Business Insider announced earlier this week that it had raised a fresh $7 million in venture funding from the likes of IVP and RRE. The site earned investor’s capital by showing impressive growth in terms of both unique visitors and pageviews, even booking a small profit. But a pair of posts from late last night questioned the methods by which the site achieves this enviable traffic.
The first came from Ryan McCarthy over at Reuters entitled: “Business Insider, Over-Aggregation, and the Mad Grab for Traffic”. It points out that BI frequently takes all the salient facts from a story, adds little to no original reporting, and offers not much beyond a small link in return. It’s the classic argument made against the Huffington Post, that the site is more a of parasite than a publisher.
The piece inspired Marco Arment, whose blog posts are regularly regurgitated on Business Insider, to weigh in.
Why wouldn’t I want to be associated with Business Insider? It has nearly everything that offends me as a web reader and writer: linkbait headlines, more ads than content, more sharing buttons than original words, top-list “slideshows” that make readers click for every item and defraud advertisers into thinking that their pageviews are legitimate, Tynt messing with copy and paste, Vibrant Media’s double-green-underline ads, generic images slapped next to each post (often poorly Photoshopped®), and tabloid coverage of every rumor and inflammatory non-event so they can fight all of the other tabloids for Google’s pennies.
Mr. Arment goes on to point out that the traditional counter-argument, that Business Insider’s pick-ups helps promote his work and send traffic his way, rings false. Running the numbers, he found that over the years, with all the articles BI had scraped, and the huge audience it supposedly commands, it has sent less traffic to him than his wife’s personal website, under 10,000 visitors in total.
Having worked at Business Insider, I was surprised Mr. Arment let this continue. The policy while I was there had been to ask for permission before reposting blogs. Turns out they had:
Business Insider once asked me if they could “syndicate” all of my blog posts automatically and give me an official byline on their site in exchange for — you guessed it — links back to the articles on my site.1 I politely declined, because they’ve effectively done this for years without my consent, and it’s not doing me any favors.
I wonder if they’ll reprint this one. UPDATE: Indeed they did
Business Insider’s mass replication of my writing is the only downside that has ever made me reconsider my Creative Commons license. If they’ve had any beneficial effect whatsoever, I haven’t noticed.
Business Insider certainly breaks its fair share of big stories, beating us to scoops on the NYC tech scene. It also offers up some smart analysis on technology and the markets. Its SEO is unparalleled, to the point where you will often find their stories as the top search result on a big story they aggregated less than 12 hours after the story has broken.
But as McCarthy and Arment point out, you can’t achieve this kind of growth without skirting some ethical lines. Since leaving Business Insider and founding Betabeat, I’ve come to think of them as a competitor and like to engage in some friendly sparring on Twitter. But certain things have occurred on the editorial side that cross the line.
After Betabeat’s Nitasha Tiku wrote a long, well reported piece on the technical troubles inside Conde Nast, Business Insider responded the next day with their own post. In a section intended to disprove some of Ms. Tiku’s writing, they lifted an entire quote word for word and credited it to their own anonymous source.
When we brought it to their attention, deputy editor Nicholas Carlson apologized and said it was simply a mistake. Considering the speed they are working at, that’s possible,
but it doesn’t change the fact that it was outright plagiarism. UPDATE: Mr. Carlson called in to say that the error was his, not his writer’s. He was rushed and accidentally removed the attribution to our post and attributed the quote to their own source. This is known as unintentional plagiarism.
The end game for big news sites like BI has traditionally been an acquisition by AOL (TechCrunch, HuffPo) or perhaps an IPO (Demand Media). Mr. Blodget likes to crow that his site is profitable, but he certainly never claimed it was making anywhere near enough money to satisfy the returns expected by venture capital investors.
Perhaps with this additional funding Business Insider can devote more resources to original reporting and bring on more editors to ensure the massive amounts of content they are producing at high speed stays within the rules of acceptable journalism. But nothing they have done to this point indicates that’s part of the plan.