This is the extended version of my earlier blog post. The BBC finally ran my commentary so for those of you who want more info, here it is:
Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It's been around a while, but I just figured out how it works, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.
Here's how this kind of product placement works. On the Internet Google is like a benevolent dictator: it creates great stuff we love, and with which most of the net wouldn't work. But it also wields great power--at least if you're someone trying to make money off the web. Because if you don't show up in Google's search results, then you're nobody. It's the equivalent of exile, or solitary confinement, or something.
A lot of money is spent, therefore, in gaming your website's position in Google's rankings. But you have to be careful. Google also spends a lot of money tweaking its algorithms so that the search results you get are not gamed. Threat of exile is usually enough to keep most web players in line.
But because Google doesn't issue a set of rules, and doesn't explain why it exiles web sites, the gray area is big. And this is where the money is made.
One of the mini industries is something called link building. Google reckons a site with lots of links to it is a popular site, so it scores highly. So if you can get lots of sites to link to yours, you're high up in the results.
Now it just so happens that some of the pages on my modest decade-old blog score quite highly here. So I suppose it was inevitable that link building companies would seek me out.
A British company, for example, called More Digital offered me a fixed upfront annual fee for a "small text-based ad" on my website. As intriguing was the blurb at the bottom of the email:
You must not disclose, copy, distribute or take any action in reliance on this e-mail or any attachments. Views or opinions presented in this e-mail are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of More Digital.
Clearly these guys mean business, I thought, so I wrote back to Alicia Ross. She was excited to hear from me, and offered two options: one was a simple link in my collection of recommended web sites. The idea would be that I would include a link to their client's website--whoever it was--alongside my real recommendations.
The other was "one page simple text":
The advert will be text, not a visual banner It will appear in the content, and only on a single page of your website. Our writers will provide you with a copy that will fit naturally into your existing content.
(I think she means "copy" rather than "a copy"). For this I would earn $200 a year per ad if the client was a poker, casino or bingo site;
Now in Internet terms this is big money. It would take me a month or so to make that kind of dosh on simple Google ads on my website. Now they're talking about one simple text link and I get the cash in two days!
But hang on a minute. There's that ethics thing in the back of my mind. I have to listen to it a second.
The first one I'm not crazy about: What's the point of a collection of recommended links if I don't actually recommend them myself?
But the second one took some getting my head around. I couldn't figure out what she had in mind, so I asked her. And this is when I started to get really depressed.
Basically what they're after is me inserting a sentence into an existing blog post that links to their client. These guys are not interested in a new post. That would take time to rise up through the ranks of Google; they want to tap into my micro-Google fame. And remember this is not an ad. It's a plug. It's product placement. In a piece that is supposed to otherwise be straight, authentic and, well, me. I like to think that's why it has Google juice.
By the time I got back to Alicia the offer was off the table as all the spots had been picked up. Clearly this is a well-oiled business. But then I got another, from a different company. Mayra Alessi was contacting me on behalf of a U.S. company selling identity theft protection, which she wanted me to link to in a piece I wrote two years ago about a privacy problem with Facebook. For $30 a month.
Mayra, if it was she, proposed I add a sentence at the end of a paragraph on how Facebook needs to fix the way they handle friendshipt requests as follows:
Mistakes like these from Facebook, make us more and more vulnerable to identity theft, that is why it is important to understanding identity theft in the USA.
Clearly Mayra hasn't made her way in the world based on her copyediting, grammar or punctuation skills. And the irony hasn't escaped me of a company peddling identity theft protection is at best unaware that companies operating in its name are paying websites to mislead their readers, and Google.
What's wrong with all this? Well, I guess the first thing is the seediness. A company is basically hiring another company to fiddle its rankings on Google--instead of just producing the kind of kick-ass content that it should be building it leeches off my kick-ass content.
And it's not just seedy, it's illegal. Well, as far as Google is concerned. Only the other day someone complained on a Google forum after getting his sites bumped off Google's index. The reason, he suspects, is that he took $75 from one of the companies that contacted me for linking to a site about bikes. And these companies must know that. I guess that's why the fees seem quite high for the chicken feed that niche blogs like ours are used to earning.
The point is, that the companies apparently funding this kind of activity--those whose websites benefit from the link love--are not necessarily sleazy gambling sites. I was invited to link to were an Internet security company. Among companies willing to pay me $150 for a link are, according to one of these link building outfits trying to get me aboard, are those selling mobile phones, mobile phones, health and fitness, travel, hotels, fashion, Internet services, insurance, online education and, somewhat incongruously, recycling companies.
To me this is all the more sleazy because these are real companies with offices in the UK and US and they're clearly proud of what they do. We're not talking Ukrainian spammers here. But their impact, in a way, is worse, because with every mercenary link sold they devalue the web. I've been doing a blog for nearly 10 years now, and the only thing that might make my content valuable is that it's authentic. It's me. If I say I like something, I'm answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond.
All in all, a tawdry example of where the blogosphere has gone wrong, I reckon. Keep your money. I'd rather keep the high ground.