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Should readers be told about paid-for links on newspaper sites?

Telegraph Media Group has begun introducing paid-for 'affiliate' web links in some of its online stories - allowing it to earn a small amount of commission each time a reader clicks certain links to external websites.

Search marketing expert David Naylor has found links on the site to Tradedoubler and Buy.at, two affiliate marketing companies which act as an intermediary between publishers and advertisers and pay commission on a per-click basis.

This Telegraph.co.uk article on the "top five wine websites" includes a link to Tesco.com. But instead of going direct to Tesco, it goes via Tradedoubler - earning TMG a few pence per visit.

In this piece on technology websites, the link to Amazon.co.uk includes a "telegraphcouk" referral - meaning TMG gets a percentage commission on every Amazon purchase by visitors who follow the link.

The publisher says the practice, announced by TMG digital director Brian Harrison at an Association of Online Publishers event in January, is completely independent from the journalism and does not harm editorial standards.

But it has raised a few eyebrows. Unless you look at the URL that appears when you hover over a link, it is not immediately clear that the links generate money for TMG.

In a statement issued to Paul Bradshaw's Online Journalism Blog last night, a Telegraph Media Group spokeswoman said the practice was "an accepted means by which online publishers monetise their content".

She said the links were added to stories by the TMG commercial department after they had been written.

"The key point is that Telegraph Media Group's editorial teams have no involvement in the commercial side of the operation," she said.

"The use of an intermediary to track links has no impact on which websites our journalists select and this does not affect our editorial standards in any way.

She added: "Our journalists are free to write whatever they like about any products, as you would expect.

"In this respect it is no different from the traditional journalist-advertiser relationship."

Harrison confirmed at the AOP event in January that adding the links would be done independently of the journalists, otherwise "the editorial team would be appalled".

Press Gazette has been told that this practice isn't just being used by the Telegraph and that a number of other national newspaper websites are experimenting with pay-per-click links in stories. But we've yet to find examples.

One independent website that relies heavily on pay-per-click links is Moneysavingexpert.com, the independent consumer finance website set up by Martin Lewis that now claims eight million monthly unique users.

It has a strict policy of placing an asterisk after paid-for links - and providing non-affiliate links to the same site, enabling users to choose.

"The articles are written, then totally separately, paid links are looked for," the site says. "If no paying link is available, absolutely nothing in the article changes. Nothing. Ever.

"There is no legal requirement to put a * by links - in fact lots of websites use affiliate links and try to hide them. However I believe it's important you know the score."

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