That's one of the questions that arises with PayPerPost, the service which, as its name suggests, offers a marketplace where advertisers can pay for bloggers to post about them with a link to their site, all within the blog's editorial content. The link itself is arguably the most valuable part of the whole operation (for more on the value of links, read last week's column).
The biggest problem with links from PayPerPost is that they're in the editorial copy instead of with the ads. This presents a double-edged sword for PayPerPost. If the links were off to the side or otherwise demarcated as ads (such as when ads in RSS feeds are set off in a shaded box or surrounded by the word "advertisement"), then there wouldn't be much controversy over money changing hands for running them.
The backlash against PayPerPost stems from these ads being included as regular posts. The fact that there's a disclaimer requirement doesn't do enough to blunt the negative effects of such a slippery slope with ads being included in the editorial content. Additionally, the disclaimer can negate the value of the blogger's write-up (making the link the only real value) -- and bloggers with impeccable integrity, or enough of an audience to otherwise monetize their blogs (whether it's through ads, new business, or other leads such as speaking engagements) won't risk their reputations to join.
Some defenders of PayPerPost claim that their model is no different than other forms of advertising. A perfect parallel is hard to find, so this may be a straw-man argument. One somewhat related model is in radio, where hosts will shill a product themselves on behalf of the good folks at the advertiser being promoted. You won't find such advertising in The New York Times, or embedded in a Fareed Zakaria column in Newsweek. For similar reasons, it shouldn't be on a blog.
Another parallel can be made with advertorials, which appear in many shades of gray. Some are merely ads that include editorial copy written by the advertiser, and they're often made to look like other articles on the page or in the publication. As that's just another type of ad, the parallel is tenuous at best. Some publications, meanwhile, will have their writers interview the advertiser and write the copy for the advertorial, which is the only place that the publication will cover a given topic. In such a case, the advertiser's only way of getting into the "editorial content" of that issue is by buying its way in.
Bloggers have nothing in common with the second form of advertorial I mentioned. Bloggers can always write about whatever they want whenever they want. I'm a blogger, and I can post 20 times a day or once every 20 days, covering as few or as many trends, ideas, and companies as I wish. I'd never run PayPerPost ads for fear of losing credibility (full disclosure: I did register my blog with them to check out the service, though I never took part in any campaigns).
So how could a marketer reach me and take advantage of those 133 links Google counts pointing to my blog? Blogger relations would work better. I have companies write me every so often letting me know about new Web sites, products, and services. If it's a really great Web site, for example, I'll write about it (rarely do I cover things that don't interest me just for the sake of posting about them), and I'll provide a link with commentary. Instead of paying per post, the marketer invests time (by themselves, or through an agency) in researching appropriate blogs, developing pitches relevant to each blogger, and then making the pitch -- with the occasional added cost of sending promotional items. While such a campaign can be more costly, it's exponentially more effective. As a bonus, other bloggers will readily post their own links to something they find in another blogger's copy, though with PayPerPost that viral effect isn't there (I've never blogged, "Hey, check out what this advertiser paid this other blogger to write about!")
PayPerPost refers to its service as "consumer-generated advertising," but that's a misnomer. When I write on my blog that I loved staying at the Ceiba del Mar in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, that's a consumer-generated ad -- better known as word-of-mouth marketing, and from the consumer's perspective, it's just sharing information. When Dale Backus won a contest for producing the Doritos Super Bowl ad, that was consumer-generated advertising. When advertisers pay someone to post a link and comment on their offering, it's a cash-for-link deal that appears in the editorial content. When PayPerPost's advertisers hire consumers to write the copy and post the link, it's clearly not in the spirit of consumer-generated media, even if in some way it counts as a technicality.
It's up for marketers to determine how much links are worth for them. They should keep in mind that the price can include intangibles that harm their brands. And that, by the way, is full disclosure.