My wife is a potter. She conducts most of her business on-line through her virtual glazedOver store and her blog. Over the past 2 years, she has incrementally leveraged social networks to supplement her regular marketing and advertising efforts and she has progressively built-up a large following of loyal buyers and a network of peer artists. She will readily tell you that without a doubt, a focused Internet advertising campaign translates instantly to higher site traffic and sales.
Clearly, an important component in successfully operating a small on-line craft business is to leverage social and professional networks and to tactfully promote your product. One way to do this is by paying a service to expose your store. Another, more organic method, is to form a guild that promotes the interests of a group of related artists via blogs and other publications. High traffic sites like these typically contain interviews, product reviews, giveaways, and links to member shops.
The Internet barons the likes of Google and Microsoft are aware of the relationship between traffic and revenue, and so they court high volume sites to host advertising content. One of the most popular on-line money making schemes (eclipsed only by Nigerian get rich quick 4XX offers) is the Google AdSense program. With programs like AdSense, you place sponsored advertisements on your blog and Google then delivers specialized content based on your site classification. The premise of this model is that if you have a high traffic site, you will most likely generate product or service sales for the ad sponsor. The more clicks, the more you make.
Google obviously requires that the sponsor of the AdSense campaign operates a legitimate website or blog. Their definition of what is deceptive or manipulative behavior is quite specific as you can see from their guidelines:
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking."
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?"
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
- Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines, or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
- If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.
Hosting Google adware has both its fans and its critics. Some users abstain from the practice on the grounds that it cheapens and waters down their brand (akin to placing a 30 foot billboard on your Victorian mansion), but many other popular blogs and websites do it enthusiastically, and they make some decent $$$ in the process.
It seems that if necessity is the mother of invention, then revenue from high internet traffic is the granddaddy of the con. Site sponsored advertising practice has now become so popular that many clever enterprising individuals and larger organizations are running large campaigns for site scams know as MFA (made for AdSense). These scraper sites are siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Google.
The scam is quite ingenious and requires dedicated resources and some technical skill (like purchasing domains and manipulating content). I discovered it several days ago after my wife told me that someone was showcasing her pottery work on their site without crediting her. She first came upon it when she noticed an interesting pottery link in her twitter feed and asked me to have a look. After clicking on the link, I was routed to a site called VisionPottery.com. At first, the site looked legit; just another average blog dedicated to hand crafted goods.
Twitter feed Article Other site pages Domain Ownership
When I checked the properties of the actual image, I was surprised to discover that it was hosted on the server and not linked to her site in any way (clearly, a major copyright violation). I figured that the next best thing would be to read the article more carefully. The essay turned out to be laced with numerous grammatical errors and its contents made little sense.
Massive grammatical incoherencies smack of either human or machine altered text, so I performed several phrase searches on-line and quickly located the original essay in an article publication platform called “Articlebase.com”
I diffed both essays and discovered that the article hosted on VisionPottery.com was in fact a plagiarized version.
A textual analysis revealed that the changes were purely based on a simple word substitution technique where one word, for example America is replaced by United States. It is clear that the plagiarizer’s objective was not to ‘lift’ the ideas from the article. Rather it was an attempted to prevent search engines from identifying and tagging the content as duplicate and thus improve their SEO (search engine optimization). This was confirmed by the fact that the name of the original author could be found at the bottom of the plagiarized text.
After monitoring this and several related parasitic sites it became clear that they were built via a combination of machine generated scripts (many still contained the default WordPress template settings) and manual customization (logos and UI elements). Their contents on the other hand, were managed by human ‘adaptors’ who took existing materials and resources from various on-line locations and altered them to create the appearance of an original composition, all for the sole purpose of scoring better search engine visibility.
An examination of the VisionPottery.com domain shed some additional light on its modus operandi. The site is registered to Beverly Butler of Emerald Enterprise LLC; Beverly proudly advertises herself as the owner of the same on LinkedIn . As it happens, the server hosting her VisionPottery site also hosts many other dubious marketing sites that operate along the same lines. Interestingly, the particular plagiarized version of the essay text where my wife’s bowls were found was also used verbatim by several other sites registered to different owners that were hosted on different severs as well.
A quick estimate (based on a sampling of the domains hosted on one server) suggests that there are potentially tens of thousands of sites that engage in this type of activity each making upwards of $150 a month. Clearly, this is a well coordinated and thriving criminal enterprise. It also turns out that there are hundreds of thriving franchises that for as low as 79.95 will provide you with ten ready AdSense sites (you also get a starter kit, a centralized dashboard to manage your growing Internet empire, and even a spamming pipeline into relevant Twitter feeds). A major sales pitch for these offer is the promise of "Passive-Residual" income which is defined by one developer of such sites as:
“… a steady stream of income that you have to do nothing at all to maintain, once you have established it. Passive-Residual Income is the ONLY income that gives you the freedom to come and go as you please, on your own schedule, while working at home or in your spare time.”
If you think that this is business as usual on the lawless Internet, think again. This type of criminal conduct severely impacts us all, from content developers who’s work is stolen, to service providers like Google who lose millions in revenue and all the way down to the average end user who is spammed. No one should operate a business with complete impunity to the law, especially those who engage in its wholesale violation.
And yes, if you ware wondering, VisionPottery.com does have a copyright notice at the bottom of their web page. After all, they are only trying to protect their IP from other unscrupulous marketing entrepreneurs. Can you blame them?
© Copyright 2010 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.