Ring Tones, Drugs and the Spamming of Google News

This week in the WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about web spam — the growing penetration of faux websites that ride up the search engines and muddy the Internet for all of us. I based it around the recent case of subdomain spam, well documented by the likes of blogs like Monetize. Briefly websites controlled by one Moldovan hit the high rankings on several major search engines using techniques that are imaginative, but not exactly beyond the intelligence of savvy search engine builders. It’s not as intrusive as spam in your inbox but it’s trashing the web and undermining the usefulness of search engines.

But it’s not just ordinary search results that get spammed. It’s news. A search for “ringtones” on Google News, for example, throws up “free mono ringtones” as the top item:

Grt

(“Ringtone” throws up similar results.) Amazing, not only is it the top story but all the six “related” stories you can see as a green link below the four are from the same domain, advertising a range of goods that can hardly be lumped together with ringtones, including sildenafil and tenuate. (Searches of those words on Google News also have the same domain as top ranked, at least at the time of writing. Here and here. In fact the results for tenuate do not throw up a single news story; all eight matches are web spam.)

The sites in question are all subdomains of www.vibe.com, an online magazine which is indexed by Google news for its pieces on musicians. The pages that hit the top rank of results for ringtone and ringtones, however, are community messageboard pages, and clearly marked as such, which makes me wonder how either the web spammer is fooling the Google bots into indexing pages which are clearly not news by any definition, or why Google’s bots aren’t doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.

Yahoo! News’ search doesn’t do much better: Its first hit is a web spam site under the domain www.ladysilvia.net, which doesn’t even pretend to be a news site:

Yrt

(MSN’s news search comes out well, without any spam in sight, as does A9, which is basically the same engine.) But why are these sites getting indexed and included in news searches? I can only assume ringtones are such big business that it’s worth the web spammers doing their damndest to push their results up not only ordinary search rankings, but I would have thought Google and Yahoo! would be on top of this. Apparently not.

Spark That Line

I’m a fan of sparklines, Ed Tufte’s graphical depiction within text of numerical data (it’s more exciting than I’ve made it sound). Here’s a couple of updates: First off, The Hardball Times is using them to show a month of scores of the major U.S. baseball teams:

Sl1

The bars are win (up) and loss (down). But also they’ve packed in a bit more information there: horizontal lines denote home games while gray bars represent games decided by two runs or less. You can see it better here:

Sl2

Nice work, guys. Meanwhile one of the best sparkline makers on the block, the Microsoft Office add-on SparkMaker from Nicholas Bissantz, is now into version 3.0. Sparklines will now update automatically when data in the original spreadsheet changes. The images are now scalable and more easily tweaked, and look better in print. Other tweaks are in there which I look forward to playing with.

Sl3

In short, sparklines are a great way to pack useful and yet otherwise boring looking information into a visual display that fits into, or alongside, ordinary text. One day it will be big. It deserves to be.

The World Cup Walls Come Down

The more I see and read about the “sponsorship” behind the World Cup the more appalled I am. Ever since I heard that MasterCard (briefly) exerted a monopoly over buying tickets to the finals with a credit card, and men were told to take off their lederhosen, I realised that although it claims to, sponsorship never works to the benefit of the end user. But until I read this post from the excellent Paul Mason of BBC Newsnight, I hadn’t really linked what was happening to my supposed field of interest, the Internet and new media:

This, therefore is turning out to be the first “user-generated-content” global sports event. Much of the content is pretty scrappy but it shows the potential of the medium and how hard it’s going to be for Sepp Blatter and co to defend their intellectual property (image rights for individual players, no Visacards allowed etc).

Up to now football has managed to ride the big business waves of the 1990s: paid-for content, pay-TV, below the line advertising budgets and sponsorship. How will it cope with a world where all intellectual property rights are under threat? Right now the monopoly on images is easy to defend but the monopoly on sound commentary is effectively broken because you can see numerous people in the crowd giving commentaries to their mates live.

(If you’re an England fan you’ve got to read his other post about what the manager should do, a post that has attracted, at the time of writing. more than 120 comments. Last night when I looked it had about 20.)

Going back to his intellectual property post, it’s a good point. From folk taking video of their TV to others at the game shooting the scene with their camera phone, it’s going to be impossible to ring-fence what is and isn’t seen or heard in the future. (It doesn’t mean they didn’t try.) This isn’t as clear cut as Napster file sharing, where original digital content is copied and shared. It’s about individuals mashing up what they see and heard with their own creativity. It’ll be interesting match to watch, as an increasingly sophisticated (and avaricious) marketing industry faces off against the user-generated anarchy/cooperatives of shared content.

Suspected Fraudsters Behind the Sony DRM Virus Arrested

Three men have been arrested in the UK and Finland following an investigation into internet fraud. The three are a motley bunch, according to The Sunday Times: a 63-year-old from England, a 28-year-old from Scotland and a 19-year-old from Finland. Together they are alleged to have formed a gang called M00P. They are accused of being behind a virus known as Ryknos, Breplibot or Stinx-Q, which apparently allowed the gang access to commercial information through a back door. Thousands of computers, most of them in the UK, were infected. Infection here means total control over the computer in question. The virus was first spotted in November 2005.

What’s particularly interesting about this, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the mainstream press, is that the virus used a vulnerability created by Sony’s much despised DRM copy-protection software — a program installed as part of software to play Sony’s CDs on computers, but which would secretly install extra code designed to protect the CD from being copied beyond a limited number of times. The virus basically piggybacked the hole left by Sony’s software, so unless users who had installed Sony’s software had removed it, they were at the virus’ mercy.

The virus was well targeted and used clever social engineering tricks. It was tailored to businesses, disguised as a requested update for a photo attached to an email that read, in part, “Hello, Your photograph was forwarded to us as part of an article we are publishing for our December edition of Total Business Monthly. Can you check over the format and get back to us with your approval or any changes? If the picture is not to your liking then please send a preferred one. We have attached the photo with the article here.” Who’s not going to click on that? I know I nearly did.

If those detained were involved, it’ll be interesting to hear what they’ve got to say about the Sony rootkit (which has long been abandoned. Great piece on the saga by Wade Roush in this month’s Technology Review.

The Unsocial Web

A piece by Donna Bogatin on why many more people read web sites liked digg.com rather than contribute to it has in itself spawned enough responses to become something of a summary of why the social web, citizen journalism, user-created content etc may not be quite the revolution it appears. Here’s how I see the responses:

  • I just want to watch. The more stuff is out there, ironically enough the less incentive there is to contribute. There’s probably a graph for this somewhere. People will contribute if they think their contribution is worth it. That means a) other people like it, b) it doesn’t take up too much time c) the stuff isn’t there already, or likely to be and d) that contributing to a site comes after browsing a site. (see Not On My Own Time, Thanks, below.) The logical conclusion of this is that while contributions may rise exponentially, gradually the number of contributors dwindles until a hardcore of contributors remains (see The Weirdo Factor below).
  • The Weirdo Factor. We newspaper journos have known this for a while. The kind of people who contribute, or contribute most, don’t represent a good cross section of ordinary readers/users. Readers’ letters are always great to receive, and they may contain useful and interesting stuff, but they tend to come from the same people, or group or kind of people. And that means an editor would be a fool to treat his mailbag as a cross section of his readership. Same is basically true of the Net.
  • Not On My Own Time, Thanks. Digesting Time isn’t the same as Creating Time. Most people probably browse sites like YouTube.com and Flickr.com at work. This means that the more content there is on these sites at work, a) the less productive workers will be, and b) the less likely they’ll actually upload their stuff — since that will probably have to be done at home, in a separate session. If you’ve already spent a couple of hours on YouTube.com at work, why would you spend more time on it at home?
  • People Don’t Like Hanging Out With Weirdoes Taking the above a step further, many users are going to be discouraged by the general tenor of discussions at places like Digg. Flaming and generally being rude may seem like a life to some people, but most people don’t like it very much, and are not going to expose themselves to ridicule by posting to such sites. (They are also not going to want to expose themself to being ignored: what happens if you Digg something and nobody comes?)
  • Freedloading off a freeloader Then there’s the reality that the social web is largely a Commenting Web, not a Creating Web. Not all of it, of course: Flickr.com is a very creative place. But photos are always of things, requiring only that someone have a camera and be there, and take a good picture. Writing is different. Writing is not just about commenting on what other people are writing. (Well, OK, this post is.) Writing is also about reporting  – about actually going out and finding information, digesting it, writing it up and then distributing it. Blogs, the foundation of Web 2.0, were built on the idea of commentary. But commentary always has to follow content, since without it there can be nothing to comment on. We shouldn’t confuse sites like Digg.com as content sites, since they simply aggregate links and comment. In the end, this freeloading element will have to be added to by something more substantial for it to grow. Netscape’s new site understands this, although I’m not convinced making a couple of calls to add to a wire story constitutes news gathering (but then again, a lot of journalists have done that for years, so who am I to quibble?)

The bottom line may be, just may be, that after huge bursts of participatory interest, that may even last a few years, the kinds of people who keep Slashdot going are going to be the people who keep Digg.com and every other user-driven, Web 2.0 site going. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I love Slashdot, and there are some extraordinarily intelligent people on there (as well as some who could spend some time in the open air) — but it’s not a group that’s, er, broadly representative of the citizenry at large. They’re hugely dedicated, very focused, very knowledgeable about their sphere and have opinions coming out of their ears. A bit like folk who wrote letters to newspapers, come to think of it.

Write a Rant, Get Clicks

I am not a fan of these In-Text ads, as you know. I think they’re intrusive, misleading and undermine the whole concept of linking, which is what has brought the Internet this far. One of my concerns is that since these ads rely on hooking up with particular words in the text, questions have to be raised about whether the provider of that text (I’m trying not to say “content” here) is skewing what they write to raise the number of words that ad sponsors have signed up for.

So I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the case here, on the blog of one Joel Comm, Internet marketing guru and expert on making the most out of, er, Internet advertising. The post is actually a (quite justifiable) rant against the smug robotics of your average cashier and attendant in stores who are programmed to ask “Are you finding everything okay?” whenever they see a customer who isn’t actually dead. But I couldn’t help wondering whether Joel’s rant had a secondary purpose when I noticed a lot of the words he was using — MP3 players, video games, dryers, stock — were contextual ad triggers for Kontera, his in-text ad provider of choice:

Kontera

Legitimate rant? Or clever revenue-raising ploy? You decide.

Getting a Lock on Your iPod

A sign of the times: what are billed as the first mobile security locks for iPods. According to a press release (not yet available online):

Featuring a keyless, user-settable three-digit combination for added convenience and protection, the new Targus security locks are designed for use with iPods configured with a dock connector, including the 5G, nano, iPod Photo, 4G, iPod mini and 3G.

The Mobile Security Lock for iPod is “a compact case that houses the retractable cable and combination lock. Users simply loop the cable around the strap of a backpack, purse or briefcase, or other stationary object, insert the combination lock through the opening in the case, and then attach the lock to their iPod.” Cost: $40.

The Desktop Security Lock secures the iPod to any stationary object, while the Eyelet Security Lock for iPod (pictured above) “is designed for use with any notebook cable lock to secure the iPod and notebook together” by attaching to the iPod’s dock connector and then threading the cable from the notebook lock through the Eyelet Lock’s pass-through loop and then fastened to the notebook. Cost: $20.

Actually, I’m kinda surprised this kind of thing hasn’t emerged already. (Actually it has, but not the mobile element, I guess) I always feel horribly vulnerable walking around with my iPod, even though I’m actually still in the apartment. There seem to be plenty of thefts reported, hype aside: Dianne Wiest’s daughter pleaded guilty to lifting one in New York last month.

Watching the World Cup on a Widget

Opera 9 is officially out today, so perhaps now is as good a time as any to offer some FIFA World Cup 2006 plugins:

For Firefox there’s

  • FootieFox, which has actually been around for a year or so. Nice and small, it displays any soccer scores (not just those of the World Cup) in your status bar, and even gives visual and acoustic notification when goals are scored. It also provides a customisable skin, according to your team of preference. Kick-off times in local time, world cup teams in local language:
    Footie1
  • Joga – a slightly fancier offering from Google and Nikefootball, Joga is community of soccer players dedicated to keep the game beautiful. It offers a sidebar that provides updated scores, as well as videos and “communities”:
    Joga1

Both expect you to know your country flags, which is probably no bad thing. (FootieFox’s comparison of the two extensions is here. Certainly FootieFox seems to be lighter and faster.

For Opera there are a couple of widgets:

  • Goal 06 which gives you a desktop window with access to all the usual information, plus photos etc. Seems a bit memory and CPU hungry. There’s a Mini version of this for your smart phone (just open your WAP browser and go to: http://mini.opera.com/goal/ and follow the instructions. The Goal 06 World Cup content is available in the site Bookmarked as “World Cup 06” in the Opera Mini home page.)
  • gCalendar World Cup edition which I must confess I didn’t really understand. Information with these widgets is minimal and barely intelligible. Grumble…

For Yahoo!, there’s a special Widget as well as some more basic (or out of date) ones. For Macs there’s a World Cup schedule widget which you can also get here. Microsoft has a Soccer Scoreboard, so long as you don’t mind validating your computer first.

For Google there’s a special news page module. There’s a collection of Klips if you’re into that. (Not quite as inspiring as I’d hoped; Klips, I thought, would be tailor made for the World Cup). For your Treo there’s the Football 2006 Manager, courtesy of Palm and TinyStocks (thanks, Mark), which is very cool but could be a lot cooler.

In fact, at the risk of sounding spoilt, none of these really jumped out at me. But if you’re working and can’t watch the games live, this might be a second best. Of course, there’s always the BBC website, which remains highly popular.

Guerrilla Marketing Via Lederhosen

I’m getting a bit cheesed off with all the advertising/sponsorship shenanigans at the World Cup, and I’m not even there. The idea that you can only buy tickets using the sponsor’s credit card, that food like McDonalds and drink like Coke can somehow be an official partner of a sport, all seem to indicate a world gone mad, but all that is eclipsed by the fact that you can’t enter a stadium wearing a rival sponsor’s attire: Hundreds of — one report suggested more than 1,000 — Dutch fans had to watch the Ivory Coast game in their underwear after stewards ordered them to remove their orange lederhosen.

The story, as far as I can work out, goes like this. The idea is the brainchild of a Dutch brewery called  Grossbrauerei, which produce a beer called Bavaria. The brand marketing manager is one Peer Swinkels (“Bavaria is beer with guts, for men with guts”), who has launched several elaborate ploys to market the beer. One involves, er, sponsoring a motor racing event, along with a “Burning Rubber” Gala Night. (Event organiser: “We assure you that the name of this gala night is not a joke”). Another involved relaunching the career of Albert West, a slightly over the hill Dutch singer in towns with the word “West” in its name — Amsterdam West, Rotterdam West, Utrecht West, Leiden West, Hengelo West, etc: (“This sort of subtle humour is always combined with down-to-earth realism in the Bavaria-campaign. Albert liked the idea. He can laugh at himself. That is what makes Albert such a nice guy.”)

You had to be there, I guess.

Anyway, the lederhosen. This is an inspired idea and goes to the heart of some already controversial sponsorship over the most important item at the Cup: the beer.  The lederhosen, you see, sported the name of Dutch brewery Bavaria, which is not the official beer of the World Cup. (Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser is the official beer.) The lederhosen are orange, carry the regulation braces, as well as a tail. They come free with a 12–pack of Bavaria, and have become something of a cult item among Dutch fans, who wear orange from birth, although there are reports that they are just being handed out for free too:

Leeuwenhose

Briliiant. You get your product into the stadium and onto the world’s television without having to pay a dime. As a marketing ploy they are somewhat less subtle than the use of an aging Dutch rock star but they do deserve some credit: taking the mickey out of those German beerfests, selling a beer called Bavaria, right in the heart of Germany. And, to boot, embarrassing the U.S. beer partner Budweiser, who like other sponsors paid between $45 and $50 million for the privilege of having only their brand on display. In fact, Bavaria has already been making trouble: Heineken, the official sponsor of the Dutch national team, ordered fans to leave their lederhosen outside the ground at a friendly game against Cameroon. (A Dutch court has since ruled that fans should be allowed to wear the trousers, apparently, although this won’t wash in Germany.)

This explains why stewards are ordering fans to strip. FIFA spokesman Markus Siegler: “Of course, FIFA has no right to tell an individual fan what to wear at a match, but if thousands of people all turn up wearing the same thing to market a product and to be seen on TV screens then of course we would stop it.” The issue might be particularly sensitive because Anheuser Busch has its own problems, being forced by longstanding trademark issues to settle for merely Bud brand (not the full Budweiser brand, which is in dispute in Germany) in return for allowing local brewer Bitburger to sell its beer in unbranded cups outside the grounds.

Peer, of course, sounds suitably outraged but must be loving it. Officially, this kind of activity is appalling and the offline equivalent of subdomain spam, but so much more imaginative. At the same time it raises lots of interesting dinner party discussions about the rights of the individual against the rights of a sponsor (if I chose to wear those pants and wasn’t paid to do so, then does it constitute advertising, and should I not be allowed to wear what I choose so long as it does not appear to be a deliberate effort to advertise?); what constitutes a group, whether orange is an acceptable colour for a national soccer team, and whether people should even be allowed to wear lederhosen. T

Here Comes the Blog Flood

The power of the history of the Internet? So much feels disposable about the Internet, and blogs haven’t helped. Postings more than a few days old feel like ancient history, and yet at the same time they sit there, a snapshot of a point of view the author can barely remember ever having. Comments added by anyone stumbling along more than a few hours or days later look like stragglers, people who turned up on the wrong day for a party and could do little more than leave their calling card.

But here was a site that struck me differently. It’s just a collection of comments on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (one of his best numbers). It’s not a blog, or a web page past its expiry date, although it should be the latter: It was set up in 1994 by a German programmer called Brigitte Jellinek. The last comment attached to the page on Flood is less than a month ago. The first was in February 1996. Amazing, really; more than a decade of simple, sometimes moving thoughts on one timeless song. As Ms Jellinek herself observes on the homepage:

In December 1994 I set up this page to give people on the Web the chance to share what P[eter] G[abriel’]s songs mean to them. I didn’t expect much – from my previous experience with guestbooks I was prepared for idle chit chat and childish remarks. Well, you all proved me wrong. Every time I read some of the comments I am amazed about the quality of the contributions.

There can’t be that many sites from 1994 still so active, so alive (and someone taking such effort to preserve one). Credit to Ms. Jellinek.

Perhaps some blogs have this timelessness too, but the reverse chronological nature of blogs, their emphasis on a log, a journal, and time, perhaps work against this. Posts are time sensitive, more transient, and stumblers on an old post are likely to see their voices lost in the relentless forward march. That’s what makes the Flood page so remarkable — about a song that was originally performed in 1977, if I’m not mistaken — in that the comments may span more than a decade, and yet all share the same address, the same timelessness. A lesson, perhaps, for the design and future of blogs.