Tag Archives: Human-computer interaction

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.

The Big Boys’ Mea Culpas

I find it interesting that companies can get things so wrong. News Corp just sold off Myspace for a fraction of its original price today, effectively admitting it didn’t get social media.

Microsoft famously came late to the table with the Internet, and then has been late to more or less every party since. It’s now come out with Microsoft 365, an awful name for a product that is basically an admission that Google Docs is good enough for most people, and that Microsoft Office is largely toast (an incorrect assumption, I reckon; I still can’t do without it.)

Then we have Google. Google has made a surprising number of missteps: Buzz, Wave (dumping it as much as hyping it, in my view.) Now, with the launch of Google+, they’re also acknowledging that they got the Web wrong: Instead of seeing it as a network, they saw it as a library. This from AllThingsD’s Liz Gannes, who asked Vic Gundotra why he and Bradley Horowitz had spent so much of the launch self-flagellating about why Google was so late to the social media dance:

Google Opens Up About Social Ambitions on Google+ Launch Day – Liz Gannes – Social – AllThingsD: “Gundotra: It’s just sincere. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. We do have a mission that we’ve been working on for a long time: organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and available. And when you look at the web today it’s obvious it’s not just about pages, it’s about people. It’s not just about information, it’s about what individuals are doing. So I think we have to do that in a coherent way. We think there’s just tremendous room to do great stuff.”

Well put: Google really didn’t get the the web. And probably still doesn’t; one might argue that the algorithms they use to rank pages are having to be constantly updated because they don’t really reflect the dynamic nature of most web pages these days. I am not sure what I mean by that so I’ll leave it for now.

Finally, what might one ask about Apple? Where have they gone wrong? MobileMe is a pretty small misstep. Quibbles with OSX are relatively small: I get the sense that a lot of the things wrong with the OS aren’t because they keep tweaking things (the usual complaint from Windows users) but that there’s a stubbornness about not changing things: A weak file explorer (Finder), an inability to resize windows except from one corner, a confusing division of function between dock icons, menu bar icons, menu bar menus, in-window menus etc etc…

But apart from those gripes with the Mac OS, you gotta hand it to Apple. No big mea culpas, at least in the past decade.

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things

I have recently received half a dozen offers of placing links in my blogs to reputable companies’ websites.

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it’s done, 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. If I can persuade you to link to my product page in your blog, then my product will appear more popular and rise up Google’s search results accordingly. Simple.

An ad wouldn’t work. Google would see it was an ad and discount it. So one increasingly popular approach is for you to pay me to include a link in my blog. I mean, right in it: not as a link, or a ‘sponsored by’, but as a sentence, embedded, as it were, inside my copy.

I had some problem getting my head around this, so I’ll walk you through it. I add a sentence into my blog, and then turn one of the words in it into a link to the company’s website. For my trouble I get $150. The company, if it gets enough people like me to do this, will see their web site rise up through the Google ranks.

This is what the Internet, and blogs, have become. A somewhat seedy enterprise where companies–and we’re talking reputable companies here–hire ad companies to hunt out people like me with blogs that are sufficiently popular, and vaguely related to their line of business, to insert a sentence and a link.

If you’re not sure what’s wrong with this, I’ll tell you.

First off, it’s dodgy. If Google finds out about it it will not only discount the link in its calculations, but ban the website–my blog, in other words–from its index. Google doesn’t like any kind of mischief like this because it corrupts their search.

That’s why a) the blog needs to look vaguely related and b) it can’t just be any old sentence that includes the link. Google’s computers are sharp enough to spot nonsense.

That’s why kosher links are so valuable, and why there’s business in trying to persuade bloggers like me to break Google’s rules. If I get banned, my dreams of a profitable web business are gone. For the company and ad firm: nothing.

Second, it’s dodgy. It works on the assumption that all blog content is basically hack work and the people who write it are for sale. I think that’s why I loathe it so much. It clearly works: When I got back to one company that approached me, I was told the client’s request book had already been filled.

With every mercenary link sold they devalue the web.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 and not a checkbook.

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.

The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Podcast: Google’s China War, and Apple’s Eye Popper?

This podcast is from my weekly slot on Radio Australia Today with Phil Kafcaloudes and Adelaine Ng:

  • The Google/China spat. How bad were the cyberattacks? 
  • Speculation about Apple’s next move: could we soon be controlling our computers with our eyes?

To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here.

Loose  Wireless 100115

I appear on Radio Australia Today every Friday at about 9.15 am Singapore time (that’s 0.15 GMT/UTC.) There’s a live stream of the broadcast here, or find out your local frequencies here.

Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:

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That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:

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Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:

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If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.

Updater Fever

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I sometimes wonder what software companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, they’re all the same—want from their customers.

I spend enough time with novice users to know how confusing using computer software can be. Especially online: It’s a scary world out there (they’re right to be scared) but these companies, which should know better, make it more so. By trying to hoodwink into using their products they are undermining users’ confidence in using computers in the first place. If they keep on doing this, expect more people to use computers less—and certainly to install less software, or experiment in any way online or off.

Take what just happened. I use Windows Live Writer to blog: it’s an excellent program, by far the best things Microsoft has done in years, and today it prompted me that an update was available. I duly clicked on the link to download the Writer beta installer:

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Only, of course, it wasn’t the installer but The Installer From Hell:

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Prechecked are six programs, none of which I have on my computer right now. There’s no single button to uncheck those boxes, and most novice users may not even know they can (note the confusing text above it: “Click each program name for details” and “Choose the programs you want to install”—nothing to explain to novices that these choices have already been made for you, and how to unchoose them.)

It’s not as if Microsoft is trying to sell us smack. This is free software. But it’s very damaging in ways only someone who spends time with real people can understand. Even when the software is installed for example, you get this last little twist of the Knife of Befuddlement:

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This might not seem like much, but if you’re an ordinary user, finding your home page all different and your search engine altered to something else can be as disorienting as coming home to find someone’s moved your furniture and the cooker is now in the bathroom. Well, not quite that much, but you get the idea.

Of course Microsoft’s not alone in this. Even Google’s been playing the game, and Yahoo! tries to bundle the toolbar in with pretty much every piece of software that’s ever been downloaded–which also alters the homepage, and default search engine, and probably moves the fridge around as well.

The problem is that the more these companies try to fool us, the easier it is for real scammers to scam us—because what they both do starts to look very similar.

Take this scam that I came across this morning. A splog (spam blog—a fake blog) had used some of my material so when I tried to access the page to find out why, I instead got this believable looking popup

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This without me doing anything other than clicking on a link to a blog. A graphic in the background appeared to be checking the computer for viruses, and of course this window is nigh on impossible to get rid of. Try clicking on the red cross and you get this:

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Try to get rid of that and you get this:

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And then this:

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It’s obviously a scam (it’s adware), but it’s darned hard to get rid of. And to the ordinary user (by which I mean someone who has a real life, and therefore doesn’t see this kind of thing as intrinsically interesting) there’s no real difference between the trickery perpetrated by these grammatically challenged scammers, and the likes of Microsoft et al, who try to inveigle their software and homepage/search engine preferences into your computer.

Either way, the ordinary user is eventually going to tire of the whole thing and say “enough!” and go out fishing or, if it’s that time of year, wassailing.

Let’s try to avoid that.

(And yes, the latest version Live Writer is good, though don’t use the spellchecker. Just a shame that it’s made by Microsoft.)

Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam

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I find that the auto suggestions feature from Google Suggest in the Firefox search box very useful. But perhaps not in the way it was intended.

Google Suggest works via algorithms that “use a wide range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see. For example, Google Suggest uses data about the overall popularity of various searches to help rank the refinements it offers.” In other words,  type one word and Google will tell you the next word most likely to be typed after it. Type “dimitar” and the most likely second word will be “berbatov” (this may not been a lot to non-soccer fans, but trust me, the two words go together like rock and roll for the rest of us):

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This can be useful, or at least revealing.

For example, I received one of those awful pieces of spam from Tagged.com that give the whole social networking thing a bad name:

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Click on the “Click here to block all emails from Tagged Inc., 110 Pacific Mall Box #117, San Francisco, CA. 94111” and you’re taken to a page where you’re asked to sign in or sign up. A sure sign of a scam if ever there was one; what happened to opting out a la CANSPAM?

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So I figured I should Google these clowns and see what’s being said about them. Type their name into the Firefox search box, and then hit the space bar, and this was what Google offered me as the most popular search terms:

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Having your product name coupled with “spam” and “scam” in its top three searches can’t be good.

Needless to say, tagged.com is a scam, at least in the way it tries to hoodwink users into signing up and signing up their friends. Here’s how the excellent and resourceful Amit Agarwal recommends you get rid of it from your inbox. It’s a shame that so many apparently good names are involved in something so blatantly anti-social and spammy. At what point do these people feel they’ve lost the game and allow corners to be cut? One of the founders even spoke at last year’s Authentication and Online Trust Summit for crying out loud.

The bigger issue is how to stop these sites from damaging social networking further. But that’s for another day. For now, using Google Suggest is a good quick way to know whether you’re on a hiding to nothing if you even click on a link in one of these emails. Take another scam networking site I’ve written about recently, Yaari. Its Google Suggest juice comes out looking similarly dodgy:

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Compare that with something a bit more bona fide, like LinkedIn:

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While this is a useful tool for us, I’m guessing that the companies involved are going to be hiring some drones to try to massage these results so they don’t look quite so  bad.