Most people will tell you they hate advertisements. When watching television, these people will skip through commercials or subscribe to commercial-free streaming services like Netflix. On the internet, they will use ad-blockers. But, advertisers and marketers today are very sneaky. With the rise of native advertising, many ads blend in seamlessly with content. This makes it difficult to tell whether internet content — news, product/service reviews, how-to guides, etc. — is authentic or was developed/written purely for commercial purposes. Sadly, a recent study showed that >80% of today’s students were unable to tell an advertisement from a news article.

It’s not because today’s students are more gullible. In the past, ads were more clearly labelled. Newspapers and magazines would place ads only in certain sections. Ads on websites used to be contained in side bars or in banners. Today, the ads are more hidden, and they try their best to not appear as traditional ads. Instead, they masquerade as news articles, editorials, and authentic user reviews.

I’m not saying advertisements and media companies are all bad and we don’t need them. Advertisements are good for informing consumers. They also help create healthy competition among brands. But somewhere along the line, society as a whole decided that all content and information ought to be free. As a result, there was no other choice than to sponsor this content with paid commercial interest.

And over time, this created an extremely aggressive, pervasive and intrusive advertising model.


Shady Media Companies & Backroom Deals

Every week, I get an email that looks like this:

Hello there, I’m [name, company] and we are keen to work with your team on a project for our client, [a popular Singaporean financial website]. Basically, we would like your team to write a sponsored article on credit card comparison (with a dofollow link to our client’s site) and to publish this article on your site.”

Note: The tags “dofollow” and “nofollow” are ways for Google to differentiate what is regular internet content from what is sponsored (paid advertising) content. Google’s policy is for all paid advertisements to have “nofollow” links. This is because “dofollow” links will rank higher in Google searches. And Google wants their search results to give more priority to authentic and trusted content.

After replying to this email with my writing fee and my terms (“articles will be labelled as ‘sponsored’ at the bottom” and “in accordance with Google guidelines, all links will be nofollow links”), I usually never hear back from the sender. It’s not because my fee puts them off (what I charge is well below “market rate”). It’s because I’m citing a Google policy that most bloggers simply do not abide by.

Though every now and then, a media company will reply with the hope that I alter my terms. And sometimes their message is shocking. Here’s what this specific person wrote back:

Our client is, however, looking at dofollow links (at least 1 dofollow link to the site). And if possible, we would prefer not to disclose the fact that the post is ‘sponsored’ as the main purpose of this campaign is to build relationships with influencers, as well as improving the backlink profile of the client’s site – Mentioning ‘sponsored’ tells search engines that the backlink has no value as it is a paid backlink. Hence, we are looking at having influencers (like you) to pen the article by sharing their own experience on [popular Singaporean financial website] so the advice/constructive comments about the site remain as neutral as possible.”

Can You Trust the Internet?

What if a media company paid a whole bunch of bloggers/influencers to post reviews with “dofollow” links in order to get more traffic and a higher Google ranking? Can a sponsored article be truly neural and unbiased? If you think this is possible, shouldn’t the article at the very least be labelled as “sponsored” so that readers can discern for themselves?

Without content being labelled as “sponsored”, we’re no better than the students at discriminating what is an advertisement and what is not. Furthermore, without the use of “nofollow” tags, there’s no way Google can tell either.

These backroom deals that media companies peddle to bloggers and influencers are widespread. One can only assume that this practice must have a pervasive and profoundly negative impact on the quality of information on the internet.


Why I Rejected Their Offer

Ultimately, I rejected this media company’s offer to write about their client. Here are my reasons. Not only was this media company trying to skirt around Google’s policy, but I knew better than to think this company wanted a truly “neutral” article. (I’ve been in situations where companies nearly nag me to death to alter the article so that it says more favourable things.)

This company also didn’t want me to label the post as “sponsored”. I didn’t like that. Lastly, because I had no personal experience with their client, (a Singaporean financial website that compares credit cards, insurance, and loans), I would have very little to say.

But keep in mind that for many influencers, having personal experience isn’t always required. There are many fake reviews from Singaporeans who have never even used the product they are reviewing. And there are articles giving financial advice written by authors that haven’t put their own advice into practice.

This type of undisclosed, native advertising is, in my opinion, ruining the internet. Moreover, it’s leading people astray. It makes it harder for people seeking answers to questions such as, “how to live frugally?” and “how to achieve financial independence?”.

Today, we have to be very sceptical of what we read on the internet and ask ourselves how is this website making money? More than likely, it’s making money from endorsing products and advertising them to you.

If you have any other tips on spotting hidden advertising, please share them in the comments below.


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