Transcript of Effecting Change on the “Wild, Wild Web,” from “Building Trust on the Web,” Consumer Reports WebWatch’s First National Summit on Web Credibility
Toward a More Credible Web
- BB: Beau Brendler, Director, Consumer Reports WebWatch
- DF: Doug Feaver, Executive Editor, Washingtonpost.com
- CS: Cyndi Stivers, President and Editor-in-Chief, Time Out New York
- JI: Jim Isaak, Consultant, Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE)
- LC: Lisa Carparelli, Communications Director, Online Publishers Association
- FT: Frank Torres, Director of Consumer Affairs, the Microsoft Corporation
- NS: New Speaker
- PG: Peter Goldschmidt, Director, Health Improvement Institute
- AC: Al Comeaux, Vice President, Public Relations, Travelocity
Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings.
BB: I’m Beau Brendler. I’m Director of Consumer Reports WebWatch. We have a terrific panel up here today. We have journalists, we have editors, we have folks representing the publishing industry, and we have an engineer who’s been involved in standards for many years. In fact, you heard him earlier, I think, asking Louis Freeh some pointed questions. And we have Frank Torres, from Microsoft. So I’m going to go through and introduce the panel.
The gentleman to my left – your right, from where you are, I guess – is Doug Feaver. He’s executive editor of the washingtonpost.com. We were talking earlier, and he says that that says it all. And, hey, I agree with him.
Cyndi Stivers is editor-in-chief of Time Out New York, a position she’s held since the magazine’s founding in 1995. She was later named president of the company in 1997. Under Stivers’ guidance, the magazine has been nominated for a National Magazine Award for general excellence and an Acres of Diamonds Award for Distinguished Launches.
CS: You don’t have to do all that.
BB: You don’t want all that?
CS: It’s okay. You can, if you want to, but—
BB: Okay, for the purposes of this panel, one thing you should know is that Cyndi knows a lot about guidelines and has had some very interesting experiences germane to what we are going to talk about.
Jim Isaak over here, he’s a consultant to the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers [IEEE], a name I almost always mangle when asked to repeat it, but fortunately I wrote it out here. And he’s an assistant professor at Southern New Hampshire University. Jim’s a senior member of IEEE and has been involved in several of the group’s efforts, including IEEE working group’s developed a set of recommended Internet best practices.
Next to Jim, we have Lisa Carparelli. She’s with the Online Publishers Association, that’s OPA, as opposed to ONA, who’s kind of over there. Lisa Carparelli has worked in the media and communications industry for the past 10 years on both the agency and on the corporate sides of the business.
LC: You can abbreviate that.
BB: Yeah, well, I’m editing as I go here. From 1971 to 2001, Lisa led the Proactive Public Relations Initiatives for the New York Times Company and the New York Times newspaper. When we talk to Lisa, we’ll just ask her to explain a little bit about the constituency of OPA and what it does.
And then over there, on the – is that you knocking on the wall? Stop that. Frank Torres. Frank Torres is the Director of Consumer Affairs for Microsoft. And, prior to joining Microsoft, he served as legislative counsel in the Washington, D.C. consumer advocacy office of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Welcome, Frank. Very glad to have you.
So the reason I have these [images] up here – and I’m not going to do a long PowerPoint – I just wanted to sort of refresh the discussion from this morning. Which is: Part of the initiative in this ad campaign is to get companies to take a look at what we call the Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines, which, just to reiterate very quickly, were based on some pretty intensive consumer research we did about a year ago.
We’re kind of using them as a means to be able to take a look at sites that let us know that they want us to take a look at them. And then we want to acknowledge those sites in a manner appropriate to whether they comply with the guidelines. So, this is one possible ad we might do. This is another possible ad we might do. Kind of the dramatic opposite of the spectrum. And this is kind of the idea that a lot of people have said is interesting to them and kind of is their favorite for visual reasons, among others.
So I just want to leave that up there to frame the discussion. And I actually want to go to Doug first, because I think you think the guidelines are not a good idea.
DF: No, I think that a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines is not particularly a good idea, because there’s a big difference between a transaction site and a news site. I mean, I look at what we do and, while we may well, through advertising, take you to a place where you’d be doing transactions, that’s a somewhat different set of things.
I look at these guidelines, and there’s nothing here that gives me a stomachache. In fact, I think we do all of this.
BB: No, actually, I wanted you to say what a bad idea this is.
DF: No, but I also am not sure I want to sign the Good Housekeepingpledge and get a seal, because that suggests, frankly, I think that may not be good for our credibility in the long run, suggesting that we’re subject to some sort of larger being that is messing with something that I think we’ve established and we defend with great vigor, and that is the credibility of our product. Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we correct them? Yes. When we find out about them. Do we make some colossal mistakes? Yes. Will it happen again? You bet.
But do you know who we are? Yes. And when we make a mistake, you’ll read about it in other organizations. So I have some concerns about aligning with, sort of signing a fraternity pledge.
We also do – and then there are some things that, when you get into journalistic, we also don’t sign the SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists] thing and that sort of stuff. You get into some very interesting journalistic questions. For example, and this is part of the print thing, but for years and years and years it was automatically, it was sort of a rule in newsrooms that you did not identify rape victims. Geneva Overholser, who was the editor of the Des Moines Register, won a Pulitzer Prize for doing exactly that, because she thought it was time to bring this out – and, of course, the individuals were involved. It was a very carefully reported story. Nobody was identified that didn’t know this was going to happen. But if you have an absolute standard that says you don’t do this and that you’re going to be branded a rape victim identifier or something and it’s some sort of a permanent list of – what was it? — “Not committed” up here, then you might not want to put yourself in that position in the first place.
I’m pulling out an extreme example, but again, I have two rules in my newsroom. The first one is I would rather be right than first. And the second one I’ll think of in just a minute. [laughter]
It is that we really must take every story, every example, on a case-by-case basis, because there are so many shades of gray in terms of what we deal with as news professionals, things are never completely black and white. An absolute set of rules is not going to apply across the board. We will try to be fair, we will try to be accurate, we will try to be careful, we will try to check things. But in terms of setting out, trying to anticipate everything that could come up in the business of covering news and setting a click yes or click no box in terms of how you’re going to handle it, that’s my concern about where I could see a list of guidelines going.
Yes, we identify our site. You know who we are. We tell you how to find us. We have a “Please write and complain” place that you click off to. We have a corrections policy, which is not unlike the Post’s policy. We have a masthead somewhere. It’s too hard to find, and maybe I can improve that, as I sit here and look at this.
BB: Actually, Consumer Reports has no online masthead.
DF: Is that right?
BB: I’ve been trying to fight that.
DF: Well, you should have an online masthead, Beau. I mean, you need to work on that.
NS: You don’t want to end up “Not committed.”
DF: Yeah, right.
BB: I agree. Well, I’m going to go over to Cyndi now, because I’d like to get Cyndi’s perspective from the work that she did and is ongoing with ASME.
CS: Okay. Well, you’re such a bomb-thrower, Doug.
DF: I’m sorry.
CS: Anyway, I spent a lot of time in the past five years, I guess I would say, trying to keep the print guidelines for the American Society of Magazine Editors up-to-date, but also completely redoing, about three or four years ago, the online guidelines. The reason I think they’re important – and we heard over and over again that they were important – is that you’re lucky you work for a big media operation. You’re also lucky that you work for a well-respected media operation. People basically know that if they go to thewashingtonpost.com and the paper, or Newsweek, for that matter, or MSNBC, that it’s going to have a certain standard maintained. And that you’re probably not going to hoodwink them with advertising masquerading as editorial and things like that.
So the thing is that many magazine publishers – by far membership of American Society of Magazine Editors and Magazine Publishers of America are tiny, little companies; the Time Warner, AOL-Time Warner and Conde Nasts of the world are the rarity. Most of our membership is little and doesn’t have a lot of money and doesn’t have a lot of superstructure and people to call and ask questions.
So, whatever we can do – and I think the Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines certainly are more recent and are more general and cut across more general fields. I think they’re important to the little guys out there to have something to start with.
And, you know, if you don’t follow every one, Beau’s not going to come and cart you off to credibility jail or anything. It’s really just a place to start. I think, for that reason, they’re important.
BB: Okay, thank you very much, Cyndi. We’re going to over to Jim Isaak now. Just to mention, briefly — Jim actually heard about Consumer Reports WebWatch a while ago, when we first started, and got in touch with us to talk about an initiative that he was doing with IEEE to provide some sort of technical standards, if you will, for Web sites. We were able to contribute, actually – to tell you the truth, the stuff that we contributed to those guidelines is way more consumer driven and goes much deeper than the Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines. But, without going into a lot of conflicting guidelines discussions to confuse and upset everyone, I’ll just let Jim talk.
JI: Yeah, I’m going to give you a quick run-through of some slides which parallel exactly what’s on the paper which, hopefully, you all have. There’s more on the Web site that’s pointed to there, including a copy of this presentation, so you can get that off the Web site.
IEEE started an activity back in 1998, about the same time that the birth of this organization started to emerge. Recognizing, as a result, oddly enough, of Jakob Nielsen’s article back then that said there’s going to be a $50 billion impact on the productivity of the American workers if we don’t get Web credibility established. That isn’t quite the way he phrased it, but the number was right. He targeted 2005 as the year when we hit that impact. And it was a result of not being able to get to the right information at the right time when you tried to get there.
So we looked at that from an engineering perspective. And it’s been very interesting hearing this discussion, because a lot of the discussions I’m hearing in the rooms here deal with ethical issues. You know, where are ads, where is content, how do I know the boundary? It’s very important, very useful, very critical to the issue of credibility. But let me throw out some other alternatives that are technically-oriented, corresponding with what I call an engineering perspective.
One thing we did when we started revision of the standard, which was functionally delivered in 1999 – and a new version just came out this month – is we added a thing called a site center. Now, a lot of the impact or the content of the site center came out of early discussions here at Consumers Union. So you’ll find a tremendous parallel between what we expect to see in the site center from the [unintelligible] perspective and, in fact, what’s in the guidelines here. We go beyond that in many ways.
Another key area we’ve added are things like dates. Let me just give you an idea why dates are important and, in fact, I had an interesting discussion at lunch about some of the help guidelines for Web sites and dates they might include. We have dates like expiration date. Presumably, if a page is expired, a search engine should not give you that page anymore. In fact, your management should probably have it pulled off the systems. It’s there for maintenance, but it’s also there to help improve the quality of what’s there.
When was the last time the page was reviewed for content and verified to be correct? Which is different than the last time it had a substantive change. Which is another date we include – when was the last substantive change? Which is different then the current page search date. Search by date in the Web currently, you’ll quite often get old material that has been touched recently. ‘Touched’ is a technical term for somebody did something – didn’t affect the content, still a 1994 press release. But since they changed the color of the background, it now has a current date on it. You get old data when you’re not looking for it. So we have a content date and next content review date, things to help identify both the maintenance activity, but also help deliver the quality of materials. People can identify whether it’s current, whether it’s expired, what the rate of change is, which is important.
I’m not going to go into accessibility, but we have done a lot of work here with the accessibility community. We’ve embraced the Section 508 guidelines from the U.S. government and basically require, if you conform to this standard, that you do those, as well as Web consortiums accessibility guidelines.
We’ve also added extensions to [unintelligible] internationalization. So that Web sites declare where they are – part of the guidelines here – and, in that context, what is your real phone number? Do you have a country code, followed by an area code? What do you mean when you say you’re open 8 to 5? What time zone are you in? When you said it was $25, was that Hong Kong dollars or U.S. dollars? Notice that the jurisdiction you’re in when you go to lawsuit may determine the answer to that. So you probably – if you’re trying to sell the book for $25 or less and you’ve got $25 Hong Kong – don’t want to be in court in Hong Kong to discuss this issue.
We’re also trying to do some quality control, allow sites to declare themselves. We have a brand, but I don’t expect a lot of people to use it. More importantly, we’ve included things like meta-data that can be used by search engines to identify conforming sites and conforming elements of the sites, so they can use those in their operation.
We’re looking at additional things to incorporate in sites, such as longitude and latitude. We actually have a spec for that in the current standard. And then one could use that to answer questions like: What restaurants are currently open at the next freeway exit? I hesitate to think about a person driving down the freeway trying to operate their Web screen here – but never mind. You thought cell phones were bad.
One of my motivating factors, now that we have a document in print, is to go out and try and encourage broadspread adoption. And the key to that really is a variety of things. We need organizations like Microsoft [unintelligible] to take products like FrontPage and build these kind of standards into them, so you automatically get conforming Web pages out – as a choice, not necessarily mandatory. Somebody could choose to not do this as well.
We need organizations like the U.S. government to buy products that implement these standards. Again, I mentioned at lunch that that was an important factor: Purchasing power of major purchasers. The Washington Post, potentially, could impact the way the industry plays out here.
And, finally, it’s getting people like Google and other search engine companies to start using these guidelines in the way they deliver content to the users. All of those create incentive for people to implement these and incorporate them into their site and I hope – and we need to verify – that conformance to the IEEE standard which we defined would also mean that you also conform to the Web credibility guidelines from WebWatch.
So, anyway, that’s where this activity goes. For more information, there’s the information on the handout there. And I’ll sit down and shut up at this point.
BB: Okay, thank you. Lisa, can you tell us a little bit about the Online Publishers Association in terms of how long it’s been around, who your constituent members are and the kind of work you’re doing now that relates to what we’re talking about today.
LC: Sure. Absolutely. I’m happy to be here today on behalf of the Online Publishers Association. We are a trade group that represents publishers of original branded content on the Web. And I think our position on this matter – and I’ll talk a little bit about some of the initiatives that the OPA is involved in and undertaking – are most in line probably with Doug’s, as thewashingtonpost.com is a member of the Online Publishers Association. And to put it in Cyndi’s terms, we as an organization represent the big players. So we don’t really represent the little guys. We represent the online divisions of all the major traditional media companies, whether it be on the print or the broadcast side. So we have members ranging from thewashingtonpost.com and New York Times Digital, to Meredith Interactive and MSNBC.com. So that is our membership in essence. And we’ve got 22 media companies that are part of our Association, which we’re very proud of.
We, I think, as an organization in terms of Web credibility and guidelines see ourselves as the ones within the media sector that should take the lead on what are best practices for online publishing. So our initiative in this area right now, which is currently underway, is really an assessment of our current member sites and other sites that kind of fit within our group to determine what prevailing practices are out there.
I think the first step in getting to the root of all of this is really knowing what’s going on. What our evaluation looks at is 150 different factors, both quantifiable factors and kind of subjective factors, in three different areas pertaining to Web credibility. One is registration. A number of our member organizations do require users to register and we look at who’s collecting the data, where does that data reside, at which point on their site is it being collected, to kind of get a handle on what’s going on at different organizations that do have registration.
The second piece is kind of the advertising piece, which I know has been talked about a lot today at this conference, which is: What are the lines between advertising and content? Just as kind of a side note, one of the requirements for membership within the Online Publishers Association is that all of our members adhere strictly to principles of believing in clear separation between advertising and editorial. That’s a condition of membership, and all of our members take that issue very seriously, which is why we feel strongly about kind of leading the effort on the media industry side on what best practices are.
Then the third piece, after this ad-content separation, is really in content partnerships and making sure that it’s clear who’s supplying content. As we all know, our members are primarily news and information sites. And there’s content coming from a lot of different directions. Whether it’s created specifically by The Washington Post or by The New York Times on their Web site, there’s also AP content, there’s Reuters content, there may be partnerships with specialized sites like CNET or MarketWatch financial information. And just making sure that it’s clear where that content is coming from and that consumers know where that content is supplied from.
That said, we’ve undergone this evaluation and we are now at the point where we’re looking at, not so much publishing guidelines, but really looking in each of these areas to determine what is a best practice and giving publishers – and even something that the little guys can follow as to what’s a good way to handle a content relationship? What’s a good way to handle an advertising area that might also be a service? For instance, in the travel section, when you’ve got a link to Orbitz or a box that is from Orbitz or Travelocity or one of the other travel companies that’s really offering consumers a service, the ability to search for flights that they may be interested in or search content on a particular travel Web site or the travel section of a Web site about destinations and then be able to go and look at fares. Well, what’s a good way to treat that? Not necessarily a black and white – Yes, this is allowed; No, that’s not allowed – because, in agreement with Doug, I think there are instances where you have to make a decision based on your site, based on your users, based on what your users are comfortable with and know already.
I think a lot of this revolves, too, around giving consumers credit for understanding what is an advertisement, who is providing that, and understanding what’s editorial content from the Web site that you’re on. I think that consumers do, to a large extent, within the media world, know that from these type of sites, particularly those that the OPA represents, that it’s clear.
That said, there are some areas that are confusing and I think it’s because the medium is still evolving. To Doug’s point about being a little wary of putting real black and white guidelines in place, we are still early in the development and evolution of the Internet. I think that, as the medium evolves that needs change. As consumers become more comfortable with the Web and the way information is presented on the Web, that changes the kinds of guidelines.
I’ll just give a quick example. There’s been a lot of discussion about labeling all advertisement “advertisement.” I’d be really hard-pressed to believe that the majority, if not all Web users, that see a 468×60 banner on a media site don’t know that that’s an advertisement. It’s because people have been online long enough now and that format has been proliferated for a long enough amount of time where people are very comfortable with that and know that that format is an advertisement. The same way that that worked in print when print was evolving and in television when television was evolving, I think it’s the same thing on the Internet.
So the main points that I want to make is that, yes, we do feel that it’s very important to establish some sort of best practices out there for online publishers. But at the same time, we have to as an industry recognize that there is a lot of evolution going on and that decisions are always going to have to be made by individuals based on what their site is, what the particular circumstance is, and their audience. I think that happens in print today. I used to work at The New York Times Company, and we used to see all the time, they have very clear advertising acceptability guidelines that they follow. But there’s always that one case that’s kind of on the line, and where do you draw the line? The line is there, but then ultimately it comes down to somebody having to make an informed decision, knowing who their audience is, knowing what the particular circumstance is. And I don’t think that’s any different on the Web, necessarily.
So I think that’s where we as an organization kind of fall out on this matter. We do think it’s really important. We are interested in being at the forefront of putting together best practices for publishers and trying to move this forward together.
BB: Okay, thank you very much. Now, I was a little worried when we first started calling this a summit; I thought that word was kind of pretentious. But what I was hoping to kind of mean by it – and this is going to wind up as a tough question for Frank – which is, okay, we’ve got the OPA, we’ve got the CWW, we’ve got the IEEE, we’ve got the IAB [Interactive Advertising Bureau], which is not represented here – we’ve got all these kinds of things. But yet as we heard in certain circumstances today, we have a lot of confused consumers who don’t understand how the Web works. Who are the people who need to get? What is the best way, standing from where you are in industry, you hear about all this stuff going on, you’ve heard about probably 20 different sets of guidelines from health sites, as we’ve been talking about today.
Where do we take this? I mean, are there too many organizations worried about this stuff to the point that it’s confusing consumers? Where do we take this ball forward? How do we take it forward?
FT: Great. Be happy to answer it, and I’ve got a PowerPoint presentation.
BB: Oh, you do?
FT: All right, I think this will do it. Beau, thank you very much for inviting me here. I was looking for an example of what you can find on the Web and came up with this one. Which I just love that. Boy, I’ve been following these stories for years.
But you have to admit, when you think about it, there’s a level of intellectual honesty here. If you subscribe to this particular publication, you know you’re going to get stories like – stories about Bat Boy. Or alligators found in the sewers of New York City. Or I think this month’s cover has a picture of Satan in a dust cloud over Iraq. So you know what you’re getting yourself into, I think, when you decided to subscribe to this.
But can the same be said when a consumer goes to other places on the Internet? I mean, does the consumer understand what they’re getting themselves into? Are the distinctions clear enough?
I remember when WebWatch was just a thought and now, especially after today, I think the concept of a WebWatch program is very real. And it’s ready for the next step. Which brings us to the future and how to ensure that the Web works for consumers, and how WebWatch, we believe, actually fills a void, perhaps, where other initiatives have not gone. It’s not just about online publishing – perhaps this is one way to think about it — it’s not just about online publishing, it’s about the Web as a whole. And so maybe through my presentation, I’ll also tell you why Microsoft is engaged in discussions with the folks at WebWatch to see whether or not this is something that we will be signing up for.
Here are some of the reasons why, actually. We know that the Web is a rod. Many people use the Web and believe that it’s got a lot of useful information. The problem is that the value of the Web gets diminished by the perception that it’s not trustworthy enough. The Web delivers, but don’t trust it. And I think we’ve heard that theme today.
So here’s the question: Is the knowledge gathering spot – that the Web is – in danger of a credibility crash unless something is done to establish that trust?
Now, there’s some problems that we know exist and some of what makes people either want to avoid the Web altogether or create Web skeptics. We think that most of these can be overcome through a variety of different things, including some rules that already exist. We make rules to prevent fraud, which the FTC enforces, to govern transactions. Many are working to close the digital divide and make computing less complicated. And we do have some industry standards: Trustee and BBBOnline, which deal with certain portions of the Web.
But there’s still this fundamental lack of trust and that the Internet cannot be trusted poses a different kind of threat. As Mr. Freeh discussed today, in lots of ways, this is kind of an ungovernable area. Congress can’t pass a law legislating that consumers trust the Internet or to impose some sort of level of trust. I don’t know how they would actually be able to go about doing that in a way that would actually make people trust the Internet better.
So what builds trust? We think good information that you can get when you need it. So it’s not just about credible content, but it’s also about [having a] reliable experience. Now, at Microsoft, we spent the last few years kind of focusing on the latter. Through the WebWatch program, one of my goals is to try to get [unintelligible] to focus on the credible content nature of this.
So we care about consumer trust. We design and deploy products with that trust in mind. And we’re committed to making our products reliable, secure and provide for privacy as best we can. At Microsoft, we call this initiative “Trustworthy Computing.” When this conference was coming about – I just think that there’s some overlap and perhaps some lessons to be learned, both by us and others.
But, really, why are we doing this? We think the future looks really good when you talk about what consumers can do online. It’s helping people lead better lives and live more fully. It’s making people more connected, not just with each other, but with businesses and the government. People are getting more and more useful information, which leads to greater benefits.
So the Web is realizing its potential, and isn’t that ultimately our goal here? To make sure that that potential gets realized in ways that leads to all those great benefits.
But how do we get there? I’m coming in on my closing comments here. It’s a WebWatch-like program, I think. It’s going to require some honest brokers to equalize the space, where it’s not just the trusted brands that get recognition, but anyone could sign up to a program like WebWatch and have that same stature among consumers and those using the Internet.
It’s a market-based solution, which is very appealing to a lot of industry folks, who sometimes dislike government regulation. And it really doesn’t restrict the content, it just talks about disclosing the truth about what’s going on. Is it an ad? Is it editorial content? Kind of drawing some lines.
So at the end of the day, it’s about increasing consumer confidence and living up to that expectation. Having been there at the birth of WebWatch, I think that’s the value and WebWatch’s worth.
BB: Thank you. Thanks to our panelists. I want to get everybody here involved in asking questions, but just a quick question I want to pose to Lisa and, I guess, also to Doug. A couple of weeks ago, actually, Cyndi e-mailed me an example. Boston.com, which is the Web site of theBoston Globe newspaper site, they ran – and I don’t know if it’s a member of OPA—
LC: They’re part of New York Times Digital.
BB: Oh, they’re part of Times Digital, okay. They ran — when you go to Boston.com, there’s a very bold logo at the top that said “Boston.com.” They took the O in Boston.com and basically turned it into a diamond ring that was a direct link from the Boston.com logo to a diamond ad.
So I guess my question is: (a) Do we think that’s a good thing? (b) If there is not a need for black and white standards or guidelines – it seems to me that there’s an argument on behalf of publishers, they’re already doing a good enough job or there don’t need to be these kinds of things in place, because they’re too limiting – what kinds of discussions have you had internally then, if you have, about that kind of advertising campaign? Which clearly takes an entire logo, which seems to me to stand for an organization’s entire credibility, and turns it into an ad?
LC: It’s an interesting one. I actually haven’t seen that ad, but let me just back up for a second. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I don’t think guidelines are helpful or useful, because I certainly do. At the same time, we have to recognize that the Web is a different medium. It’s not print. And it’s not broadcast. And while I may take a look at that ad and we, as an organization, would say that’s not a best practice in terms of how to display advertising, we still have to recognize that this medium is evolving. And to the extent that we can put guidelines forward to help in those decisions I think is definitely a good thing.
To your question about is that a good practice or is that not a good practice, I think we have to be very careful about things like that. I mean, it’s Boston.com’s logo and that does stand for something. If there’s a deception, there’s kind of a governing principle, I think, within the publishing community, which is: Don’t deliberately deceive. If it’s intended to deliberately deceive a consumer in some way, then I would say no, it’s not an appropriate way to advertise. If it’s not intended to deceive, then I think we need to take a second look at it and say, okay, maybe it’s not the best execution – you know, if I were Boston.com maybe I wouldn’t want to do it, because I would feel as though it’s jeopardizing our own brand, not so much the advertiser’s brand.
But I think those are the kinds of discussions that need to take place and I think that, interestingly, in the previous session, I was hearing some discussion about decisions being made at the top of an organization. I don’t think within the majority of our publisher members that the ultimate decision is made by the CEO and/or the publisher of the organization. I think it’s a discussion at the table with advertising folks, editorial folks, people who have worked in traditional media, people who have worked in online media to tackle these issues. I think that those sorts of things are going to have to be tackled on an individual basis in order to really wrestle them down. That’s just my perspective on it. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer in saying, “No, that’s not acceptable online.” I think the discussion needs to happen and it needs to happen at a table where there are multiple parties sitting. That’s my take on it.
It’s a tough issue. It’s not an easy, clear-cut answer, and I think that’s what we all struggle with.
DF: Yeah, let pick up on this just a little bit. First of all, in terms of the ethical questions that advertising raises on the Internet, I haven’t heard a new one that I didn’t deal with at one time or another in the print medium. I mean, not one. In terms of the separation, the deception, what’s going on, all this kind of stuff.
Now, the Internet does wonderful, creative things that you can do that you could never do in print. You can have video ads all of a sudden showing up in the middle of an article. And then there’s this ad-serving issue. In a previous panel, there was a discussion about an American Airlines ad showing up on the same page with a story about the American Airlines crash that occurred on Long Island shortly after 9/11. In a newspaper, we would look at the story and, if we were doing our jobs, make sure that the story about this particular – I mean, traditionally, airlines pull their ads whenever there’s a crash – but we would look at a story and make sure that the advertiser isn’t on that page if it’s one of those negative stories. Or we’d move the ad, or we’d move the story.
Now, with these ad-serving deals, you’ll get an ad over here and somebody else will get a different ad over there. We’ve had some interesting things happen with some strange juxtapositions. When we’ve had some interesting creatives – we had one ad with something sort of rotating across the article and landing into the skyscraper. Well, it rotated across an obituary and we heard from the family one day and we just banished ads from the obituary section. It took us one phone call, and it’s something we’re just not going to do.
I meet every afternoon at 4 p.m. with Sales and Marketing from our shop, and we look at new ad products and ones that are coming on. We have guidelines established, certainly, in terms of whether we have sort of a basic, what’s acceptable on washingtonpost.com. We have [unintelligible], just the classic newspaper situation: we rejected a creative. And we talked a lot about whether this creative is appropriate. Now, this is not, again, it’s labeled, it’s clearly an ad, that sort of thing. But is this particular creative – that’s where the conversation comes out – appropriate? That is getting back to my second point: It’s a case-by-base call. We look at it, sometimes in cooperation with Sales, we will suggest that the ad rep go back and see if there might be some adjustment there. And in some cases, we have declined specific creatives from major advertisers.
So these kinds of things do go on in our organization and, I expect, in other larger organizations.
BB: Cyndi, did you want to respond to that?
CS: Yeah, I was just going to say – actually, if you look at the guidelines on Magazine.org, click on ASME and click on guidelines. That’s what – we changed them about a year or so ago to emphasize the fact that it’s up to each editor and publisher to look at what the guidelines mean in their particular shop and with their execution. The reason we found out about the Boston.com thing is because people were arguing about it online and saying, “Isn’t this horrible?” Personally, I think it’s weird to mess up your logo, and people clicked on that O and went to a jeweler ad and they thought that was kind of gross, so. But, anyway, I think that that’s why – to follow up again on this idea – you don’t want to overly proscribe. But I think what we’re trying to do is just say make sure that conversation goes on.
LC: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I think it absolutely has to happen. And I also feel very strongly about the people that need to be at the table in that conversation.
The other point that I kind of wanted to make about OPA members, too, is again to Doug’s point, I don’t think any one of our members is wrestling with any issue that they haven’t wrestled with in print. Print folks all the time are faced with getting advertising that needs modification. And they send back to the advertiser and say, “This isn’t appropriate for our audience.” “This isn’t appropriate for our publication.” “This isn’t in line with the standards that we want to uphold as an institution.” The same thing, I think, happens on that case-by-cases online. The Boston.com one is an interesting one; I’m curious now to take a look at the ad and make a judgment for it. But I do think that those discussions do happen.
The other interesting thing about the sites that we tend to represent is that, because our brands are so well-recognized and so well-respected, when something does blur the line, users are very quick to respond. When The New York Times or The Washington Post or USA Today or any of the major news organizations do something that consumers feel the slightest angst about – whether it’s in terms of advertising or something that they’ve written or what have you – believe me, the e-mails come in fast and furiously. I think that most, if not all, of our member organizations are very sensitive to the feedback that they get from their own users to know when something is not right or something is confusing or something is just blatantly off the radar screen.
Mistakes can happen, and wrong decisions do get made. The point of the matter is, you need to be receptive and responsive to your customers, also. Just as a publisher doesn’t want to be in a situation of alienating its user base, neither does an advertiser. An advertiser doesn’t want to be in the position of being the one that causes that sort of alienation, either.
So I think that balance is definitely there and I do think that guidelines help. I definitely don’t want to give the impression otherwise, because we do think it’s a really important issue, which is why we’re trying to identify some of the best practices that are going out there.
BB: That’s great. We didn’t mean to put you in the hot seat there.
LC: No, not at all.
BB: Let’s go out to the folks in the audience here. Yes?
Q: This is the second credibility thing I’ve been in this afternoon, and we keep going back to this advertising and sponsorship issue. I think because it’s the most interesting one. Everyone has an opinion and there are these guidelines out there and everyone comes from a different background. But there are other issues that are part of this. You were discussing, Jim, in terms of just disclosing who you are. And I think you guys are fortunate — we’re fortunate to hear input from really well-funded organizations. I mean, the last place was ABCNEWS.com and the Marriott Corporation.
Where I come from – you know, three start-ups in a row – they weren’t so well-funded. To reject an ad from J&J [Johnson & Johnson] or from a major pharmaceutical company because it ran adjacent to an ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] article or whatever, that’s a big deal. And they may not have the editorial ethics, standards to call on to say, “Sorry, we can’t do this,” because it may mean that their message doesn’t get out there.
DF: You make just a really good point. One of the things that – I grew up at a very small newspaper, in central Oklahoma. And we ran a – and after a typical central Oklahoma rain storm in which half of the annual rainfall came down in a 3-hour period, the shopping center on the west end of town was covered with water, significantly covered with water. We took a picture of it and ran it large on the front page of the paper. And the developer of that particular part of town pulled his advertising, and it was a significant. We had to fire two people, it was that simple. I mean, the economics of that situation.
Now, The Washington Post has sometimes had advertisers pull big accounts because they didn’t like a story or something and, while they don’t like it, the world goes on. It doesn’t have anything close to the kind of impact. I do – your point is really right on. It’s a very different situation for somebody that is as well-funded and as well-placed as thePost as it is for a small start-up or a small publisher that’s running on a shoestring. It really is.
CS: I think it is only one part – there are about five guidelines listed here. I think there are more on your Web site – eight or something?
BB: Well, yeah, there’s the original set of five and then, as we’ve done some specific research, we’ve done some pretty intensive research into airline ticket booking sites. So we developed extra guidelines for them because we saw a whole lot of other problems there. But we’re not –
CS: I mean, these are really basic things. This isn’t – you know, when you get to the health Web sites, this doesn’t even come close to dealing with the issues. So I don’t think that this is so — I mean, if everyone just takes a moment to just read these things, they’re already doing it. And whether you want to say you’re doing it because of these guidelines or you’re doing it on your own, I don’t – that’s your decision. But as a consumer, I don’t really care. If you want to do ’em because your mother told you to, I just want to know that [unintelligible].
DF: You want to know that it’s happened.
CS: And I want you to tell me that you’re doing them. Because if there isn’t a standard out there – which there isn’t – and if the accreditation sites are for money, you have to pay them, and the [unintelligible], nobody really complies with them, though they say they do, then what do I have except your word? And your word is, you use these words with me, I can then say, “Okay, this is what I need to watch out for, because you’re telling me to watch out for it and this is what you’re doing to protect me.” And then I respect you.
BB: Just to break a little bit of news here, if you will, and I’ll maybe get a little bit of jolt doing this, but what the heck. Overture, the search engine company, has signed up and has passed the Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines. Hotjobs.com, which is part of Yahoo! has also signed up and has passed Consumer Reports WebWatch guidelines and will conceivably be part of one of those ads that I showed you.
I also have a list of about 25 others in here that have done so. I feel unfortunate in that, we should sort of post a little bit [unintelligible] journalism, which is not – news sites have not been the focus of this project for good reason, because the same sort of issues don’t necessarily apply and also the credibility issues are different. All the research that we’ve done in many ways, people tend to attribute the same type of credibility to, say, The Washington Post newspaper that we’ve all known for many years, to Thewashingtonpost.com online – they see it as the same thing.
That can be a little bit troublesome, speaking from past experience at ABCNEWS, because the credibility is not always necessarily on both sides. But, anyway, I want to also make sure we get folks from the audience to participate in this. Any other questions? Yes?
Q: Some of this seems a little – certainly the last discussion – kind of preaching to the choir. It’s like the discussions that happened at DMA about spam. [unintelligible] spam, it’s all the other people who aren’t members.
So part of the problem seems also to be something that’s inherent to the Internet that somebody [unintelligible] earlier today, which is anonymity. And is there some—
NS: Which is what, I’m sorry?
Q: Anonymity, being part of the problem. Speaking to Jim from IEEE, is there perhaps some sort of code-level solution? It looks like you’re sort of doing that a little bit, to some of these issues of anonymity, and as a way to at least let people know this is somebody who is complying. You can still be anonymous, but somebody will be, the user will then be told, yes, you’re anonymous. This person’s anonymous, maybe watch out for that, because there’s something at that level.
JI: Two sides of that, if I may. The Web side – the server, the provider of information – following IEEE guidelines or the WebWatch guidelines, would actually not be able to be anonymous. They would have to declare who they are, and where their legal headquarters are, and who the owning corporations are, and who the sponsors are, and so forth. So that anonymity – following these guidelines – would not be allowed.
CS: As long as it’s disclosed.
JI: Oh, and I have my students in school write that up in marketing terms so you’d never know it. And that’s exactly—
DF: And put it real small type—
JI: Oh, no, no, it’s words like, “We only share this information with our business partners.” Okay. [laughter]
CS: Trusted business partners.
JI: Trusted business partners, yeah. The ones who paid us money and the check passed. [More laughter]
But I think there’s a very big problem hiding in here, and let me just take this one step further. I saw the same thing going on in the late 80s, early 90s with the computer industry. I used to work for the second-largest computer company in the world. They got acquired by a start-up, which then got acquired by Hewlett-Packard in the last two months. I’ll let you figure out what that all leads to.
One of their great arguments against standards parallels exactly what I hear here. “Gee, everybody trusts us. They know us. We’re not going to go over and do these standards because, you know, that just simply – you know, why would we defer to some other authority?” And on and on down that road.
And my flag I put up the pole here as a warning is I think we’re going to see a situation where there’s an economic incentive to not follow these guidelines. The money is there. I can make more money sneaking in ads mixed in with editorial content by stealing your I.D. and selling your name to the spammers and doing all these other things. I can make more money doing that than I can be being ethical. There’s no reason not to. I hate to say it, but money’s what drives this industry. The Washington Post may be able to survive this. I don’t know how many of the small, ethical publications will, because there are going to be some not-so-small, not-so-ethical publications that are going to step in. And if there are no guidelines, the consumer will simply go wherever that leads.
BB: Was that DEC you were working for that went through–?
JI: Strange thing, yes, Digital [unintelligible].
BB: Digital. John, you had a question.
Q: You say you have a list of 25 sites that have gone through the review process and I’m just wondering what percentage—
BB: Actually, fewer – just to clarify – fewer of them have actually gone through the review. Many more have said, “We would like you to look at us and tell us if we’ve passed.”
Q: I just wonder what percent have not passed and what kind of cutoff point you’d like to see kind of moving forward in the way you move—
Q: Zero have not passed. Do we need to raise the standards?
BB: Well, you can argue it in any way. You could argue that. You could also argue that some of the people who have wanted to come aboard pretty quickly already had a pretty – you know, we sort of said at the beginning, most of the best sites are already doing a lot of things that are in these guidelines. They’re more of a floor than a ceiling, if you will.
Now, we’ve set some ceilings in other sectors of the industry. I was talking about the travel sites earlier, the health sites we’ve also talked about, and search engines. But that’s a different discussion than what we’ve been spending time on here. Does that answer–?
Q: [unintelligible] sector.
Q: Yes, [unintelligible]. What is the difference between Consumer Reports WebWatch and BBBOnline? What different things are you doing than them? Because I know that they have an image that some Web sites can put it to increase their credibility. So is BBBOnline accredited or something?
BB: The difference between the two is – there are a few, actually. In some circumstances, I think you might find that the BBBOnline guidelines may be even a little bit more detailed or go deeper in some directions. The difference is that BBBOnline is an industry-based organization and they function with a seal of approval. And although this kind of concept and the notion of doing this ad with company names and the notion of putting company names on the WebWatch site comes a little bit close to that [seal of approval], it’s not something we’re going to do, for a couple of different reasons.
One is that Consumers Union has never done that in its history. And they’ve managed to develop an extremely trusted brand over 75 or 80 years they’ve been in business.
Second, it would be intellectually dishonest of us, because a lot of the research that we’ve done has shown that consumers don’t really pay attention to seals of approval all that much. I mean, they’re a very low factor in – they’re also posting awards, like if you won a Webbie award or something like that. Consumers don’t necessarily look at those things. Though, as businesses, businesses are attracted to them out of a sense of pride, out of a sense of being able to design something that levels the playing field, which is one of those business clichés I really don’t like. Wonder why I said it.
Then we don’t really want to advocate for something that consumers don’t necessarily pay that much attention to. You’ve had your hand up for a long time.
Q: You kind of touched on something that I was curious about, which is your activity in pushing these guidelines is a divergence for Consumers Union. And I’m wondering why you’re going in that direction as opposed to relying on the tradition of Consumer Reports rating and establishing some sort of criteria by which you can go out – whether The Washington Post wants you to or not – go out and rate their product?
BB: That’s interesting. I’m not sure that any of the ways that Consumer Reports over the years has developed guidelines – I’m not sure they can be applied, and I’m not sure it would be responsible to apply them to a journalism product. Because I think it’s very – just differences in terms of thinking about First Amendment issues or whatever. But the broader issue is that we are actually doing that. We are doing – as we’ve done, in fact – the gentleman behind you, Al Comeaux, will testify we’ve developed some pretty intense guidelines for the sites that do airline ticket booking. And we have rated those sites with Consumer Reports based on those. And they’ve come out in traditional Consumer Reports-style ratings, from the red doughnut to the black circle that means bad. Travelocity, in fact, got a red doughnut overall.
AC: Overall, we still have work to do, right?
BB: That’s right.
BB: So the larger answer to your question is, we are doing that in a traditional way. But we’re also doing this because we think it’s an important campaign to focus consumer attention on. And we also think it’s an important campaign for companies. Sort of what I was trying to say this morning about how the Web reputation and spam and bad companies and all that is kind of bleeding over into categories of Web sites that I think are probably doing a lot of things right.
FT: Well, it’s a different way of impacting the marketplace than whatConsumer Reports does in the magazine. And, presumably, suppose you’re a manufacturer of vacuums, you pay attention to the wayConsumer Reports rates vacuums, because that may spur the vacuums that are rated higher. But then that’s as far as it goes.
This, in some respects, you’re taking a look at certain industry sectors and working with Consumer Reports to kind of rate those sectors. But at the same time, you’re going into a marketplace that’s still relatively new, with lots of potential, with certain problems that the marketplace alone is facing in trying to help consumers out in a very positive way. In some ways, it’s a win-win all around. Consumers may get more honest information about a site and what’s on the site and, at the same time, it helps keep trust building in the Internet, where trust now is kind of wavering a little bit, perhaps.
AC: Well, one thing I will say from a different standpoint, you were kind of talking about I guess employees or companies wanting to be able to have pride. After we got the red doughnut, we had doughnuts the next day, because everybody wanted to celebrate. And I think it says something to the employees that you work for a company that’s well-rated and good and it gets people motivated that no one rated higher than us. That was a good thing. And we’re going to have beer tomorrow for the hotel thing.
BB: I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.
NS: Beer? What happened to champagne?
NS: They’re on a budget.
AC: We’re dot.commers. We’ll also have, you know, non-alcoholic beverages. [unintelligible]. But, seriously, I called in and we’ve got beer on the way tomorrow. It’s a huge thing, it’s really good.
BB: When you have drinks there, do you use like the little, small bottles?
NS: Like the airlines?
BB: Just kidding. Other questions? Yes?
Q: Where should consumers go or where do consumers go to report about Web sites that they really feel are fraudulent?
BB: I’ll let Jim tackle that.
JI: The Federal Trade Commission. And, actually, when there’s just outright fraud and deceit going on, it’s the Federal Trade Commission that’s got authority to go after things that are deceptive. There are some examples out there where they actually have, I can’t remember them now, but if you go onto their Web site, which I believe – put a plug for them, since Mozelle Thompson, one of the FTC commissioners is actually in the other room talking about some frauds and scams – it’swww.ftc.gov. And there are different places there that you can click on to report certain things.
But do be aware that a moderate number of the sites that know they’re being fraudulent – I mean, people that are going to step into that space usually know they’re playing the game, are not going to be in the United States. Why would I have my Web site in the United States when, for 10 bucks, I could have it in you-name-the-country?
BB: Or there are the sort of particular cultural, country-related things, like the 419 scam. Which you’re actually supposed to report through the Secret Service, I think. Which is kind of weird, because –
JI: Treasury Department. Well, the Secret Service is part of Treasury.
BB: Yeah. So there is actually, this is not a blatant plug for the Web site, but if you go to ConsumerWebWatch.org and you click on the button that says “Consumer Center,” there’s a long list there of a whole bunch of different organizations that you can report those kinds of things to. It’s linked to their Web sites – we don’t have the staff to be able to engage in individual dispute resolution – but there is a pretty comprehensive list.
JI: One thing that could happen here, and I would love to see it happen, is to get the search engines to start embracing some of these things as guidelines. Because, again, some of these organizations that are out to play the other side of the coin, that is to – bad people –
NS: Out to deceive.
JI: — out to deceive, either won’t embrace guidelines, they won’t brand their site, they won’t indicate that they’re trying to play the game. And if the search engines give users the ability to say, “I only want to work with people who are playing by these rules,” then they won’t get into that game.