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.

Gay Lesbian Syrian Blogger? Or a Bearded American from Edinburgh?

Here’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to verify whether someone is who they say they are:

Syrian lesbian blogger is revealed conclusively to be a married man

Tom MacMaster’s wife has confirmed in an email to the Guardian that he is the real identity behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog

Tom Mcmaster

Syrian lesbian blogger has been revealed to be Tom MacMaster, an American based in Scotland. Public domain

The mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written by not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man based in Scotland.

The Guardian, frankly, has not covered itself in glory on this issue. The story itself makes no mention of the fact that the paper itself was duped. It was, after all, bloggers did the detective work that uncovered the hoax, not they. There’s this mea culpa, buried deep in a secondary story but it doesn’t apologise for misleading readers for more than a month:

The Guardian did not remove all the pictures until 6pm on Wednesday 8 June, 27 hours after Jelena Lecic first called the Guardian. It took too long for this to happen, for which we should apologise (see today’s Corrections and clarifications). The mitigating factors are that we first acted within four hours but compounded the error by putting up another wrong picture, albeit one that had been up on our website for a month, was unchallenged and was thought to have come directly from “Amina”. We know for a fact that the two pictures are of Jelena Lecic, but we didn’t know much else until thisevening. But we do know that when using social media – as we will continue to do as part of our journalism – the Guardian will have to redouble its efforts in establishing not just methods of verification, but of signalling to the reader the level of verification we think we can reasonably claim.

And even The Guardian hasn’t yet corrected itself: This piece is still up, uncorrected, and illustrating some more journalistic traits by not sourcing the story or expressing any “unconfirmed” thoughts:

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The only suggestion that something is amiss is this at the end:

• This article was amended on 7 June 2011 and again on 8 June 2011 after complaints that photographs accompanying articles relating to Amina Araf showed someone other than the abducted blogger. The photographs have been removed pending investigation into the origins of the photographs and other matters relating to the blog.

Bottom line. Journalists have got to be smarter: smarter about the old things, such as dual sourcing, being sceptical about everything (a lesbian blogger in Damascus posting pictures of herself and using her real name? Even the author of the Guardian pieces was using a pseudonym—itself a no-no) and doing some basic legwork in trying to authenticate the person. And smart about new stuff: using the same tools the bloggers themselves used in exploring the real person behind it (those people could be forgiven for not having done this earlier: they, after all, are a community and accepted ‘her’ as one would in such a community.)

So what are those ‘new’ tools?

  • basic search. Do we know everything about this person? What kind of online footprint did they have before this all happened?
  • check photos’ origin. Not always easy, but worth doing. File names. Captions. Check out whether there’s any data hidden in the image. Image date.
  • IP addresses of emails and other communications.
  • Website/blog registration. Where? By whom?

These new tools need to be learned by journalists. And we need to learn them quickly.

We also need to find better ways to correct things when we get them wrong, and, frankly, to say sorry. Here are some other outlets that fell for it and have yet at the time of writing to either apologise or correct their stories:

WaPo: Elizabeth Flock, “‘Gay girl in Damascus’ Syrian blogger allegedly kidnapped,” June 7, 2011

CNN: “Will gays be ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Arab Spring?”

AP: Syrian-American gay blogger missing in Damascus – Timesonline.com- World-

NYT (since corrected, sort of, but the comments are intriguing. Readers are gullible too, although they might reasonably feel aggrieved that the NYT didn’t do its job in checking the facts): After Report of Disappearance, Questions About Syrian-American Blogger – NYTimes.com

More links:

Open door- The authentication of anonymous bloggers – Comment is free – The Guardian

Gay Girl in Damascus blog extracts- am I crazy- Maybe – World news – The Guardian

Syrian blogger Amina Abdallah kidnapped by armed men (example of The Guardian duped)

Wikipedia: Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

SideWiki’s Wish Fulfilment

A piece in today’s Guardian attracted my attention–“SideWiki Changes Everything”—as I thought, perhaps, it might shed new light on Google’s browser sidebar that allows anyone to add comments to a website whether or not the website owner wants them to. The piece calls the evolution of SideWiki a “seminal moment”.

The column itself, however, is disappointing, given that SideWiki has been out six weeks already:

Few people in PR, it seems, have considered the way that SideWiki will change the lives of beleaguered PR folk. In time, this tool will significantly change the way brands strategise, think and exist. SideWiki is going to challenge PR by providing the masses with the tool for the ultimate expression of people power, something uncontainable that will need constant monitoring.

The author, one Mark Borkowski, offers no examples of this happening, so the piece is very much speculation. In fact, I’d argue that SideWiki has been something of a damp squib:

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A, by the way, marks the launch, so the interest fell off dramatically almost immediately.

So who is right? I can find very little evidence that people are using SideWiki in the way that Borkowski suggests. A look at top 10 U.S. companies (not the top 10, but a cross section) indicates that only one company has ‘claimed’ its SideWiki page, and that few users, so far, have made use of SideWiki to express their views about the company:

Company Entries Claimed Comments
Walmart 2 No Even
Exxon Mobil 0 No
Chevron 0 No
GM 0 No
Apple 20+ No Even
Monsanto 0 No
Starbucks 0 No
White House 2 (blog posts) No
Blackberry 2 Yes Even
Microsoft 20+ No Negative

Now I’m not saying that SideWiki isn’t going to be an important way for people to get around websites’ absence of comment boxes or lack of contact information. I’d love it if that was the case. I’m just saying there’s very little evidence of it so far, so to argue that is premature at best, and poor journalism at worst.

And here’s the rub. Mark Borkowski is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be; he’s a PR guy. But how would you know that? The Guardian page on which his comment sits does not clearly indicate that; indeed, the format is exactly the same as for its journalist contributors:

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Only at the bottom does one find out that he “is founder and head of Borkowski PR.”

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I have no problem with PR guys writing comment pieces for my favorite newspaper. I just want to know that is who they are before I start reading. (I can hear the argument being made that Borkowski is a well-known name in the UK, so this shouldn’t be necessary. But that doesn’t hold water. The affiliation of all writers should be clearly indicated.)

The problem? Anyone who is not a journalist—and many who are–has an interest, and that interest should be clearly declared. In Borkowski’s case, he works in PR, and is clearly suggesting that PR agencies need to work harder in this space:

The social media world encloses our personal and professional actions – the only answer for PR folk is to take a more active role in being brand custodians, representing a higher degree of brand and reputation management.

In other words, he’s indirectly touting for business. Once again, nothing wrong with that if the piece is clearly tagged as an opinion piece—which it may be, in the print version. But here, online, there’s no such indication.

Of course, one should also check that the writer does not have a financial or business interest in the product and company being written about, in this case Google. I can find none on his website, but that I have to check—that it’s not clearly flagged on the piece itself—is not something I or other readers should have to do.

Bottom line? The Guardian isn’t alone in this. The Wall Street Journal does it too. But I don’t think it helps these great brands to, wittingly or unwittingly, dismantle the Chinese Walls between content by its own reporters and those outsiders who, however smart and objective they are, have interests that readers need to know about.

SideWiki changes everything | Mark Borkowski | Media | The Guardian

How to Get Your Pitch Read Part XIV

One way to try to get the journalist to read beyond the headline/subject is the EMBARGOED tag:

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Although it does sound somewhat pompous, and can backfire if it’s not a story worth breaking an embargo for.

Likewise a subject line prefaced by BREAKING NEWS:

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As you can see, MySpace’s PR seems to think anything to do with their client is BREAKING NEWS, and deserves CAPS all the way.

Both of these are in danger of Cry Wolf Syndrome. Use them too many times and they wear out.

Another, better way to get your press release read than to send it and then recall it:

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I have no idea whether these were all intentional but they certainly had me trawling through my trash for the originals. The fact that no explanation is given for the recall just makes it more intriguing.

This reminds me of an ex-colleague who used to put tiny mistakes in his Reuters features so they’d have to be corrected and run again. Doubled his chances of getting them in print.

Of course, overused, both endanger the credibility of the author: the journalist looking like an error-prone hack, the PR flak looking like someone who says something and then promptly takes it back.

Filtering Communications So They Don’t Drive Us Mad

A dear friend was supposed to drop something off around 11 pm last night. I turn in around that time, so I just nodded off. Luckily I didn’t hear her SMS come in around 1 am. But I could have. I consider the phone the primary communications device–if someone has an emergency, that’s how they’re going to reach me–and so you can’t really close it off. But how do you filter out stuff like my ditzy friend SMS-ing me at 1 am to tell me that after all she’s not going to drop something off?

In short, how can we set up filters on our communications channels so they don’t drive us mad?

One is not to give out your phone number. I keep a second prepaid phone around and I give that number, and that number only, to people I do business with. That phone gets turned off on weekends and evenings. I often don’t answer a cellphone call if I don’t recognise the number; if it’s important enough, I figure they’ll SMS me first, or else they’ll already be on my contact list.

Another is to confine and contain online. I don’t accept contacts on Facebook unless I’ve met them in person (and like them.) Everyone else I point to LinkedIn. I’ve noticed a lot of people are now following me (and everyone else, it seems; I’m not special) on Twitter so I’ve scaled that back to ‘public’ observations.

Indeed, Web 2.0 hasn’t quite resolved this issue: We’ve been campaigning to bring down those walled gardens, but we’ve failed to understand that garden walls (ok, fences) make good neighbors.

Email is still a burden: I’m still getting a ton of stuff I didn’t ask for, including press releases from UPS, just because I once complained to them about something, and stuff from a PR agency touting posts on a client’s blog (that’s pretty lame, I reckon. What would one call that? “My-Client-Just-Blogged Spam”?)

One way I’ve tried to limit incoming stuff is through a page dedicated to PR professionals. I then point anyone interested in pitching to me to that page. I’m amazed by how few people who bother to read it, but I’m also amazed at how good the pitches are by those that do. (And of course, I then feel bad that I don’t use their painstakingly presented material.)

I like this from Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government, who gives out his email address but says If you put the word “duck” in your subject (e.g. “[duck] Why you’re an idiot”), it’s less likely to be accidentally junked. What a great idea.

Then there’s simple things that help to keep the noise level down: Subscribe to twitter on clients like Google Talk and you can turn it on and off just by typing, well, on or off. (You can also turn on and off individuals, so if scoble is getting a bit too much for you, just type ‘off scoble’. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.)

I’d like to see more and better filtering so we don’t have to succumb to the babble.

Stuff I’d like to see:

  • Phones that change ringtone or volume after a certain time unless they’re from some key numbers.
  • SMS autoreturns, that say “The person you sent this message to is asleep. If you need to wake him/her, please enter this code and resend. Be aware that if the message is not urgent or an offer of money/fame/sexual favors you may face disembowelment by the recipient.”
  • Oh, and while I’m at it, the ability to opt out of Facebook threads if they lose your interest.

And, finally, a way to turn down friends and contacts from my communication channels without them knowing. A great service, in my view, would be one that appeared to authorise their requests to be your buddies, but didn’t. Call it faux-thorising.

Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

A New Image for Your Email Address

John Graham-Cumming, author of Bayesian spam filter POPFile, points me to a neat tool he’s created which will turn an email address into an image that may spare you some spam from bots scouring web pages for email addresses:

This site converts a text-based email address (such as me@example.com) and creates an image that can be inserted on a web site. The image contains the email address and is easily read by a human, but is intended to fool web crawlers that search for email addresses.

I can’t guarantee that this is foolproof, but Project Honeypot reports that image obfuscation of an email address is very effective (they say 100%) against web crawlers.

Enter your email address in the box and the server returns a string of gobbledygook which contains the email address (padded with a large amount of random data to avoid a dictionary attack) encrypted using a key known only to the server. When the image is loaded into the web page the server decrypts the email address and creates the image. (The email address is not stored by the server; it resides only in the HTML on your website.)

 Here’s what mine looks like:


Made using jeaig

If you need to put a contact address on your webpage or blog, but hate the amount of spam you’re getting, it’s worth a try.

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