Tim O’Reilly responds to Phil Ringnalda’s post publicizing O’Reilly’s participation in the search engine spam game. I was particularly interested to see his response because his company has so much credibility that they never even needed to say anything like, “Don’t be evil.” Everybody already knows that O’Reilly isn’t evil. Now w’re confronted with a case where O’Reilly’s behavior does seem a bit evil. Anyway, after a list of observations, Tim boils it down to a key question:

It’s pretty clear that the practice of “cloaking” — that is, hiding links so that you’re selling only the page rank — is illegitimate. But what if someone pays you for a real ad, even if you know that they are paying you primarily because of your page rank rather than your targeted audience? As long as there’s no deception as to the nature of the sponsored link, and a legitimate opportunity for click through, isn’t this still an ad?

He then goes on to post the questions that follow from those, and attempt to answer them. Here’s his conclusion:

In business and life, however, things are rarely simple, as Phil notes in his comments on “violent ambiguity.” Net-net: I’m uncomfortable with these ads, and have tasked my team with coming up with an alternative as soon as possible. These ads are running under a long-term contract, and we’ll think hard before renewing it. We’ll also ask 3Genius to remove the links to the overtly deceptive ad that I discovered. However, if we were to shut off this type of advertising today, we’d also have to shutter many of the O’Reilly Network sites.