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Consumer Reports Web Watch: What’s an Ad and What Isn’t?

These days, it’s getting harder to separate the ads from the information you seek on the Web, from paid placements in search engine results to product pitches that linger on your toolbar and then jump in front of you when you least expect it. Here are some tips to help tell the difference.

  • Look for a label. The best and most reputable sites — those with offline brand names to protect — label their advertisements, though there is still some inconsistency in how they do it.
  • Ignore anything that pops under — or over — your browser screen. Chances are 99 percent it’s an ad. If not, it’s bad site design.
  • Look closely at advertisements that appear on the pages of the stories you read. Often sponsors will request “placement” near content they believe will connect readers to their products — for example, ads for personal computers in the technology section of a Web site or newspaper. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s how the business works in newspapers, magazines, even television. But if the story you are reading mentions advertised products in a flattering light, chances are the content has been biased. Yes, this does happen.
  • Be wary of “sponsored content.” The majority of sites adhere to strict internal guidelines that prevent the sponsor from ever talking to the editor or the writer creating the stories. But some sites don’t. If you’re reading a story on a Web site labeled as being sponsored by a company, you should look elsewhere if you are seeking objective information on that company or its products.
  • Sick of being bombarded by advertising? Seek out service providers and sites that know their customers dislike the intrusion. Internet service provider Earthlink in August announced it would begin including an ad blocker in its access software. Or find and download some of the more reputable software programs that block ads, though some charge a fee. Start your research at download.com or use a search engine like Google and type in the words “block pop-up ads” (and be aware that anything labeled “sponsored link” has been paid for by an advertiser).