The interns of Privila

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” <links@bustem.com>
Subject: Wanna Swap Links
Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2007 01:42:37 -0500

Hi,H

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 …

<snip>

Thank you we greatly appreciate the help! If you have any questions please let me know!

Respectfully,

Elanor Radaker

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.

Why?

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” <links@partnerregions.org>
Subject: I Like Your Site
Date: Fri, 06 Jul 2007 09:06:39 -0500

Hi,

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 …

<snip>

Thanks a ton! If you have any questions please let me know!

Respectfully,

Larry Destree

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 🙁

7 thoughts on “The interns of Privila

  1. It’s very interesting to see that someone wrote an article that spoke a lot of me. Although you did some good investigative work, a better idea might have been to contact me directly and ask me questions about my experience. You would have gotten a lot of insight that way.

    I knew that the internship would be unpaid. The reason I took it was to get experience with writing articles on the internet. Since then, I am a full time freelance writer doing most of my work on the internet. So, it wasn’t all a loss.

    Also, I did have an editor. I would put my first draft up on a website and they would tell me what I need to change. After my second draft, they would also change things at will (which is something all editors have a right to do.)

    As for the spam, I had no idea they did that. I don’t think they were doing it when I was involved (which was many months ago.)

    You talk of spelling and grammar being an issue, but was that across the board with all articles? I like to think that mine weren’t like that. If they weren’t, by your opinion, then it’d be good if you stated so in your article. You make it sound as if I wrote poorly, which I don’t think I did. Unless, of course, the keywords for the article prevented it from sounding good. That’s something I really had no say about.

  2. I’m pleased to hear that you feel that being an intern was a positive experience for you… and as I said in the article I mainly singled you out as a way of illustrating the range of articles that were being produced — and to show that there were real people behind the bylines … these weren’t fictional characters invented by someone at Privila.

    As to the writing, that was a general comment rather than being aimed at yourself particularly. However, if there are failures of grammar or spelling or the use of subtly the wrong word then that — although the writer’s fault originally — eventually must be put down to the sub-editing; and there’s very little evidence of that process having occurred.

    Some random sentences, all from bustem.com, from several different authors (Google will find the context if necessary) will illustrate what I mean:

    • “Email viruses are attached to email messages. It reproduces itself by…”
    • “Not only do they work in improving web design, but they also help their clients improve their other corporate identity packages such as business cards and stationary, company logos, …”
    • “They believe it’s unfair of the US government to apply the law to the Internet since it wasn’t invented during the time the law was written.”
    • “This is why apartment Internet security and home Internet security are important; identity is no laughing matter for those who have experienced it, and it is real and not the work of some imaginative science fiction writer.”

    Mind you, the notion that identity is no laughing matter chimes well with Markus Kuhn’s view of the identification circus 🙂

  3. I think you’re being somewhat harsh in criticising the excepts you quote. While they are somewhat clunky, it’s obvious what they mean, and the spelling and punctuation are mostly OK. Maybe my expectations are too low, but there’s far, far worse out there.

  4. I agree that the material I’ve quoted would be unexceptionable on a personal blog (though there might be some laughing and pointing at some of the errors).

    But this is supposed to be interns learning about the life of a professional journalist — the Privila webpage says “Work with seasoned EDITORS to IMPROVE your writing” (their caps) … well it’s not especially seasoned to let by material that fails to make numbers match up, that is unable to distinguish homonyms, that mangles time, or that misses out important words from sentences, thereby making them into inanities.

    The examples I gave were a few quick and easy selections that anyone can see are wrong — go and read some of the articles (and remember there’s over 5000 to choose from) and then ask yourself whether any of them made a positive contribution to your life? and whether any “seasoned editor” is likely to approve of many of those you read?

    There may be worse writing out there, but that doesn’t make this any better, nor does it improve the experience that the interns volunteer for. So I stick to my view that this is all about making money from adverts in a tacky manner (and that’s before one considers the spamming), and everything else is indistinguishable from a figleaf, and not an especially convincing figleaf, at that.

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