Understanding the dangers of free financial content online – FunFacts

Understanding the dangers of free financial content online

In addition to being able to quickly access what we want, the other major attraction of the Internet is the abundance of seemingly free websites providing piles of free content. Appearances, however, can be greatly deceiving. There are exceptions to any rule, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of websites purporting to provide a seemingly never-ending array of “free” content are rife with conflicts of interest and quality problems due to the following: Advertising: Any publication that accepts advertising has a potential potential conflict of interest because it may not want to publish articles that would upset its advertisers. Such a mind-set, however, can stand in the way of telling consumers the unvarnished truth about various products and services. For example, auto-leasing companies aren’t very interested in advertising someplace that publishes articles highlighting the negatives of leasing. (Check out the section “Publishers pandering to advertisers” later in this chapter for more on the power of advertising to influence the financial information you encounter online, on TV, and elsewhere.) Advertorials: Too many website owners are unwilling or unable to pay real writers for quality content and instead publish articles that are written and provided by advertisers. These pieces of “content” are known as advertorials and, in the worst cases, aren’t even clearly labeled as advertisements, which is precisely what they are. Affiliate relationships: Many companies now pay “referral fees” to websites that bring in new customers. Here’s how that practise causes major conflicts of interest. On a financial website, you read a glowing review of a particular financial product or service. And the site provides a helpful link to the website of the provider of that product or service. Unbeknownst to you, when you click that link and buy something, the seller kicks money back to the “affiliate” who reeled you in. At a minimum, such relationships should be clearly disclosed and detailed in any review. Insufficient editorial oversight: At most established, quality print publications, there are usually several layers of editors who oversee the publication and all its articles. This structure helps ensure the accuracy of what gets into print (although bias, such as political bias, isn’t necessarily controlled). Unfortunately, the shoestring budget on which many websites operate precludes these quality-control checks and balances. Thus, sites operated by nonexperts proffering advice place you at great risk. Lack of accountability: In part because of a lack of editorial oversight, there’s also often a lack of accountability for advice given online. This situation is especially problematic on the numerous sites that are run without disclosure of who is actually in charge of the site and/or who is writing the articles. Although such anonymity may be helpful to the site and its content providers, it’s certainly not in your best interests because it prevents you from checking out the background, qualifications, and track record of the providers.

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