Friday, December 10, 2010

Let's get ethical

Hi there! I would like your opinion on something.

For several years now, I've had an Amazon Associates account, which lets me earn a small commission off of purchases I refer to Amazon. I rarely use it. For the past several months, all I've done with it is keep a persistent ad in this blog's righthand column to the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, which is awesome and which you should totally buy. No problem there.

One of the quirks of the Associates program is that if I refer somebody to the site, I earn money on any purchase they make during that session, even if it's not the specific item that I linked. Recently, somebody bought a pricey television set via my affiliate link, which single-handedly resulted in my first payout in the three years I've had the account. That was exciting.

This week, you may have noticed that I posted Amazon links to both of the games I reviewed. The logic is simple: I put a lot of time and effort into writing about games, and I'd like to be compensated for it as much as I can. I think this is reasonable.

My concern is that if I stand to profit off of the sales of a video game, then I appear to have an incentive to praise the game, in hopes that I will convince you to buy it. It doesn't even matter if this is true or not. As they say in journalism, the appearance of a conflict is just as bad as the conflict itself. This has been my chief criticism of Game Informer over the years. As a subsidiary of Gamestop, they clearly have an incentive for you to buy more games. Whether or not that accounts for their surfeit of 9+ scores, I don't know, but it sure makes sense to me.

If I don't have the credibility with readers to know that I'm being honest, then I have nothing. No amount of money is worth losing that. On the other hand, I think it's reasonable to treat this blog as a commercial enterprise, same as anywhere else. It's not uncommon to see, for example, links to buy tickets alongside a movie review. Nobody thinks Roger Ebert is fluffing a movie so you'll click his Fandango link.

What do you think? Do these Amazon links constitute a conflict, or an appearance of one? Is there a better way to include affiliate links that maintains a wall between advertising and editorial?

And can I interest you in a Sony BRAVIA XBR Series KDL-52XBR9 52-Inch 1080p 240 Hz LCD HDTV, Black?


Ben Abraham said...

Boy that's a nice TV.

I think the readers that know you, have stuck with you, will know you're not suddenly "selling out". I say go for it.

Standards, or expectations at least, for ethics/integrity/privacy/you name it are falling all over the net, or so it seems. I wouldn't lose sleep over it. =/

Mr Ak said...

Eh, I trust ya. (And you know what they say - it's not the internet till strangers give their opinion.)

Besides, the amount of money you'd be getting isn't enough to corrupt a churchmouse. And those fuckers are anyone's for a piece of cheese or some candlewax.

thesimplicity said...

I think presentation and context of the link is more important than anything else. If I'm reading an blog entry and a game is mentioned and hyperlinked without previous consideration, I'd click the link for that game in an effort to learn more. I'd expect a link in that context to take me to a Wikipedia entry or the official game site, or even to another blog entry discussing the game. If it was an affiliate link that took me to a page to buy the game, that would come off as a bit desperate. Not exactly "oh snap, this guy is making millions through link stuffing!" because, c'mon, it's just an affiliate link. But it would affect my opinion of the blog.

On the other hand, striving for transparency and clearly indicating when a link is there to purchase the game is very helpful. I think Tiny Cartridge does this well. At the bottom of every post they have a little bold line that says "BUY: Super Stab 'Em Up II on Amazon." And in that context I can recognize that it's an affiliate link and that by purchasing through it I'm supporting a site I enjoy... everybody wins.

Mordy said...

I'm not super concerned with game score inflation. The truth is that games have been getting better and more exciting every single year and maybe inflated scores should reflect that. But moreover, as long as you're being honest in your prose and trying to capture your own experience of play then why shouldn't you be enthusiastic about people playing games? You can say that a game is imperfect but still encourage people to try it, or play it. Not everything has to be perfect and one reason I love the video game community is because of how enthusiastic it is about the product it buys/reviews/discusses. There's nothing more bothersome than reading an ethically un-compromised film critic rail on a good-natured flick because they want to seem authentic and honest. I'd rather be really excited about a game and then let down a little than not really excited or interested in general. (My 2cents)

rikaru said...

Based on how Amazon Affiliates work, you're not advertising the specific games, you're advertising Amazon. Many people who go to the link might not buy the game, but once their Amazon does their best to get you to buy something else instead - if they succeed, you get a reward for the first link.

But otherwise, so long as the link is clear that you are sending a person to Amazon when they click it, all is well. I also agree with @thesimplicity - TinyCartridge does a really good job with this.

As for GameInformer - I'm lucky enough to be an educated videogame consumer and can put 2 + 2 together: it's a magazine sold only in a game store and attached to that store's rewards program, so yeah, it's going to be biased. Unfortunately, not all consumers understand that, and it's even harder to make that connection if all you read was their website.

Jared said...

Well, the example you cite about Roger Ebert is different because he is presumably not handling the advertising, and whether someone buys a movie ticket through Fandango doesn't have a direct impact on his earnings.

Given that you've been around a while and that you've got a following, people will most likely trust you no matter how you handle Associate links. But if your website hawks the games you cover, there's going to be slight appearance of impropriety, even if most people don't notice or care. I assume you know and trust individuals who write for Game Informer, yet you're still wary of the magazine as a whole.

Ian McCullough said...

AdBlock means I've never seen your affiliates link. Is that ethical?

Generally, I understand that when I click through to a retailer the referring site earns a fee. Cheapassgamer, Joystiq, GayGamer and many other sites I go to use referring fees to gather income. So when I want to reward a site I turn off the AdBlock and click through to do some shopping.

The only reason people come to your personal blog is to see your personal opinions. I think I'm a big enough boy to recognize payola and move on if it becomes an issue. There's always going to be someone bitching about monetization of, well, anything. Don't let it get to you.

Mr Durand Pierre said...

I wouldn't stress it since you'll obviously be putting links next to low scoring games as well.

So if some douchebag says, "He only gave The Darkness a high score so he can sell more copies!" someone else can reply, "there's ads for Castlevania which he panned" and the internet will be a better place for all.

Mitch Krpata said...

Response seems to be unanimous that it's all about the disclosure. That's what I thought, but I felt a twinge of sleaziness this week and I'm glad to have cleared the air.

Also, this thread is a great example of why I don't make any money on this blog: smart, savvy readers who use AdBlock! Worth the trade-off, really.

Etelmik said...

Over at Snackbar there is a link that says "if you buy something through Amazon, click this first."

You could do that, only send people to the games section.

If you do specific games, two things:

1. Someone will definitely criticize you for the reasons stated. Lots of people would think that, sure.
2. Most people that read you already know who you are though, and wouldn't worry about it.

I guess I'm saying that for now it doesn't matter, but be ready to change in the future should your readership change, whether by nature or volume.

mcraymond said...

I think there is potential for a conflict of interest, but I also think that your reputation is such that it's not really an issue.

Gaming in Public said...

As a person who has the ultimate pipe dream of starting his own video game website and making it into a full time job I say do not worry. I have adds on mine as well and they do not really net you money to pay the bills. Hell i love your blog so much ill start clicking away at adds right now! You do this for fun and if you make a couple of dollars off of it so be it!

Dave said...

I imagine the amount of money you can make off of these links is trivial. If so, are you really considering putting your (perceived) integrity at risk for such a paltry sum?

To be fair, I imagine the risk to your integrity is also trivial, but why risk it? And will it make you feel like you're on shaky moral ground when blogging about issues such as Game Informer?

On the other hand, if this generates meaningful money to you, well then, that may be a whole different story.

GregT said...

As a point of principle, you can't be the person delivering an unbiased review of a game, and the person selling it. One comes at the cost of the other.

It's up to each person to find the right balance between "critical integrity" and "able to afford to eat" - I mean, even the best game sites also run paid ads - but if your question is, "Can I put links to a shop that earn me money in my reviews without any cost whatsoever to my journalistic integrity?", the answer is no.

There's always a tradeoff.