What Are You Really Getting on "Free" Financial Sites?
publication date: Jan 29, 2009
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Few people realize the enormous conflicts of interest that exist when a small publishing enterprise (website, local newspapers and magazines) gives away its content for free and generates its revenue from advertising. This association corrupts and compromises the content and the objectivity of the content, especially in the consumer and financial advice arena.
Here's an example from a venue most folks might not think of as corrupted by advertisers - PBS and their publications. While based in California, I was approached by a local PBS affiliate soon after the publication and success of my first book, Personal Finance For Dummies. They had visions of my doing many things for them in various mediums but first they wanted me to write for their magazine. As we discussed topic ideas for articles, it became clear that they were ultra-sensitive to advertisers. For example, articles critical of auto leasing were off limits as many large car dealerships took out full page ads in the magazine promoting leasing deals. (In one issue, they had a generalist staff writer author a glowing piece about the benefits of leasing and that "article" ran right next to a full-page glossy ad for leasing high end cars from a local dealer.) I found myself quite constrained about what I could and could not write.
After a brief time and disillusioned, I parted company. This was supposedly non-profit PBS and yet they were rife with conflicts. There was no wall between content and advertising. I more often than not found that to be the case among "free" newspapers and magazines.
For sure, competition from the online world has brought us important new outlets and kicked stodgy and inflexible media outfits in the posterior. However, many folks don't realize how conflicts of interest are multiplied online, especially at smaller sites where the same personnel oversee content and advertising.
Consider websites devoted to investing. The vast majority of them develop content about stock picking. Not surprisingly, this creates the perfect environment for the ubiquitous ads from online brokerage firms. So, don't expect to see articles explaining the virtues of conservative mutual funds or index funds and why stock picking is a fool's errand on these websites.
Free financial websites are also generally structured around content that is rapidly changing and therefore, highly addictive in nature. Popular financial websites find their heaviest users coming back numerous times each day - all these user visits produces website ad revenue. And, beware that too closely following and over monitoring of one's investments leads to bad habits - overtrading, making emotional decisions based on short-term events, etc.
Advertising creates other conflicts for websites. There are insufficient separations between those who develop content and oversee advertising on a website. Having the same people overseeing both often leads to corruption. Even if different people are responsible for each area, communication, cooperation and influence between the two areas can prove problematic. Websites are loathe to post negative articles about advertisers and more likely to praise companies posting ads.
Another problem is the merging of editorial and advertising content into advertorials whereby a company or person pays a fee to a website for placement of their provided content which is an ad in disguise. This practice is unethical, especially when it is not clearly and boldly disclosed.
Now, this doesn't mean that all free websites are bad or lacking in some redeeming content and that those which ban advertising and work on a subscription basis are the best. But, when it comes to financial content and advice, you should be generally wary of free sites built on the advertising model. That's why I constructed EricTyson.com to be an ad free zone. I wanted readers to know that I have no vested interest whenever I make a recommendation for a financial product, service or strategy.
Whenever I go to a "free" website, I spend some time thinking about what the agenda of the site is. I also go to the "about" links on the site as well as review any disclosures of advertising and affiliates. Affiliates are companies that provide referral fees and income for business that is directed their way and create conflicts of interest for websites. A website shouldn't receive affiliate fees when recommending a financial product or service because accepting such payments creates a major conflict of interest.
So, if you don't accept ads or referral fees - guess what - you must charge for your content as all publishers do. Our annual fee is modest $18 and we allow a free-look period for folks to make sure that getting expert personal finance insights and information is for them.
The bottom line is this: Buyer beware surfing the web. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Over the years, about 99 percent of what I have learned that has been most useful to me in the financial realm has been from resources that cost money - books, newsletters, financial publications, etc. Be attracted to and focus upon "free" stuff at your own peril.