Is Sarah Lacy Making Sponsored Posts on TechCrunch?

Post Updated See End of Post

If you read TechCrunch, you may have noticed a post this weekend about Blueprint Cleanse, a health product designed to cleanse your body. On the surface, the piece seemed to be a  “California” lifestyle piece; however, after doing a bit of research, it turns out there’s a lot more intrigue, questionable journalistic ethics, and deception involved here.

This post is a bit long, but I promise if you stick all the way through till the end, I’m going to prove that Sarah Lacy lied about having paid for the cleanse product she blogged about about AND that TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington was romantically involved with a woman whose younger sister worked at the same cleanse product company.

In a July 25th post on TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy goes on and on about the values of “cleansing” and how she is getting various people around the TechCrunch office to try the product. At the bottom of the post you’ll see this disclaimer:

Disclosure: The company is sending out free samples of the product to press in California, including us, this week. I and others at TechCrunch have paid full price for this product in the past.

Issue 1: While the post may have a human readable disclosure, there is definitely a straight link which passes page rank, and violates Google’s guidelines on sponsored posts (see bottom of the post for more on this).

Issue 2: The disclosure that she has paid for the product in the past is a lie

For the real story, we’re going to have to go back to a March 16th post on Sarah Lacy’s blog called spring cleaning. In that post, she mentions she has three objections to the same product, the third being the one we’re concerned with:

Third: It’s $85 a day for people outside of New York! We’re in a depression if you hadn’t noticed. I had to take another job just to justify buying a Kindle.

However, further down the post she  addresses that concern saying the company gave it to her for free:

Three: They comped my first cleanse.

This statement is a direct contradiction of her disclaimer on TechCrunch where she stated she paid for the product. Now, of course, it is entirely possible that the first one was comped and she bought another batch in the middle. However, Sarah takes that possibility out of the equation in her TechCrunch post:

I know what you’re thinking, because I used to think the same thing. I am a meat-loving Southern girl. Add in being a writer, and that means I drink more than I should too. I am the last person who ever thought she’d be doing a juice cleanse. I tried Blueprint out of pure desperation. A bout with pneumonia last year meant anytime I traveled or pulled an all-nighter I got sick. That’s obviously untenable given I’m writing a book about emerging markets and on a 10-plus hour flight every month. After just one three-day cleanse I felt healthier than I had in two years.  Four months later, I haven’t so much as had the sniffles.

Again she’s admitting (emphasis mine) that she had one prior cleansing four months ago, which matches with the March date of her first post. So which is it, Sarah? Were you lying in your first post that you got it for free, or were you lying in your second post where you said you paid for it?

Should you think I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, this isn’t the first time Sarah has been hypocritical in her journalistic ethics. On May 6, Sarah wrote a post titled News Flash: Paying for Coverage Is Still “Taboo” where she said:

There is no time during my life on planet earth or beyond that I will *ever* consider accepting payment for coverage. There is no circumstance or situation where I will respect a journalist who does, especially if the details of that conflict aren’t clearly disclosed. P.E.R.I.O.D.

Now, guess who went on an all expense paid trip to London with a bunch of bloggers in exchange for “coverage” on TechCrunch … Sarah Lacy. So, again, which is it, Sarah? Is paying for coverage wrong, but accepting free travel worth thousands of dollars OK? Or is it only wrong when everyone except you and your A-list blogging buddies like Robert Scoble do it? If you’re looking to get a link …  post … umm… coverage from Sarah Lacy or TechCrunch, with prices starting as low as $85 (the cost of cleanse), that’s likely to be cheapest and most effective link you’ll ever buy.

To bring this full circle and connect all the dots, one of the other bloggers on this free “sponsored coverage” London trip was Megan Asha (friend of blogging socialite Julia Allison). Megan has a younger sister who … (wait for it) … works at the exact same cleanse company that Sarah wrote the “sponsored post” for on TechCrunch. The icing on the cake here is that Megan  (whose sister works for the cleanse company) is, according to Valleywag, the on-and-off girlfriend of Michael Arrington. If this entire thing isn’t a textbook definition of “conflict of interest” I don’t know what is. If you don’t think any of this is a problem, let me rewrite the TechCrunch disclaimer to more accurately reflect the facts:

Disclosure: The company is sending out free samples of the product to press in California, including us, this week. I got mine for free three months ago but I’m totally going to lie to you and tell you that I paid for it. Additionally our founder Michael Arrington was romantically involved with a woman whose sister now works at this company. But really, this is all on the up and up … honest guys …

In the past, sponsored posts were only done by “off the radar” bloggers for $25 or less a post. However, they’ve now grown up and matured. Today these types of backroom dealings are being done by PR agencies in flagrant violation of  Google guidelines and without regard for journalistic ethics or integrity. It seems Google only likes to dole out penalties on the unknown bloggers, while A-listers remain untouchable.

While these types of arrangements may be very common in the print and magazine world, online they are a bit more problematic. For most anyone other than TechCrunch or the Internet elite, sponsored posts are 100 percent against Google’s guidelines and can result in a Web site being penalized, banned, or even removed from Google entirely. Here’s a quote from Matt Cutt’s, the head of Google’s webspam team on sponsored posts:

Clear disclosure of sponsorship is critical, and that includes disclosure for search engines. If link in a paid post would affect search engines, that link should not pass PageRank (e.g. by using the nofollow attribute). Google — and other search engines — do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.

Two things need to change:

  • Bloggers you need to decide to you want to be journalists or bloggers? Journalists are held to a higher standard of ethics that they are required to follow at all times. They don’t make an exception if it helps bolster their career, if someone is giving them something really cool, or even if it’s a gift they really want. They also don’t have a selective memory when it comes to disclosure.
  • Google needs to be consistent in it’s sponsored posts penalties and reactions. I understand that dropping the hammer on Sarah Lacy, TechCrunch, or Scoble  is going to get you some negative press, but the rules are the rules. If you don’t enforce them equally, you look like you are profiling or playing favorites. For Sarah Lacy to claim she had no idea about sponsored posts when she wrote an article about pay per post penalties is laughable.

UPDATE: 2/5

So it appears there was an incident about an intern taking laptops in exchange for coverage over on techcrunch. The intern was fired and has offered an official apology. I find it amusing how the tech community finds this outlandish but ignored the entire colon cleansing issue. Maybe they really do need that cleanser ’cause this two tiered justice is full of ….

PS: should any of the posts in question go missing or you not see the text, here are screen caps of the originals. Yeah I’ve done this before and know how these things go down.

image credit: (cc) Shashi Bellamkonda www.shashi.name and www.solutionsarepower.com.

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