Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things (12″ version)

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.

Google’s Real Problem

There’s some interesting chat about whether Google is in trouble, although none of the pieces ask the question that I think is the most important one. BusinessWeek points to the fact that none of its new products are really gaining traction, which may be less down to the quality of those products — Earth, Finance, Chat etc — and more down to the fact that the whole point about Google for most people is keeping things simple:

The problem is that every time Google branches out, it struggles with the very thing that makes its search engine so successful: simplicity. The minimalist Google home page offers a stark contrast with the cluttered sites of key rivals Yahoo and MSN. People go to Google to find information fast. So Google can’t showcase its plethora of new products without jeopardizing this sleek interface and the popularity that generates a $6 billion geyser of cash from search ads. But the lack of exposure for its new products means only 10% of Google visitors use it for anything other than Web and image searches, says Hitwise.

To that I’d add the fact that it’s not just about exposure. Most people use the Internet for simple things, like finding stuff. They’re just not that interested in other things, however much we’d like them to be.

Meanwhile Robert Scoble wonders aloud why there is no real Google presence at the Gnomedex conference, a select gathering of developers and dweebs. And someone called SlashChick writes along the same lines as BusinessWeek, pointing out that Google’s approach of allowing employees to use 20% of their time developing new ideas may be fine when it’s a private, smallish company, but now it’s getting big won’t work so well if those projects make only a few hundred thousand dollars for the company. Alongside the earnings from AdSense, assigning employees to maintain these products will be hard to justify:

Once Google realizes they have to cut back and only continue development on the projects that did “stick”, inevitably, they will crush a few of their developers’ hearts. I have a feeling some of those developers may even become jaded and go out and start their own companies (sort of like the many software companies spawned by former Microsofties in Redmond.) Those companies may even grow to become quite successful. Hmm…

Good points, and it’s interesting to see how this view leaves Google vulnerable. Of course, it only needs one of these products to be vaguely as successful as search to draw enough users to justify it. And perhaps Google is hoping that one of its Microsoft-killers will kick in, and then the tables will be turned.

But all this rests on the idea that Google Search and AdSense continue their symbiotic relationship. The first provides dominant search, the second provides dominant ads that (for the most part) come from people using Google Search. AdSense would never have been successful were it not for Search, since the latter gets the eyeballs, the former brings in the cash. But what happens when one starts poisoning the other? What happens if AdSense starts to undermine the efficacy of Search? I’d argue this is already happening: web spammers are already successfully manipulating search results so that users visit their AdSense-laden web sites. This is happening with both ordinary search and News Search. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest here, most worrying for Google’s shareholders is the idea that its search engine may not be good enough anymore. Is this what’s keeping Google’s developers away from Gnomedex?

Content Killer

Good piece by Publishing 2.0 » (Google Is Killing the Economics of Content) on how Google’s AdSense is killing the internet by driving the creation of sites that exist solely to squeeze money from AdSense. Here’s how it works in brief, based on Robert Weisman’s piece in The Boston Globe :

A company amasses hundreds of thousands of Internet domain names — and not just silly names, but ones like photography.com, bookstore.com, or jobfinder.com — and then puts a few links on it that look like content but aren’t (new term: “content-light”) . Users go there by typing in the name (rather than searching on Google, as many users apparently do; another new term: “direct navigation”) and then click on AdSense links on the site. As Scott Karp puts it:

The sites were talking about here are NOT about content and they are NOT about serving web users in any meaningful way — they exist for one purpose — pay-per-click ad revenue. …

Why bother with the expense of creating content? Google certainly doesn’t care. And the advertisers dumping billions of dollars into AdWords and similar ad networks don’t seem to care where their ads appear. It’s all about the click.

Companies involved: NameMedia, Marchex. According to alarm:clock, which monitors new tech ventures, NameMedia has acquired a leading domain reseller, BuyDomains, GoldKey, and dozens of smaller domain collections over the last year to create a portfolio of more than million domain names. It was formerly called YesDirect, and claims to have more than 25 million visitors a month.

Living With Ads

Amy Gahran over at Poynter blogs some more on annoying ads and tips on how to get rid of them. She also refers to John Battelle’s suggested alternative to IntelliTXT “to break out keywords for a given article in a separate box, and run that box at the end or to the side of the article? This addresses the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup problem (your advertising peanut butter is in my editorial chocolate….) but retains the power and reader service of the system.”

Good idea. I love good ads, from Amazon’s “you might wanna read this if you read that” and Google’s AdSense (sometimes). So how about leveraging the very cool Sidenotes thing from arco90.com. Very nice, intuitive and so long as there aren’t too many of them (and they’re relevant) something I could live with…

IntelliTXT, Forbes And The Rise Of The Misleading Link

Where is the line between editorial independence and the advertisers who make a media publication viable?

Forbes, DMNews reports (thanks Online Journalism.com), has started included ’embedded ads’ in its news stories via Vibrant Media, a specialist in contextual advertising. These ads are links matching related words — car, house, music, that sort of thing. With nearly 5 million visitors in June, Forbes is Vibrant Media’s biggest client for IntelliTXT. As DMNews says, “IntelliTxt links are double underlined in blue to set them off from non-paid hyperlinks, which are in blue but not underlined. When a user hovers over an IntelliTxt link, the listings display a pop-up box with a ‘sponsored link’ heading and site description.”

I’ve written before about how I believe this is the wrong way to go. (Here’s a post I did on Vibrant Media last December, where I concluded that the whole thing was misleading.) At least with Forbes’ ads, the pop-up box informs the user where they would go should they click on the link. I have to confess I wasn’t able to find a single ad on Forbes’ site yet.

But there’s still plenty of things wrong with this. First off, context is everything. While the genre calls itself contextual, it is actually merely grabbing related words and turning them into links: The perils of this are legion. For example, ‘car’ may make a good for Ford ad in a piece on what kind of SUV to buy, but isn’t going to look so hot in a story about a major accident.

The bigger problem here is, as DMNews points out, online journalism is still trying to establish itself. As a journalist, to find one’s words mined for possible commercial links would smack of cheapness, and might lead to pressure from marketing departments to include more marketable words in their story. Or to edit them to make it so? Or to include references to specific companies so the link can be IntelliTXTed? How will journalists react to see their copy fiddled with in this way?

Then there’s the reader. How useful — read relevant — are these ads going to be? Watching IntelliTXT in action elsewhere I would say not very much. By contrast I’ve found Google’s AdSense listings, which appear to the right of search results, to be relevant, certainly less intrusive, and I actually launch searches some times just to see whether there are related or rival products out there I’m missing. Now that’s useful advertising.

The Pay Per Click Scam

Is the whole pay-per-click industry swamped by fraud?

WebProWorld says that Michael Bradley, recently arrested for trying to extort money from Google, is a wake up call to the PPC industry. He claimed to have developed software that would automatically click on Google ads, potentially costing both Google and their advertisers millions of dollars. (Here’s more on Bradley and his Google Clique software from InternetNews and SEOBook.)

As WPW point out, this could be just the tip of an iceberg, both in terms of what is already out there, and what could be out there. While it’s by no means clear how widespread it is, but the potential is strong: Why would companies want to pay for ads if they’re not convinced real people are clicking on them?

And if that happened — or if it’s already happened — what would happen to online advertising?