SAN FRANCISCO — CNet Inc. is spending $100 million on an advertising campaign that tells America what it does--mainly run stories and reviews of technology products on its Web site.
"Buying a computer?" blares one of its newspaper ads. "Maybe you should start at a place that doesn't sell any." But when surfers to CNet.com read a PC review and click on the adjacent link to learn more or buy from a vendor, CNet gets a piece of the action.
"Any click we get to any of these merchants, we get paid for," said CNet Managing Director Jason Fischel. "We're giving them a customer at the checkout stand."
Dozens of Web journalism sites, ranging from little-known special-interest pages to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, are quietly getting money for steering surfers to merchants.
"What we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg," said Josh Schroeter, founder of the Center for New Media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "Traditional media companies will increasingly be integrated with commerce and community. The commerce part of it will become the lifeblood."
Schroeter and some other Web watchers see this as natural evolution and a good thing. But the lack of disclosure of these increasingly close relationships unsettles many journalists.
"I don't see how you can get around these transaction relationships, but why these online sites don't let people know about them frankly just baffles me," said Paul Grabowicz, coordinator of the New Media program at UC Berkeley. "It is really critical."
The most common instance in the trend is referral deals between sites running book reviews and Barnesandnoble.com or Amazon.com, which are trying to sell books to impulse buyers. Some critics say that some sites might be tempted to review books more favorably if they receive a commission on book-buying transactions.
The New York Times posts Barnesandnoble links next to individual reviews, as do the Los Angeles Times and online magazines such as Salon.com. Sites generally get single-figure percentages of the book selling price for those referrals.
"We clearly distinguish between any advertisement on our Web site and/or our e-commerce partners from our news content," said New York Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli, who argued that the links are plainly not Times content.
Leah M. Gentry, editorial director of new media for the Los Angeles Times, said she sees no conflict because the links appear beside negative as well as positive reviews and are stylistically distinct.
"It's clearly a Barnes & Noble feature," Gentry said. "If it was presented as an L.A. Times feature, I would worry about disclosing [the commissions]."
Critics say the book referral deals are the top of a slope that slides down to arrangements like CNet's or others that haven't yet come to light.
One of the features at Wired Digital, now owned by the portal company Lycos, is the Wired index of technology stocks, an index the publication writes about regularly. What isn't widely known is that every time a reader clicks on the index to learn more, then downloads or orders a prospectus for a fund tied to that index, Wired gets paid. Critics say that might tempt the editors to tailor their coverage to the prospect of revenue--by running bigger stories when the index is up than when it's down, perhaps.
Wired Digital Editor-in-Chief George Shirk said that doesn't happen because the fee per click is insignificant in terms of revenue and that the prospectus is offered as "very much of a reader service."
Shirk said other noneditorial products are clearly marked. Asked whether Wired should disclose the payments, he said: "That's actually a good idea."
The lapse concerns some journalists in and out of the company.
"I believe that all paid links should be disclosed," said Rafe Needleman, a former CNet executive who heads Red Herring magazine's online edition. (Red Herring online, which covers the business of technology, doesn't disclose its Barnesandnoble payments, CEO Chris Alden conceded.)
'From an Editorial Perspective, It's Slimy'
Of course, many things on the Net are for sale, even if they don't appear to be. Yahoo, one of the most popular places on the Web, routinely steers surfers to the sites of business partners, as do countless other companies.
At Yahoo's finance page, for example, clicks for auto insurance information lead to a policy quote page run by InsWeb, an insurance agency that went public last month and which agreed to pay Yahoo more than $9 million, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
With only a few out of millions of sites turning anything resembling a profit, it's understandable that news sites are trying new methods to raise a buck.
"From an editorial perspective, it's slimy. As a business move, it's brilliant," Needleman said of undisclosed payments.
The tension has gotten worse as advertisers, the chief source of revenue in the industry, have grown frustrated with low response from traditional banner advertisements.