New AOL's credibility threatened by editorial/advertising marriages

It’s easy to poke fun at AOL’s goofy corporate image campaign as the new Time Warner spinoff tries to look like a winner. My favorite among the “reveals” that are being rotated behind the new capital-lower-case “Aol.” (please don’t try to pronounce that phonetically) is this one:

Aol logo

If you wanted to visualize the impact of the AOL-Time Warner merger, wouldn’t the result be something like this?

But much more important than image gimmickry is the value and integrity of AOL’s content, which is spread among 80-some sites. Can the reborn company create a mosaic whole that is greater than the sum of all those parts?

Some of the 80 sites are quite respectable, editorially. Like AOL Money & Finance, or the blog Engadget, or the new Politics Daily. They’re clearly run by pros. A few, like Mapquest, are struggling to stay competitive. Then there’s Netscape, once the No. 1 browser (before Microsoft’s Internet Explorer), which still has a ghostly presence in the AOL lineup.

But what I really wonder about are those blogs with the weird names and even weirder rationales for existence – like Lemondrop, Luxist and Holidash?

These three blogs, from my examination, are cheesy attempts at unholy marriages between editorial and advertising that could nullify the good things that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is doing to recreate AOL as a premium content provider. Armstrong has hired some strong editorial talent, including Saul Hansell, the New York Times telecommunications reporter who started the well-regarded Times technology blog Bits.

I’m not talking about the well-publicized efforts by the new AOL to maximize search engine optimization by encouraging bloggers to load their posts with keywords that Google and other search engines will sniff out. The theory is that AOL will attract more users and advertisers if its stories wind up with more prominent search placement. Boneheaded in isolation, but not necessarily a fatal compromise of editorial independence.

What’s unambiguously troubling is how AOL, well before its Nov. 10 spinoff, has been using some of its blogs to shamelessly hawk advertisers who buy sponsorships on the sites.

One of the most egregious example I saw involves Holidash, which landed Walmart as a sponsor for its “giveaways.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with advertisers sponsoring content. But the bright line is definitely crossed when a site starts boosting a sponsor. That’s exactly what Holidash did when it ran this post rating America’s biggest retailer far ahead of Whole Foods in cost savings for holiday food shopping.

The Luxist blog ran a rave review of the 2011 Cadillac CTS coupe (“Cadillac has proven itself capable of taking on Europe’s finest”). Cadillac is one of Luxist’s sponsors.

The unholy marriages go back at least a year – to when Lemondrop went to bed with Schick Wilkinson-Sword: “the one-month ‘Stocking Stuffers’ campaign, Lemondrop.com editors will create original content that integrates Schick’s brand with posts such as ‘Best & Worst Guy Gifts,’ ‘Dating Survival Tips During the Holidays’ and ‘Genius Gifts from the Drugstore,'” AOL bragged in a press release.

As editorial director of AOL’s new content management platform, seed.com, Hansell will be in charge of Lemondrop, Luxist, Holidash as well as other AOL content. Very quickly he has to break up the unholy marriages of editorial/advertising typified by what’s going on at Luxist, Holidash, Lemondrop and who knows what other sites. Otherwise, AOL will not only be spinning off the worst merger in corporate history, but also spinning into a whole new batch of trouble.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Oh please. Where is it written that Aol sites must play by the rules of traditional media?