Tag Archives: Marketing

Protect Your Privacy With Twiglets

laplink

I really hate being asked for lots of private details just to download a product. In short: People shouldn’t have to register to try something out. An email address, yes, if absolutely necessary.

But better not: just let the person decide whether they like it. It’s the online equivalent of a salesperson shadowing you around the shop so closely that if you stop or turn around quickly they bump into you. (One assistant in Marks & Spencer the other day tailed me so closely I could smell his breath, which wasn’t pleasant, and then had the gall to signal to the cashier it was his commission when I did, without his help, choose something to buy.) I nearly put some Marks & Spencer Twiglets up his nose but that branch doesn’t sell them.

Anywhere, latest offender in this regard is Laplink, who ask for way too much personal information just to download trial versions of their products, including email address, full name, address, post code, company name. Then they do that annoying thing at the end of trying to trick you into letting them send you spam with the old Three Tick Boxes Only One of Which You Should Tick if You Don’t Want To End In Every Spammers List From Here To Kudus Trick:

laplink2

Rule of thumb there is to tick the third one in the row because it’s always the opposite of the other ones. As if we’re that stupid.

The other rule of thumb is never to put anything accurate in the fields they do require you to fill out. Not even your gender. Childish? Yes, maybe, but not half as childish as their not trusting you enough to decide whether you like the product on your own terms and not fill their spamming lists.

Of course the better rule of thumb is not to have anything to do with companies that employ such intrusiveness and trickery, but we’d never do anything then.

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The Blogosphere’s Soul Has a Buyer

The blogosphere is reaching its moment of truth sooner than one might have expected — in the form of a website that offers a marketplace for bloggers willing to write about a product in return for money. What’s revealing is the discussion that follows news about PayPerPost.com on TechCrunch — comments that not only bring into sharp relief the, er, varied, attitudes about not only PayPerPost, but other blogs and websites — including TechCrunch itself.

First off, the owner of the service, Ted Murphy, adds his own comment, in which he tries to clarify what the site does and does not do: “Advertisers will post all sorts of Opportunities, from a simple “link back to this site” to product reviews with pictures. Each Opportunity will have different compensation based on the advertiser. It’s up to you to pick the Opportunities that best suit you. If it doesn’t feel right, if you don’t own the product, or if you can’t be honest we ask you to pass on the Opportunity.” As he sees it, it’s a chance for bloggers to “make a buck for all the benefit they provide to companies. Celebrities get paid millions to wear products and be seen with their favorite drink. It’s up to the celebs to choose what they wear and drink and if they are being true to the fans. If they love the product and they can make a buck at the same time everyone wins.”

TechCrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick is suitably horrified about the new service, which he says requires not that the payment for coverage be disclosed, but only that PayPerPost.com must approve your post before you are paid: “Is this a bad joke designed to torpedo the blogosphere’s credibility in general? It doesn’t appear to be. If we’re all trying to negotiate a space between Hollywood and mainstream journalism, this is taking things way too far towards the most insipid parts of Hollywood.”

Which is pretty much my response. Murphy’s idea is flawed for a simple reason: If you as a blogger love a product, it’s your lack of financial and professional link with the company behind that product that gives your opinion some weight. That’s why media exists — to pay a salary to people who act as a medium between company, government or individual and the public. The public buys the media product because they believe that what they’re reading/seeing/hearing has some credibility, some independence from the subject they’re covering. As soon as someone acting as a medium accepts money to promote one item, their credibility is shot, not only for that item, but every single other thing they discuss.

What is interesting, though somewhat depressing, is the range of views of those who posted comments. Several of those betrayed a very weird understanding of what mainstream media is. Juan Luis wrote: “I really don’t see any difference with real old media… Or do you really think that advertisers don´t pay for reviews and articles in all sort of magazines,newspapers, tv, radio etc… Has the blogosphere more credibility than the CNN or Car&Driver??” Another: “Do you listen the radio? If you do then you’ve probably heard this type of advertising 1,000 times per day, when the host’s voice tells you about a product or service which they endorse and love. Ever read magazines? Then you’ve seen this kind of coverage all the time– when a major advertiser spends major dough, editorial coverage is all but ensured. Obviously it’s unseemly in many regards, especially if someone is running a tech blog and the advertisers are tech bloggers. But, if this website for example had a post by Marshall or Michael saying that he refi’d his mortgage through Ditech, and he had a positive experience, and that he’s being paid to write this post, I don’t think I would have a real problem with it. Using the cred you’ve gained from blogging to endorse a product is not that awful.”

Others pointed to blog sponsorship and ads as a sign this day has already come: “Product placement is everywhere and it’s already been happening for free in the Blogosphere since its inception. The only difference is that now a handful of people will make a few dollars off it … go to almost any bloggers site and you’ll see an ad already on there, including the sponsors of this page. They pay for ads here becaise it gets traffic – and exposire is what advertisers pay for.” (Sorry, haven’t corrected all the grammar here.) Another: “Why is it ethical to put Google Adwords in your blog, and it’s not ethical to write a paid post from time to time (provided that you openly disclose at the beginning of the post that the post is advertising).”

Others pointed to the widely perceived venality of some bloggers who only write about products that they get freebies of: “And allready there are a lot of bloggers who receive gifts and products to review them.This is the same as paying, or not? Perhaps this could be a more transparent way to get relations between bloggers and advertisers.”

OK. I acknowledge there are some gray areas here, born out of the fact that bloggers need to make money, and advertising is the obvious way to do it. This is no different from old media. What is different is that there are none of the usual Chinese walls that keep editorial and advertising apart (in theory), so that journalists are not influenced by, or even aware of, the advertisers that are buying ads next to their copy. True, these lines can get blurry, especially on radio and in “advertorials”, but they do exist. Blogs that carry ads are not Hollywood stars wearing company products as endorsement; they are a continuation of MSM’s advertising. Every ad is (or should be) clearly marked as sponsorship or ad. Of course, the proof is in the pudding; Will that site be objective about that sponsoring company in its writing, and, if it is, will the sponsor see that as a betrayal of sponsorship?

In MSM, individual journalists are sought after and influenced into writing about a product, but a good journalist — hell, a real journalist — will never write anything other than a fair, detached and balanced review of the product. There is no cash in exchange for reviews in old media; well, none that I know of. If bloggers aspiring to replace old media don’t know that, they need to. Otherwise the blogosphere truly is riding to hell.

There’s another point here. The very debate about this seems to me to be different to the kind of debate we’d have seen in the blogosphere a year or 18 months ago. It’s a much more pragmatic debate now, less utopian, less principled. As one commenter wrote: “If your writing is not objective enough, people are gonna know that you’re probably getting paid, and over time they’ll be less inclined to stay subscribed to your blog: which means that in the end it’ll all balance out.” While I would have said that would have been true a couple of years ago, I’m not so sure now.

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.

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…

Block That Flash

Further to my rant about IntelliTXT and its interstitial ads (why do I think they’re called that? No one else seems to think so. Maybe I just like saying “interstitials”), here’s a great tip from Amy Gahran at Poynter Online, on blocking Flash-based ads, using a Firefox plugin called Flashblock. She has this message for news websites (or any websites) that rely on these intrusive ads:

I’m sorry if Flash-based ads are a cornerstone of your online business model. But frankly, basing your business model on something that annoys people is probably not a sound approach in an age where audiences exercise ever-finer control over the media they receive. Fighting human nature is always bad business in the long run.

Hear hear.

The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:

Intellitxt

The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like Forbes.com stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

From the Ashes of Blue Frog

The Blue Frog may be no more,  but the vigilantes are. Seems that despite the death of Blue Security in the face of a spammer’s wrath, the service has built an appetite for fighting back. Eric B. Parizo of SearchSecurity.com reports on a new independent group called Okopipi who intend “to pick up where Blue Security left off by creating an open source, peer-to-peer software program that automatically sends “unsubscribe” messages to spammers and/or reports them to the proper authorities.”

Okopipi has already merged with a similar effort known as Black Frog and has recruited about 160 independent programmers, who are dissecting the open source code from Blue Security’s Blue Frog product. The idea seems to be the same: automatically sending opt-out requests to Web sites referenced in received spam messages, the idea is to over-burden the spammer’s servers (or those of the product he’s advertising) as a deterrence and incentive to register with Okopipi. By registering he can cleanse his spam list of Okopipi members.

Some tweaks seem to be under consideration: Processing will take place on users’ machines and then on a set of servers which will be hidden to try to prevent the kind of denial-of-service attack that brought down Blue Frog.

Possible problems: I noticed that some of the half million (quite a feat, when you think about it) Blue Frog users were quite, shall we say, passionate about the endeavour. These are the kind of folk now switching to Okopipi. This, then, could become an all-out war in which a lot of innocent bystanders get burned. The Internet is a holistic thing; if Denial of Service attacks proliferate, it may affect the speed and accessibility of a lot of other parts of it, as the Blue Frog experience revealed. (TypePad was inaccessible for several hours.)

Another worry: Richi Jennings, an analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research, points out on Eric’s piece that project organizers must ensure that spammers don’t infiltrate the effort and plant backdoor programs within the software. “If I’m going to download the Black Frog application,” Jennings said, “I want to be sure that the spammers aren’t inserting code into it to use my machine as a zombie.” I guess this would happen if spammers signed up for the service and then fiddled with the P2P distributed Black Frog program.

Another problem, pointed out by Martin McKeay, a security professional based in Santa Rosa, Calif., that spammers will quickly figure out that the weak link in all this is it rests on the idea of a legitimate link in the email for unsubscribing, and that spammers will just include a false link in there. Actually I thought the link Blue Frog used wasn’t unsubscribe (which is usually fake, since if it wasn’t would then pull the spammer back within the law) but the purchase link. How, otherwise, would folks be able to buy their Viagra?

One element I’d like to understand better is the other weakness in the Blue Frog system: That however the process is encrypted, spammers can easily see who are members of the antispam group by comparing their email lists before and after running it through the Blue Frog/Black Frog list. Any member who is on the spammer’s list will now be vulnerable to the kind of mass email attack that Blue Frog’s destroyer launched. How is Okopipi going to solve that one?

The Blue Frog Burps His Last?

Bobbie Johnson, technology correspondent at The Guardian is reporting that Blue Security is killing off the Blue Frog, saying it “could no longer continue to operate in the face of an escalating threat to the internet from a malicious Russian spammer known only as PharmaMaster.” The Blug Frog had been under serious attack from PharmaMaster, knocking it and much of Canada off the air via Denial of Service attacks on its servers.

Eran Reshef, the founder of Blue, said his company, which recently drew $4.8m (£2.5m) in funding and counts several senior industry figures as directors, was simply unable to become trapped in a war against a criminal group. “This is something that’s really got to be left to governments to decide. To fight the spammers you really need to spend $100m.”

Reshef is quoted as saying “it’s a dirty little secret that there is no real way to totally prevent denial-of-service attacks – if the attacker is prepared to put enough money in, then they can beat you every time.”

A surprising conclusion, if true (Bobbie has checked around and says it is so.) Certainly I think Reshef is right that it’s up to governments to deal with this kind of thing; Blue Frog was good in principle, but its supporters began to sound more like vigilantes than a serious and kosher effort to combat spam.