One of the things I always loved most about social media was the transparency it created. If a product, service, hotel, etc. was terrible, you could be sure that you’d hear about it from plenty of bloggers. On the other side of things, small companies and talented individuals were able to get noticed because of word-of-mouth marketing online. It used to be so easy to get really honest, unfiltered views of products, services, etc. on the web as people were writing reviews because they felt strongly about the product. Now the water has been muddied by PR folks and the people who feed at their swag-giving teat. Some people are writing reviews of things not because they bought a product and loved it or hated it, but because someone either paid them or gave them a freebie. And others aren’t reading to get honest reviews — they’re reading to get freebies from the manufacturer. It gives power back to the big corporations who can afford to spend the most on incentives, trips, etc. for bloggers. It’s such a sad perversion of what social media can offer.

I’m relatively new to the “mommy blogging” world. While my husband and I have a blog to keep family and friends up-to-date on Reed (which we’re terrible about actually updating), I don’t consider myself a “mommy blogger.” But I do read mommy/daddy/parenting blogs. Until this week, I was pretty well out of the loop regarding the brouhaha with compensated reviews and the chummy relationships between companies and bloggers, probably because the few blogs I read tend to be ones that don’t go for that sort of thing. Then, out of nowhere, the other day, on a blog that had never contained anything of the sort, I saw a disclaimer at the top of a post reading “This is a compensated review from BlogHer and x company.” Huh? So apparently, the bloggers were paid to try out a product (which they were also given for free) and write about it. And I should trust that review why? I noticed that there were about 60 comments on the post, so I assumed that their other readers were equally horrified by this post and were telling the writers about their disgust. Well, no. They were commenting in order to get a chance at a free sample of the product!

Little did I know how common this sort of thing was in the mommy-blogging world. Coming from a blog community where compensated reviews are anathema, I have a strong sense of disgust when I see people getting money or perks from a company whose product they are reviewing. It makes me not only not trust what they are writing about that product, but what they write about everything else becomes suspect. So it was surprising to me to see a post like this show up on an otherwise great blog without anyone batting an eyelash (other than to try and win some free stuff).

I started to look a little more into the world of mommy blogging. There are tons of bloggers out there who will write a positive review for pretty much anything they’re given for free (or are otherwise compensated for). Just do a Google search for the statement “compensated review from BlogHer” and you will find blogs that do nothing but review things in exchange for free products, gift certificates, and even trips to faraway places (I just read a bunch of blog posts from some mommy bloggers who got a free trip to visit the Smuckers headquarters and almost lost my lunch). And you’ll almost never find a negative review on any of them. What’s amazing is that some of these blogs have huge readerships. Maybe it’s for the freebies they often dole out from these companies, or maybe some mothers are still willing to trust a review from a blogger who is being compensated by the company whose product they’re reviewing. Scary thought.

I never looked much into BlogHer, though I thought it was an organization/community devoted to empowering and highlighting women in the blogopshere. I knew they had a conference, which sounded awesome. After seeing that “compensated review” statement, I checked out their site and found that they were not only about empowering women, but also connecting advertisers with female bloggers to review their products online. Maybe I just have an over-inflated sense of ethics, but this really bothers me. It feels like they’re taking advantage of their network to make money off the women who blog and read their blogs. Their Advertising kit (PDF) says “BlogHer’s unique relationship with its audience provides the ideal platform for marketers to reach and engage this valuable audience in this exciting new medium.” It’s one thing for companies to advertise on the BlogHer network, but they offer “Product Reviews and Custom Widgets – Our selected bloggers will review your products or web-site and provide a fair and balanced review which will be shared with the 15MM women in our network. A widget containing the reviews creates scale and immerses our audience in your brand through these reviews.” I’m not quite sure how promoting a company’s product for a quick buck is empowering to women.

Reading mommy blogs this past weekend, I found a lot to be disgusted by. Here’s a sampling of some choice statements from disclaimers and policies (sans names or links, as I’d rather not give these blogs any sort of promotion):

“This blog accepts various types of advertisements and is open to any suggestions. Payments are all to be made via PayPal.
Pricing are as follow:
Sponsored Post (minimum 200 words) $20.00
Product Review (send sample) $20.00
Product Giveaway (additional to the review rate) $30.00″

“Products I cannot find anything positive to include in a review will not be included on this blog. Why? I’m not a negative person.”

“The compensation received may influence the advertising content, topics or posts made in this blog. That content, advertising space or post may not always be identified as paid or sponsored content.”

“I write a personal blogsite called ___, and somewhere along the way I realized that I could offer my opinions to others because I’m a visible entity on the web, who deals honestly with others. If I say it, you can trust that I mean it.”

“The owner(s) of this blog is compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics. Even though the owner(s) of this blog receives compensation for our posts or advertisements, we always give our honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experiences on those topics or products.”

“If I feel that your product does not meet quality standards, I will contact you before posting any comments. I also reserve the right not to post a review if I feel in any way the product will not relate to my family nor my readers. To date, I have not received an item for review that I did not feel fit my website or readers.”

“I am married with three children in each of the core age ranges, 2, 10, and 16.”

“FULL DISCLOSURE: This is an uncompensated review. Warner Bros. sent a copy of this video game for me to review and has kindly offered to provide a giveaway prize. Thanks Warner Brothers!”

“Full Sponsorship:
– Passing out of any swag that you would like to send (not required) and business cards while at the conference
– A shirt will be made just prior to the conference with your logo placed nicely in view to wear for a full day of the event (logo must be approved by sponsor and by blogger)”

“If during the testing process, we are not satisfied with your product – you will be contact to discuss matters privately. _____ does not publish negative reviews on companies and products. The purpose of this blog is to be a beneficial resource.’

Disgusted yet? I guess one could take from all of this that women are a powerful force in social media and that’s why the media is courting them so aggressively. What I take from it is that these women (certainly not all) are susceptible enough to compromise their ethics in order to get free stuff, make a few bucks, and/or get attention from big manufacturers.

I find this particularly frustrating because parents are often so anxious about finding the best and safest products for their children, and frequently rely on the social web to make purchasing decisions. I know I researched every product ad nauseum on the Web when I was pregnant with Reed. It scares me to think that people might actually make a purchasing decision based on what they read on one of these blogs.

I’m pleased to see that the FTC is starting to pay attention to the social media world. Starting December 1, 2009 —

the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

Awesome! While I doubt this will be enforced, I’m glad the government is trying to impress on people the fact that blogs are influential media and bloggers should be held to the same ethical standards as journalists and other media personalities.

How long will it take for the IRS to get in on the game? I sincerely doubt that most of these people are claiming these freebies on their taxes. If a blogger receives a free stroller, they need to claim it on their tax return. For mommy bloggers who get products on an almost daily basis, that would end up being one heck of a tax burden (and not much fun to keep track of either).

All this “blogola” makes the blogosphere less about building community and sharing stories and more about getting freebies from companies (for the blogger and the blog readers). And while it might make bloggers feel special to get all this attention and/or compensation from big companies, these companies are using them for “word-of-mouth advertising” that costs significantly less than any sort of magazine advertising they do.

There are still some great parenting blogs out there. One I particularly value is Z Recommends, which is both a parenting and consumer advocacy blog. While they do get products to review — in an effort to provide advice about specific classes of products like sippy cups — they give away everything they receive. And most of their posts are devoted to child safety issues like BPA, lead, and other chemicals in products for children. They have broken a lot of big stories on their site and represent for me the best of investigative journalism and blogging.

As Z Recommends has shown, parenting blogs have the power to change things for the better. Just like in our little corner of the blogosphere, parenting blogs can be a space for parents to connect around shared experiences, to help people make informed decisions, and to create powerful change. And I know the parenting blogosphere isn’t all bad. I’ve seen strong communities built around the experience of having multiples, having miscarriages, and saving money/time (shoutout to Rachel!), and those blog networks are full of wonderful women and men who blog to connect, share with and support others. It’s not all disgusting, but sadly, the disgusting is so darn visible.

I just want to say how grateful I am to be part of a blog community where people contribute to share ideas, connect with others, and contribute to the profession. I know that I’m getting “the straight dope” from the library bloggers I read. Some people might be more diplomatic or politic than others, but they don’t write about or review things simply because a company asked them to. I can count on one hand the number of posts in my five years of blogging that were written by library bloggers because a company or individual gave them something. And I love that I can believe in the bloggers I follow and trust in their integrity. Thank you for being the ethical people you are.

I get lots of emails from publishers, authors, software developers, etc. asking me to review their products in exchange for a free copy. My answer is always no. Always. Because I don’t want to lose your trust over something so meaningless. These folks not trying to send me things because I’m cool or they like my writing, but because I have a good-sized audience and Google rank. Just like my negative posts about Pottery Barn were highly ranked in Google searches, a positive post about a technology or book would also end up towards the top of the Google results. I don’t see that as an opportunity to promote companies that give me stuff; I see it giving me a greater responsibility to be ethical, honest and always write things with my audience in mind. If people are going to find my writing on topics first, I need to do my best by them. I may not post as often as I should, but I promise you that I will always be an ethical blogger.