Long-time readers will recall that I was spammed with an invitation to swap links with the European Human Rights Centre, a plagiarised site that exists to make money out of job listings and Google ads. Well, some more email spam has drawn my attention to something rather different:
From: “Elanor Radaker” <email@example.com>
Subject: Wanna Swap Links
Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2007 01:42:37 -0500
I’ve been working extremely hard on my friend’s website bustem.com and if you like what we’ve done, a link from <elided> would be greatly appreciated. If you are interested in a link exchange please …
Thank you we greatly appreciate the help! If you have any questions please let me know!
This site, bustem.com, is not quite as the email claims. However, it is not plagiarised. Far from it, the content has been written to order for Privila Inc by some members of a small army of unpaid interns… and when one starts looking, there are literally hundreds of similar sites.
The bustem.com site contains five pages with between 3 and 10 articles on each page (there are 21 articles altogether, because most are present more than once). Each article is 500–600 words, and has 2 or 3 references at the end to show the sources that were consulted. The article titles are strangely worded (they’re trying to game the search engines into referencing them) and the need to make the content “keyword oriented” clearly distorts the body text as well.
The overall impression is of a melange of high school term papers — and, sadly, the grammar, spelling and proof-reading are also reminiscent of the earlier stages of education. Each of the articles is given the byline of its particular author… and so it’s interesting to discover what else they’ve written…
… and it turns out they’ve written quite a lot of other articles.
Take, as a random example, Ms Trisha Bartle who wrote about “Is Internet Gambling Legal” on bustem.com. She’s written 69 other articles this year for Privila (they’re listed here on her website). For example, on www.wallofdove.com she’s written an article on “Dove Beauty Products: Soap, Shampoo And Deodorant” and another on “Dove Shampoo And Conditioner“. The wallofdove website has six pages, though not all have articles. On www.radical-race-karts.com (five pages, six articles) she’s contributed “Go Kart Parts: Frames, Wheels, Tires And Engines“. Finally [and I could go on and on, but you’re getting the picture] on www.sailjworld.com (a strangely familiarly laid out site, with six pages, but only five articles in total) she’s written “Sailing Courses And Instructions: RYA, Dinghy“.
What all these sites have in common, besides the general style, the keyword-rich titles, and the page layout, is Google advertisements. Quite a lot of Google advertisements.
And there are quite a lot of related sites to carry them as well!
If one doesn’t rely on Ms Bartle’s 2007 resume, but locates sites by using a search engine to find the sites (with the tell-tale design) where an author’s work appears, then searches for the other authors that appear on those sites, rinse and repeat… one finds (with Steven Murdoch’s invaluable assistance!) a sizeable community of 329 websites, 5350 articles and 123 contributing authors.
The websites are owned by a company called Privila Inc, who appears to buy them up when the original owners tire of them, or just forget to renew the registration.
So wallofdove.com was previously owned by a sludge/stoner metal band called Dove (fans will be surprised at the new content!), bustem.com was the website of a brand-protection company, sailjworld.com was an Annapolis MD sailing school, and radical-race-karts.com used to sell “short track racing rockets”, go-karts that would do 150MPH!
Privila then uses, as I’ve already noted, a standard framework for the site — and fills it with custom-written material, generated for them by unpaid interns. Even the banner graphics across the top appear to be the work of (unpaid) graphics interns.
Our educated guess is that Privila is running these websites solely for the money from the Google adverts — and given the standard of writing and the depth of information on many of the sites, why wouldn’t people want to click on an enticing looking advert to get away?
So, is this a “bad thing”?
Well I think it generally is. In my view the interns are being exploited — not only are they working for free, but one glance at the articles shows that there isn’t a sub-editor teaching them the trade; the spelling, grammar and article structure are simply not being corrected. Hence the resume they’re hoping to build up will not stand them in very good stead. Similarly the visitors are being exploited — the material is, with few exceptions, generally recycled pap — and not very accurate pap at that. Finally of course, all the people receiving the spam requesting the links (and that’s widespread — here’s another recipient, and another, and even here) are being inveigled into linking to a commercial venture that will do their own reputation little good if they fall for it.
That said, others argue that perhaps this is just the first sign of a new journalism, editorial surrounding adverts in a new medium — a pattern we’ve often seen before — The Times newspaper still carried adverts, rather than headlines, on the front page until 1966, and the radio soap opera was brought into being by the manufacturers of household cleaning products in the 1930s.
But new journalism or not, they have got to stop the spamming! I got another email:
From: “Larry Destree” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: I Like Your Site
Date: Fri, 06 Jul 2007 09:06:39 -0500
We’ve been working very hard on my friend’s website partnerregions.org and if you like what we’ve done, a link from <elided> would be greatly appreciated. If you are interested …
Thanks a ton! If you have any questions please let me know!
I apologize if this message was sent, in error, to the wrong person.
I wrote back saying that I was absolutely the right person… and asking if “Larry Destree” was a Privila Inc employee, or just another type of intern?
He didn’t reply 🙁