When a news article is just an ad

Amazon has scored a remarkable feat by getting scores of websites to run free ads for their products. They’re not just ordinary ads, but ads disguised as news, such a “news of the week’s best buys.” As an example, if you go to CNN’s home page, then scroll down a couple of pages, you’ll see three articles, “These are the 10 best products on Amazon this week,” “20 Amazon products our readers loved buying in July,” and “Wayfair’s massive Anniversary Sale has arrived.” None of these are marked as ads; they’re formatted and look just like news stories above them.

CNN is not unique. NBCnews.com does something similar including around travel. Scroll down a couple of pages and you can read the stories of “The best wireless earbuds,” “4 top rated travel adapters for your next trip,” and “How to travel safely with your dog,” a short piece with recommended products to buy.

Few of these articles are news stories or accurate product reviews; they’re simply ads made to appear like them for a single purpose: to derive revenue from whenever a reader clicks on the link and makes a purchase. The link will take you to the product on Amazon, Wayfair or wherever and contains an imbedded code that tells the retailer where the link came from and who to pay if it results in a purchase.

Here are some examples of what Amazon will pay to the referrer:

CategoryCommission Rates
Apparel, jewelry, luggage, premium beauty items, shoes, handbags, accessories, Amazon Kindle accessories10.0%
Physical books or software5.5%
Home improvement goods, furniture, lawn and garden equipment, outdoors, and pet products9.0%
Kitchen supplies, sports goods, business and industrial goods6.0%
Digital books, personal care, health, toys3.0%
Musical instruments7.0%
Digital products, including videos or gift cards2.0%
Grocery or physical video games1.0%
Amazon Games20.0%
Cameras, cell phones, electronics, appliances, office products, mobile electronics, baby products5.0%
DVD & Blu-Ray, automotive3.5%
Kindle devices, tools4.5%
Other categories4.0%
Amazon Appstore purchases0.00%

It’s understandable that sites such as CNN might do this as a new source of revenue, but by not marking it as an ad, it compromises their real product sitting right next to it: news. Readers might assume their recommendations have the same due diligence as a news story, but that’s rarely the case.

You can find this on nearly all news sites, although sometimes a bit less obvious. The New York Times gets their referrals from products mentioned on their Wirecutter feature, a product review site that is based on comparative testing before making recommendations with referral links. But having done tons of professional product reviews for a newspaper and several companies, I find their work to be relatively lightweight. They generally lack a comprehensive analyses and focuses primarily on the products’ features.

It should be noted that referral payments are available to most anyone, and they are used on millions of sites, which helps fund the sites. Reputable ones will provide a simple disclosure.

What’s the best source for product reviews?

For accurate reviews, an organization needs to do more than just compare its features. The products need to be used and tested to determine their usability, how well they work under a range of conditions and how durable they are. Consumer Reports is an organization that has taken testing seriously. They’ve not done as well in the age of the Internet where most everyone reviews most everything.

But another site that has built a formidable presence on the web does some of the best testing I’ve come across. RTINGS.COM, a Montreal-based company, does real in-depth testing on a range of consumer electronic products in their well-equipped lab. They buy the products, run extensive data-driven lab tests, and publish their results using clear explanations, helpful graphics and charts, and forthright conclusions. They often discuss their results with YouTube videos, such as this one that describes a life test of 100 TVs. They derive their revenue in clearly disclosed referral fees plus a modest subscription fee that provides more details than their free option.

I discovered this site when I was looking to purchase a soundbar for my TV and found their ratings to be more extensive than anything else available, including Consumer Reports. Their testing and reviews of televisions are incredibly detailed, sophisticated, and revealing, including burn-in testing that detects screen anomalies over time.

Current product categories include TVs, headphones, monitors, soundbars, mice, keyboards, printers, vacuums, speakers, cameras, laptops, and some kitchen appliances. A full subscription providing access to all results costs $10/month or $45/year.

by Phil Baker