now? Because the people in charge of the online marketing must be aware of the fact that the link from places like GardenRant would be diminished if it was reciprocated there. They got the free advertising without paying what it is worth, they got "link juice" and all the garden bloggers got a link that wasn't worth much.

Allow me to insult your intelligence by making another analogy; lets say I'm new in town and know nobody. I know the social circles you move in are the ones I want to be part of. So I approach you with a deal where you host a party for me at your house and introduce me to all of your friends and in exchange I'll do the same for you. So you plan this great party and put your reputation on the line and I get to meet all your friends and they become my friends. When the time comes for me to put together a party for you I don't have it at my house, where you'll meet my friends and family, instead I have you over to a place I own on the other side of town and it is just you and me looking at the ceiling. Do you feel like you got the shaft?

If someone is asking you to write about them it is because your blog has some worth to them. Make sure you don't end up in a boarded up tenement when doing the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" deals.


  1. Well, since you mentioned me - twice - I'd better respond.(So was that link bait on your part?)
    I didn't know that term but the link to "link bait" you used defines it as: "anything "interesting enough to catch people's attention", so I don't understand your use of "link bait" in the pejorative, saying I'd "fallen for it". Yes, I'm more likely to link to something interesting - guilty as charged.

    My second comment - also about links - is that I can't follow your comments about me and GardenRant because you didn't leave a link
    to explain this: "Then one day I was catching up with blog posts at GardenVoices when I see that GardenRant is writing about the company..." etc. If I knew what you were referring to maybe I could explain the difference between Pay Per Post and something else.

    And about Codes of Ethics? At least relating to blogging, it's all voluntary, as is reading any particular blog or not. In the crowded world of blogs, there's something for everyone and no one has to conform to ANYTHING. Free linkers and nonjoiners of all types can relax.

  2. Susan,

    You don't have to respond if you don't want. But no, mentioning you wasn't link baiting. If my intent was to get you to link to me from ANOTHER website or blog then it would be construed as link baiting. Commenting baiting? Is there such a thing? I'll have to Google it to find out.

    It seems like you stopped reading after you got to the definition by Matt Cutts. Scroll down an inch or so and see

    "Types of link bait"
    "Evil hooks- Saying something unpopular or mean may also yield a lot of attention. Writing about something that is not appealing about a product or a popular blogger. Provide strong reasons for it."

    I didn't provide a link to it because I can't remember the post where you gave away that bottle of fertilizer. But in the link that I did provide, in my comment there I made a reference to it. Like I said in the post; there was a company trying to get me to write about their fertilizer and in exchange they'd give me a link. I told them "no" and that they should give something more than just a link if they want product reviews. A short time after that on GardenRant you all were writing about and giving away the fertilizer I had turned down writing about in exchange for a link.

    I can't recall the name of the company but they had a beautiful bottle and the design was similar to the design of fruit drinks on store shelfs now.

    Do you accept that people buy and sell links? And if you can buy and sell links can it be argued that links have a value? So what's the difference between writing a post for $40.00 and writing a post for a link that could be worth $40.00? I see no distinction between both practices.

    And you're right that nobody has to conform to "ANYTHING" but conformity usually comes about as a result of outside pressures by a larger group. And since there is nobody here but us chickens I can only assume that the person you're telling to relax is me. I didn't comment on the link to Pam's post on your blog nor did I comment on the subject at Pam's blog. I kept my thoughts on the subject to myself and voiced them where I didn't have to worry about anyone thinking I should "relax."

  3. Great topic. I agree with you. It should be up to us to decide what we want to be a part of. We all have the ability to make decisions based on what we see. Lets all use that to protect ourselves. When things start to get regulated it quickly can spiral out of control.

  4. flowrgirl1, Thanks stopping by and commenting.

  5. I thought this post was well balanced and I'm glad someone is talking about it. I think Susan is being a bit naive when she says "In the crowded world of blogs, there's something for everyone and no one has to conform to ANYTHING."
    There is a lot of unspoken code that will severely penalize those who step over the line if they are in some circles of blogging. Ads seems to have been one of the minefields.

    I think this is because of the nature of blogging rather than any conspiracy. Your brand is really important, and if you become poorly perceived as a "sellout" it can hurt your readership.

    I think Stuart had a point, not in the fact that someone used a certain type of monetization, but because she abused the trust of her readers, promiscuously posting on things that they find offensive.

    We do have a code of ethics, although it is very flexible... and that is mainly to be of value to those who spend time on our blogs.

    I think it is disingenuous to expect people to give much of their time and work to create something worthwhile online and then never get anything for it. I would love to make more than a half cent a day... but am not very good at figuring our that part of blogging (which is not to say I haven't tried:) It is simply a case of walking the line balancing giving and receiving, I guess.

    Bloggers engage in discussion, but they are sometimes surprised by the reactions they get. It is all par for the course- and it is what sets apart a blog from the old media.

  6. I like the idea of a code of ethics, although in the wild and wooly world of blogs, I can't imagine it taking hold widely. But it would tell readers something important. I can't cast stones, though. Garden books I review are generally sent to me free, after all.

  7. Ilona: Thanks for posting your thoughts. I see what you're saying about the PPPs but at the time I remember that all those posts had to be marked with a "sponsor" message of some kind. I don't see what the point is complaining about sponsored posts when they're clearly marked as. If the blog has them and you know this ahead of time why go back if they don't appeal?

    Judy: I could see a code of ethics taking hold. At Pam's post I noticed a new comment by someone saying they'd be all for a badge. Memes like that have a way of reaching large audiences especially when "famous" garden bloggers are the ones advocating it.

  8. "My name is FarmerPhoebe and I publish affiliate links on my gardening blog."

    I didn't realize I was breaking some sort of garden blog code of ethics by doing so. But the fact is, I am also an internet marketer and one of my niches is organic gardening, which I chose because I am passionate about organic gardening.

    Does the fact that I have links to my Web site and to products that I use and believe in automatically render me a garden blogging pariah?

    I hope not, because I also work hard to provide useful information to the people who are kind enough to read my posts or who follow me on Twitter. I'm also pretty transparent. In the first sentence of my About Me page, I confess that part of the reason I started my blog is to drive traffic to my organic gardening teleclass Web page.

    So, maybe there's a distinction between garden bloggers who'll promote any old product and those who are selective? In my final analysis it feels a lot like splitting hairs. Therefore, I ascribe to the author's rendering of the famous New Testament quote: "Let he who is without Adsense cast the first stone."

    Phoebe King (aka FarmerPhoebe)

    PS Oh yeah, you can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/FarmerPhoebe :-)

  9. I wasn't approached by the company in question (don't know whether to be insulted or grateful....) but I was approached by an online nursery who wanted to pay for several links in my posts as well as a post they would write. All of that was bad enough, but when I pressed them on what the article would be about, they said it was to be an informational article about what is actually a very invasive tree. Needless to say, I said no.

    There's nothing wrong with affiliate links, Google ads, whatever---as long as it's clear they are ads. Once ads start creeping into the content, I think that's a problem. And yes, I have affiliate links and ads on my blog, but you'll never see me writing about a product unless I actually like it. I think in the end, what draws people to blogs the most is the idea that you are getting an unbiased, honest opinion. Once we start accepting cash (or goodies) for positive opinions, I think we have a problem.

  10. Phoebe & Colleen thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts.

  11. Taking garden books that you review is standard practice for all journalists. One cannot review a book without reading it and it is not at all related to posting for pay. Those who honestly review books that have been sent them CAN cast stones (not that I recommend it); there is nothing ethically ambiguous about taking a book (or indeed, another product) to review. It is done by newspaper writers all the time. How else can one know if something works?

    There are differences. They have been clearly defined in the print media, where many of us also work. It bothers me that--just because this is blogging--obvious common-sense reviewing ethics are being questioned.

  12. EAL, Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    In response to your comment if someone wants to review something or see if it works they can pay for it, right? The free item and the item paid for will work the same. It doesn't have to be sent to someone for free.

    In the example listed above there was an agreement to exchange links along with the sample and potential review. Do journalists review something and make agreements about the review like a review and link exchange in the example?

    If not, then it is something that isn't really the same.

  13. It doesn't have to be sent for free but it is. That has been standard practice in the print world for decades and I fail to see why it should be different for bloggers. Promotional contests are also quite common.

    The big no-no in the print world is pretending an ad is editorial content and that is what PPP is. Having ads on your side bar is obviously separate and is NOT the same as PPP. These issues have been clearly spelled out in print by people who have been debating them a lot longer.

  14. By the way, my comments are based on the standards laid out by the American society of magazine editors, to which I belong. If bloggers want codes, why reinvent the wheel? They exist and can be adapted.

  15. Eal, Thanks for stopping by again.

    I don't see how it can be the same for bloggers since the print world and the internet are not the same thing. In the print world can you trade links that have a monetary value?

    I want to clear something up. PPP refers to the PayPerPost company which I think became Izea (or something like that) and I remember when a blogger posted those PPPs they had to be clearly marked as being sponsored and by what company. There was no mistaking that those posts were content that was being paid for.

    Paid blogging or paid for posts are similar but doesn't have to include Izea and they don't even have "rules" like Izea did. I know, it is like the difference between a Xerox and a copy-but I just wanted to clear that up for people who may come across this.

    As someone who has ads in my sidebar on my personal blogs I know that posts that are paid for are not the same as content generated ads. But they aren't much different. Especially, if the blogger is doing things like checking site stats, analyzing keywords, blocking advertisers from appearing etc. So, no they are not the same but not far off from letting people advertise in the blog posts.

  16. Wow, lots to think about! I'm very new to the ads game, and resisted any sort of affiliations for the longest time. Now I will review and blog about products I am interested in and find relevent to my blog (aside from a cute piece of jewelry one time-I AM a girl! ;-) Being a rookie, I didn't even have disclaimers at first, but added them later when I realized it was sensible/ethical to explain any "relationship" with the product source. But in all the previous years I've blogged there were plenty of references to products and links to their websites for purely informative purposes. I always thought it would be cool to get free products from these folks, since I actually use their stuff and like it a lot. Now that I see it's entirely possible-I'm stoked! But the opinions I express are always real, when negative I just try and be diplomatic and polite. That's just how I roll :) I DID "smell a rat" recently whom I suspect of making mean commentary to "create buzz"....that malarky just turns me away more as a reader (and consumer). Again, just how I roll.


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