The Wellsphere Blogging Controversy

You may have heard of the Wellsphere blogging controversy (if not, here’s one take on the issue, and here’s another from a different perspective). In a nutshell, Wellsphere went to bloggers in the health world and asked them if they could syndicate their blog entries on the Wellsphere website. In exchange, Wellsphere promised no cash, but additional readership and hopefully, traffic back to the blogger’s blog.

This is neither a stunning nor original business model in the Web 2.0 world. In fact, it’s pretty par for the course. Web 2.0 (and Health 2.0) are predicated on a simple premise — you provide the content, and we (the company) will find a way to monetize it. Whether you’re PatientsLikeMe, DailyStrength, or Facebook, the model is the same. In fact, Dr. Val Jones, who ranted about the practice in her blog entry linked above, is familiar with this model first-hand when she worked as the Senior Medical Director for Revolution Health. Revolution Health’s mantra was “Health 2.0″ — an informational website with a healthy dollop of encouraging users to put all of their health information on the site, contribute posts to the site, etc. and expect nothing back in return (except whatever “good feelings” one has for sharing all of that information with the world).


So I had a difficult time understanding the upset in the blogosphere around this business model, which is at the very core of the Health 2.0 movement.

Until I read Dr. Val Jones’ comment in this thread which crystallized the real problem for me.

The problem isn’t that bloggers didn’t read the terms of service before they signed on (which is often a problem when dealing with hundreds of non-laywers, but is also not the company’s fault). It’s not even that Wellsphere found a way not to shut down before running out of money, allowing itself to be acquired by HealthCentral (itself, a website full of syndicated content and content produced by writers and editors who make very little).

It’s the manner in which Wellsphere marketed its offer to have copies of bloggers’ posts appear on its site. Bloggers were wooed to accept the Wellsphere offer through a set of seemingly personal emails from the head doctor over at Wellsphere, Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD.

The emails, it turns out, were full of flattering comments about the author’s blog. However, they were fake — form letters sent to every one of hundreds of health bloggers. All with the same flattery and appreciation for the author’s writing. All of which was pure marketing schmaltz on Wellsphere’s part.

Brilliant marketing, in its own way, had they not counted on the inevitable — bloggers comparing notes on how they came to blog for Wellsphere. Which is inevitable in this connected world, something apparently the oblivious management at Wellsphere hadn’t counted on.

Everyone wants to feel special. Everyone wants to feel as though someone else has taken notice of their efforts and not only acknowledges that to them, but gives them an “award” and title for their work. I mean, that’s a pretty amazing feeling. If you’ve ever been the recipient of a reward in real-life for some accomplishment, you know how that feels. To leverage that feeling (or to put it more bluntly, to manipulate that feeling) suggests people who had little concern for the value of the people they conducted business with. And as you know, a business is only worth the value of how it conducts its business. If they do so with shallow lack of regard for ethics and integrity in one set of relationships, it’s likely a reflective across a wide range of relationships they have with their employees, business partners, etc.

Wellsphere was, at the end of the day, psychologically-savvy marketers who knew how to appeal to bloggers’ universal need — to be read and appreciated for the blogger’s writing. Is this wrong? Yes, of course it is, if you have any integrity or concern for the people you’re trying to woo to contribute to your site.

Had anyone with a smidgen of ethics considered what they were doing, they would’ve put a halt to it long ago. Now its in HealthCentral’s hands, and I wish them all the luck because whatever goodwill Wellsphere might’ve had at one time, it’s just been burned.

Disclosures: I also worked at Revolution Health for a time, have worked with HealthCentral in the past, and although I joined Wellsphere’s network for a short time, I wasn’t active in it.

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Comments

30 Responses to “The Wellsphere Blogging Controversy”

  1. Dr. Val says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, John. The psychology of this (and the emotional toll of being flattered, duped and then having your life work sold to another party for profit) is the real story. The abuse of MD credentials to win trust, the promise of traffic that never came, the difficulty being able to quit at will… these are the underbelly of this Health 2.0 company.

    And for the record, Revolution Health paid all its expert bloggers. Few consumers signed up to blog on their platform.

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    As someone who worked for Wellsphere and had a lot of contact with their CEO, this kind of behavior is par for the course. What’s amazing is that I’ve seen Ron get people to work for him before because of his flattery and because they’re passionate about the subject of wellness. It’s amazing that he can live with himself, pretending to care about people, but really just wanting to use people to their max.

    -Mark Johnson, former Wellsphere product manager

  3. John Grohol says:

    @DrVal… I’d argue that some of these attributes — contributing to a site getting little in return while a company builds a profitable business on your contributions and difficulty in quitting a network (remember, up until about a year and a half ago, it was also nearly impossible to leave Facebook) — are endemic of “2.0″ business models. They require virtually unlimited user content and membership lock-in in order to succeed.

    Did Revolution pay consumers who blogged on its platform? I don’t think it did.

    @Mark Johnson — I’ve worked for a CEO that sounds very similar to this guy. Took a serious pay cut to work for the company based upon his passion for the company and subject matter, and of course regretted it immediately when I saw what a mess the company turned out to be (and left as soon as I could).

    I’ve also worked for less-abusive but personality-driven and passionate CEOs who had little understanding of their company’s business, but because of their engaging personality style and business pedigree (e.g., VCs loved him despite his lack of results) nonetheless still drove the company to the edge of destruction.

    It seems that the position seems to draw certain personality types, some of which may be very unhealthy for the business itself (no matter how well-intended they may be).

  4. It sounds like you are blaming the bloggers for what happened. I wanted to increase my blog traffic and I was naive. I didn’t know what a TOS was until yesterday. Wellsphere counted on that and they took advantage of my lack of knowledge about copy write law. Shame on me for not reading the fine print. Shame on you for blaming the victims.

  5. John Grohol says:

    @motherjonesrn… Indeed, I am not blaming anyone for anything. Just noting that what’s being spun as something “out of the ordinary” occurs with much regularity within the online industry. Wellsphere is perhaps the worst example of some of these practices, but it is hardly the only company doing these things. It is the foundational basis of virtually all Web 2.0/Health 2.0 companies.

    Such experiences can be rich learning opportunities for all involved, as they have been for me as well.

  6. blkmmba says:

    John, you are incredibly naive if you believe that there was anything ordinary about Wellsphere. As a 30 year technology veteran, I have worked directly for 11 CEOs and worked in numerous companies and fields. Each CEO has had his own quirks, and none has been perfect, but certainly none has been as evil and vile as Wellshere’s. Ron’s absolute intentional manipulation of people and facts, with no regard to truth is unprecedented in my experience. Cruel and unusual, an absolute ‘user’ praying on people’s innate desire to do good, he has not one drop of good intent in his body.

  7. Not all 2.0 web sites have this business model.

    We offer a Guest Blog on DrGreene.com. We personally (via email) invite individuals to host our blog for a week at a time. These guests are hand picked because they have something to say that we think our readers will be interested in.

    They are not compensated, but they can drive traffic to their own site or book or both. I don’t know how much traffic they really get, but it is very clear from the beginning — we want to offer something great for our readers, and we think you have a something to offer.

  8. John Grohol says:

    @blkmmba… Unethical CEOs with possible personality disorders? Sorry, I’ve found them to be more common that I would’ve thought. There must be something about the leadership role that brings out other less-desirable traits.

    As for this particular CEO, I have no experience with him, so I can’t comment. I was, however, commenting how Wellsphere’s business model was not unusual, nor for a startup to ask/expect its employees to work long and unreasonable hours. I assume you were there in the 1990s as well and employed by more than a few startups, as that’s pretty par for the course. 7 days a week, for 12 or 16 hours a day? That’s certainly an extreme I haven’t encountered, but 5 or 6 days a week for 9 or 10 hours a day? Not unheard of in the 1990s.

    @Cheryl…. I agree, it’s not the business model of all “2.0″ sites. I’d also argue that sites like yours (and mine) are not pure “2.0″ sites, since we pre-date the movement. We both have business and publishing models that are more traditional (funny to call a type of model that’s only been around for about 10 or 15 years “traditional”!).

  9. [...] The Wellsphere blogging controversy – a enthusiastic account of the science behindhand Wellsphere [...]

  10. SusannahFox says:

    John Grohol weighs in on #wellsphere on e-patients.net (http://is.gd/hUpD) and calls Health 2.0 biz models into question

  11. Lee W. says:

    Wellsphere is a business. One whose lawyers did a good job of writing CYA language to avoid possible lawsuits for stealing other people’s content. How to fire back? Hit em’ where it hurts, in the Google SERP (search engine results pages).

    I suggest that all bloggers who feel screwed by Wellsphere petition Google to consider penalizing the business for its shady practices. Google can override the official “lawfulness” of pulling RSS feeds and claiming property rights on the content … and operate from an ethical point of view.

    Wellsphere’s hidden print is what the internet IS NOT about…and Google has the power to make the content that they’ve stolen worthless in terms of search engine ranking. That might be our best hope.

    https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport

  12. John Grohol says:

    @Lee…. While I appreciate your upset with the situation, this form is for websites that:

    “Trying to deceive (spam) our web crawler by means of hidden text, deceptive cloaking or doorway pages compromises the quality of our results and degrades the search experience for everyone.”

    Encouraging people to report a website that isn’t doing that is fraudulent and is no better a business practice than that of which Wellsphere is accused of.

    Honestly, express your opinions in an appropriate and mature manner. Don’t try to right a perceived wrong with yet another wrong.

  13. The best way to deal with Wellsphere is to make sure everybody use this story as a great example of the danger inherent when there is no transparency.

    Just as we cannot expect to see improvement in medicine and healthcare where there is a lack of transparency the same applies to any Health 2.0 resource.

    If users desert wellsphere because of the lack of transparency, HealthCentral will, sooner than later, do the right thing and change the TOS to something more honest, IMO.

  14. John Grohol says:

    Which they’ve apparently decided to do so sooner…

    http://www.healthcentral.com/wellsphere/faq.html

  15. [...] via The Wellsphere Blogging Controversy | e-Patients.net. [...]

  16. Former Wellsphere Writer says:

    I was actually hired to work for Wellsphere through an ad on Craigslist I answered back in 2007. They needed writers to help launch their Beta version of the site. I spoke on the phone to a man who said he was from Stanford University. We negotiated a per-article payment agreement of I think $3/per article, no less than 30 articles per week was the workload. I was paid by check each month and probably made around $800 total before being “let go” after they didn’t need me anymore.

    I was contacted by a man on myspace warning me that Wellsphere’s owner, Ron Gutman, was an asshole, scammer, and all-around jerk, but since I didn’t have to face him on a daily basis like the guy who contacted me (I telecommuted), I didn’t pay it much mind as I needed the money. They never sent mass flattery emails and always paid me on time, but I was disappointed when I was let go and felt a bit used.

    Do with that story what you will.

  17. Priscilla says:

    Your description of the psychological tactic used is exactly right. I fell for it for about 48 hours. I looked at the website, wrote a reply, and asked my questions. Then I got another flattering email that was obviously sent automatically. The game was up.

    But I am very limited physically and it just blew my mind that these people had so little concern for real people with real health issues that they would do this. I wrote them to that effect, but I doubt anybody read it. I’m glad it is all coming out. If I wasn’t so limited I would have blasted them in a blog post a long time ago.

  18. Becca Colao says:

    @livingwithadd @rorystern contemplating wellsphere…interesting: http://tinyurl.com/d39ujq

  19. Singletude says:

    I don’t know if anyone is still trying to disentangle themselves from this scam, but I’m trying to spread the word about the HealthBlogger Network Participation Agreement, which reads in part:

    “You hereby grant Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, license to use, reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display your Health Blogger Content on Wellsphere.com. If you request that any of your Health Blogger Content be removed from Wellsphere.com, the foregoing license shall terminate and such Health Blogger Content shall be promptly removed from Wellsphere.com. To make such a request, please email Wellsphere at support@wellsphere.com.”

    So as long as you request that your content be removed, Wellsphere has no further legal authority to use it. I hope that’s comforting to some of those who have been duped or who, like me, just had their blog content ripped, like it or not!

  20. J says:

    Hmmm…this info was emailed to me from someone in my network of health and fitness.

    From what I have read on this issue with Wellsphere is that many HIGHLY EDUCATED people did not feel the need to read the fine print or even have their lawyer research the company etc.

    There is nothing wrong with wanting to help others and offer services but it is often our inheirant (sorry for the spelling) nature to be wooed easily into something we would normally check into based on our ego being stroked to perfection.

    Was it poor business ethics…sure it was but when considering all the government scams (does the term bailout banks/car companies ring a bell), all the Madoff’s out there stealing money this small bit of EVERYONE’s intellectual property does add up but on an individual scale it seems all that was truly hurt were HIGHLY EDUCATED folks ego’s.

    We all make mistakes and just because we have our Diploma’s, Degrees, Masters and PHD’s doesn’t mean we should not have someone “who knows what they are doing” research some opportunities on our behalf if we are jumping in to uncharted territory.

    God be with us all but all things considered…1700+ wellness professionals got off pretty fortunate with it being only the ego that got smacked!

    J.

  21. Rebecca says:

    Interesting.
    I just yesterday received the apparently infamous “flattering invitation”. Not knowing anything about wellsphere of course I googled it… and saw this thread.
    It was a well-worded email. But it had plenty of tipoffs showing it was just a massmail, especially the part saying that to accept all you need to do is type ‘yes’ in your reply.

  22. Tammy says:

    Just want to make a comment about Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, the patient care has always been poor. So for the people who were turned away they should consider themselves lucky.
    It is truely one of the worst hospital in Indianapolis. It’s full of self righteous doctor who don’t listen to there patient. Staff that talks to and treats patients any kind of way. Nurses who can’t get medications right. Consider your self warned!

  23. sarah says:

    And that isn’t even the tip of it.
    The real scam by wellsphere is that they tell you to put their widget on your blog which means you’re linking to their site while they put a rel nofollow on the link to your blog from their site… that is a nasty SEO trick.

  24. [...] The Wellsphere blogging controversy – a great explanation of the psychology behind Wellsphere [...]

  25. [...] The Wellsphere Blogging Controversy by John Grohol [...]

  26. RT @s4pm The Wellsphere Blogging Controversy | e-Patients.net http://retwt.me/1juyn

  27. Jacob Maslow says:

    I joined Wellsphere today and as soon as my articles went live, sent emails demanding an explanation and requesting removal.

    Wellsphere promises a link from your bio and claims that you will get exposure from a high ranking site.

    The link is negated by a no-follow attribute. I guest blog frequently and post to many sites. None use a no follow in the byline.

    This means that wellsphere will take all your content (most sites don’t take all) and will take all credit for it. Since they are not linking back to the source, google will assume they are the source.

    If there is duplicated content, google will generally give credit to the first source they see but frequently will assume the higher ranking site is the owner of the content.

    There is absolutely no legitimate reason for the no-follow attribute.

    Bloggers and site owners work hard to develop content and get links.

    Wellsphere uses a nasty technical seo trick to rob them blind.

  28. Jacob Maslow says:

    Just to be clear, there is no mention of a no-follow in any of the sign up info.

    The fine print makes it sound like they will give you the standard link (byline only). Higher rank sites generally will not allow a link within the content.

    The only way to find the no-follow is looking at the source code (view source) or downloading a firefox plug in.

    All other user generated sites have clear policies on what types of links they accept and where it will be placed. And they all give you the link you sign up for.

    Wellsphere is still completely dishonest.

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