Paying Bloggers For Online Reviews Can Fan Fame

Paying Bloggers For Online Reviews Can Fan Fame

August 26, 2007; Page B4

[Apogee Search]
Apogee Search
William Leake (left) and Brian Combs

Online-marketing company Apogee Search isn’t a
household name. Yet hundreds of bloggers from all over the world laud
the company and its services.

"I just found the coolest site for search engine
marketing," reads a post on a blog called Neptune Baby. "Apogee uses
proven techniques to provide measurable results for your Web site…How

How did this happen? The 50-employee company pays
bloggers — most of whom it knows nothing about — to write about
Apogee, a practice known as pay-per-post or sponsored reviews.

Apogee executives knew they could never pour as much
money into buying search keywords as big companies could. That’s how
some companies get noticed on the Web — by offering search-engine
companies the highest bid on keywords related to their business. Apogee
decided to explore other, newer tactics, hitching a ride on the growing
popularity of online communities, blogs and social networks to get
people talking about its Web site.

For as little as $12.50 per post, Apogee’s name and
descriptions of its business appear on blogs across the Web, raising
the Austin, Texas, company’s chances of coming up in a keyword search,
since frequent mentions can boost a site’s position in a search
engine’s "natural," or unpaid, rankings.

When sponsored reviews first came on the scene a few
years ago, they seemed like a good idea to the executives of Apogee, a
division of Leads Customers Growth LLC, Austin. But the appearance of
impropriety troubled them. In their early days, blogger-advertiser
matchmakers didn’t require bloggers to disclose payments, so readers
may not have known when they were reading a paid post.

"Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, they would write about
you," says William Leake, Apogee’s co-founder and chief executive. "It
felt a little unseemly."

But Apogee remained interested, not only for itself
but to test it as a possible tool for its clients, so it monitored the
practice’s development.

Paying for Posts

Last fall, PayPerPost Inc., one of the better-known
blogger-advertiser matchmakers, began requiring its roster of paid
bloggers to disclose that they write paid posts — a practice that was
catching on in this market. That’s when Apogee jumped in as an

In January, it agreed to pay 20 bloggers a month
around $10 each — plus a fee to PayPerPost of around $2.50 per blogger
— to write a review about Apogee’s blog, which the company uses to
drive business to its services. After seeing its Web traffic grow,
Apogee has ramped up the service. These days, it pays for about 100
postings a month, and the company says traffic is three times higher
than it was a year ago.

While some advertisers choose to work directly with
bloggers, Apogee has PayPerPost tell its blogger community about a
posting opportunity. Bloggers take the assignments on a first-come,
first-served basis, until Apogee gets the desired number of postings.

Some bloggers are more upfront than others about their
compensation. Most say before the review that a post is a sponsored
review. A few simply include the word "PayPerPost" without explanation.
Others put a general message on their blog that lets readers know they
accept compensation for reviews. A format set up by Orlando, Fla.-based
PayPerPost offers a button for placement on blogs that says "I
disclose." Clicking on the button reveals the blogger’s disclosure

Brian Combs, Apogee’s vice president of services and a
co-founder, says he would like all bloggers to be upfront in their
disclosure, but "you have to be realistic. With newer vehicles, there
are going to be question marks." Mr. Combs says he wouldn’t be
surprised by a shift to greater disclosure soon.

Moves to require disclosure have helped clear some
tarnish from paid reviews, says Patricia Fusco, lead search strategist
at search-consulting firm Netconcepts LLC, Madison, Wis. Still, she
says, paid posts do tend to "skew opinions toward being false-positive."

Advertisers typically can require that a review or post be positive. Apogee declines this option.

‘Fluff Posts’

Some bloggers say the need to preserve their
credibility may be the best defense against superficial reviews. "Fluff
posts, or posts that are purely promotional, don’t do anyone any good,"
says Ben Cook, a blogger in Belleville, Ill., who says he has not
written about Apogee. "Blog readers will see right through it and lose
respect for both the blogger and the advertiser." Mr. Cook says he
posted about a dozen critical paid reviews in the past year, and only
one advertiser complained.

Another issue is that some paid posters put little
effort into their reviews. Dozens of posts seem cloned, echoing the
background notes that Apogee provides. Still, it’s frequency of
references, among other things, that determine search-engine rankings
— not whether a review is good or bad.

"A certain percentage is going to be junky," says Mr.
Leake. But, he says, that’s to be expected with a new publicity medium.
Recently, PayPerPost added a feature in which advertisers can rate each
post from 1 to 5; Apogee refuses posters with an average below 2.

By not requiring positive reviews, Apogee also hopes
to get useful feedback. "Many people told us there were things wrong
with our blog," Mr. Combs says, like layouts or writing. "It’s
wonderful feedback, if you’re willing to go back and correct things."

Messrs. Combs and Leake regularly sift through lists
of past paid posters and bar some from being used again. They say these
decisions are based not on whether a review is positive, but on the
ability of the blogger to bring expertise to the subject, and the
amount of traffic on the blogger’s own site.

More than half of the traffic on Apogee’s Web site now
comes from blogs, compared with about 10% before the paid-posts
campaign began. The number of site visitors who complete online-inquiry
forms is now in the low hundreds each month, the company says, up four-
to fivefold.

The campaign costs in the "low thousands" per month,
Mr. Combs says, a small chunk of the $20,000 monthly marketing budget.
Apogee posted about $7.5 million in revenue last year.

Paying for reviews is like word-of-mouth marketing, says Mr. Leake. "I’m inviting people to a discussion."

These days, about half of Apogee’s clients use
sponsored reviews, too. Apogee explains to the clients that they’ll
have limited control over what the bloggers say about them. Says Mr.
Combs, "You have to face some pride-swallowing."


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