Here's how this little scam works.

Third parties sell (or give) software to your visitors. Mixed in with the useful stuff that the software is promoted for is a neat little trick. It works with the visitors' browser to put links on words on whatever site the person visits.

Where do the links go? Depends on the word, and who the software vendor sold that keyword to this month. Easiest Sewing Lessons for Ages 7 to 10"> DIRECTIONS SHOW ME SEW by Sewing Prose - Articles - Smart Tags and Top Text - Smart Tags and Top Text
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Smart Tags and Top Text by Paul Myers
This article was published on Saturday 19 January, 2002.




For those of you interested in how Smart Tags and Top Text (those annoying gold/yellow/purple underlines showing up unannounced on perfectly nice webpages) here's some tidbits I picked up along the way. Consumers and Webmasters alike, beware. What you don't know CAN hurt you.

I promised the writer I'd include the entirety of his newsletter, so here it is! Although click here to read the section about the viral-link-program issue.

TalkBiz News - Hard Core How To for Business Issue for Tuesday, August 20, 2001

-----===(*)===-----

Hi, folks...

It's that time again!

Time for another exciting issue of TalkBiz News, the only online newsletter fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Helps build strong businesses, 12 ways!

Today's main article concerns an issue that I think is very important to anyone with a web site -

Who gets to decide what appears on your site?

But first, the Ramblings...

....

"Survey Says..."

Thanks to all of you who helped out by answering the survey I emailed you about. Your suggestions and comments will be very helpful in arranging more articles and resources that address the things that are most important to you. (Plus more of those cool special discounts that I find for you once in a while...)

If you went to the site and didn't feel the question you saw was relevant to your business, you can now choose which question or questions fit your situation.

If you didn't answer at all the first time, shame on you! I ask for so little... (There. Was that a good enough guilt trip? ;)

The new version of the page contains all 31 questions. It's located at:

http://www.talkbiz.com/survey.html

Each time you send in your answers, the script will kick you back to the question page again. Answer as many as you feel are important to you. At the bottom, I've added a link to a "Tell a Friend" page, so when you're done you can let a few other lucky souls in on the wonders of our little electronic rag.

For those who might be concerned about privacy, rest easy. I have no clue who is answering. That's none of my business.

I figure it like this: If you're taking the time to answer, you're the one that will use the info.

Results are what it's all about, right?

The URL again...

http://www.talkbiz.com/survey.html

....

"Announcing: SpamCon"

No, it's not a convention. It's a web site.

It's the brain-child of Tom Geller. Tom is a PR dude par excellence, and the founder of the SpamCon Foundation, a non- profit group designed to fight spam AND to show marketers how to make more money by doing things the right way.

Tom has the unique distinction of having been mentioned in the same sentence with myself and another anti-spam activist who were accused of also being (canyabeleevit?) marketers. Unfortunately, brilliant PR dudes can't always control what other people say about them, or where. So don't hold that against him.

Tom's a very bright guy, and has nothing of the fanatical extremist in him. What he has is a healthy ration of good sense and principles. I expect SpamCon to be a strong force in helping to correct a lot of what's wrong with marketing online today.

Check it out at http://www.spamcon.org

....

"New Feature"

I've added a new section to the newsletter. Recommended Resources.

This section will mention marketing and business resources that I think are particularly useful. In the spirit of proper disclosure, if there's any financial benefit to me from an order, the recommendation will be followed by the word (Affiliate.) This covers ANY sort of deal, not just stuff through affiliate programs. If no such benefit exists, it will say (No Affiliation.)

You'll find this section after the main article in each issue.

The first three entries are all from subscribers to this newsletter.

Check 'em out.

....

"Haiku. Gesundheit!"

The referral page I mentioned above sends out a thank you email that mentions me maybe not being so grumpy. (HAH!) This inspired a note from one of our earliest subscribers, Reta Jones Nicholson. (http://www.fodreams.com/book/dreammachine.html) She's been with us for 4 years or more, if you can imagine anyone putting up with my silliness for that long.

Reta sent me this wonderful haiku...

Paul without grump is like french fries without salt: Food, but no flavor.

Thanks, Reta. That was very nice.

I think.

....

And now, the main event...

-----===(*)===-----

Who Owns Your Business?

Presented for your consideration:

Scenario 1: You develop a clean, business oriented web site. You've tested your processes, and you know exactly what you make for every visitor that you drive to your site. You've got an in-demand product that the customers love, and solid margins that leave lots of room for growth.

Life is sweet.

You roll out the advertising. Sales are fine for months. Then, without warning, the bottom drops out. You have no idea what happened.

One day you get an email from a concerned friend. He tells you that you have links all over your site for other people's products, including several of your chief competitors.

WHAT??? You're sure you've been hacked.

"Nope," says your friend, "It was all done by remote control."

....

Scenario 2: You're involved with children's charities, and spend a lot of time and energy building a site that kids can use without hassle or harm. It's filled with useful information that can make a positive difference in their lives.

Then, out of the blue, you get an irate letter from a parent wanting to know why you have links to porn sites on your pages. You know you're only inches from a lawsuit. How could this happen???

No, they're not nuts. Your content has been hijacked.

There really are porn links on your site. And there's not a thing you can do about it.

....

This isn't fiction. Those are real life examples. And here's the fun part.

If you have a web site ...So ...Are ...You.

....

Here's how this little scam works.

Third parties sell (or give) software to your visitors. Mixed in with the useful stuff that the software is promoted for is a neat little trick. It works with the visitors' browser to put links on words on whatever site the person visits.

Where do the links go? Depends on the word, and who the software vendor sold that keyword to this month.

In the case of vendors that target carefully, this means that you're extremely likely to be advertising for your competitors. After all, they're going to buy the same keywords that you use to convey your message, right?

Even if the links aren't to your direct competitors, they're going to be to sites related to the same topic. Either way, you lose visitors.

In the case of vendors that sell keywords willy-nilly, or rotate them apparently at random, the problems can get really messy. That's how a child-safe site ended up with links to a porn site. (Linked keyword: rates.)

Before we get into the broader issues involved, let's look at the specific cases, and what you can do about them.

....

In the beginning, there was Microsoft.

(It's amazing how many horror stories start with that line.)

They came up with the lovely idea of a thing called SmartTags. They (M$) decide what words get which links, and the SmartTag feature in the new releases of Internet Explorer places the links on the desired words. A SmartTag link looks like the squiggly line that appears under a misspelling in MS Word. (How appropriate...)

What a coup, huh? Microsoft gets to put links on virtually every site on the web, all for the cost of developing one feature in one program.

At first, this feature was going to be turned ON by default. A rather loud outcry from the business community got that shelved. The feature is still there. It just has to be turned on by the user. For now...

So, what can you do about it?

They (M$) had an answer for this right along. Just put the following code in the meta tags for every page you create:

< META NAME="MSSmartTagsPreventParsing" CONTENT="TRUE" >

Yes, you have to do the work for every page you ever make to keep from giving Microsoft an unearned portion of the rewards your efforts. (Those nutty billionaires...)

I suspect they had this option available only because the lack of it would have made SmartTags a near certain anti-trust issue. And frankly, I suspect they know that most people won't learn about it, or take the steps needed to keep M$'s SmartTags off their pages.

My recommendation: Lobby every producer of HTML authoring software you can find to add this tag, by default, to pages created with their software.

And add it to all your existing pages. I'm personally not counting on OFF being the default for long.

Messrs Gates, et al, are nothing if not persistent.

....

Then there's a little gizmo called TopText, from http://www.ezula.com

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the intentions of the people behind this sort of software, check out their pages.

It's... educational.

....

Here's something fun: You can get TopText on your system without even knowing it.

Ever heard of KaZaa? In the wake of the problems with Napster, a new batch of file sharing systems has been developed. KaZaa is one of the more popular. I've heard quotes ranging from 5.5 million to 6 million downloads.

If you install KaZaa, you're also installing TopText. Unless, of course, you're paying *really* close attention. (Most people don't consider that they might have to actively prevent program B from being installed when they download program A...)

TopText works through your browser, just like SmartTags. It highlights in yellow all the keywords which eZula, the parent company, has sold.

Currently the only known partner for TopText is KaZaa, but eZula claims to be working to rapidly expand their partnership base. Among the alleged partners are undisclosed "tier one" ISPs.

Talk about giving ammo to the conspiracy theorists. (Or would that be "proof"???)

If you want to see just how unashamed they are about taking over your content for their own advertising aims, download their Media Kit from:

http://www.ezula.com/solutions/MediaKit.pdf

Warning: The grammar is pretty bad, and the file didn't display properly for me using the Acrobat 3.0 reader. To see it all, I had to load it into Acrobat 4.0. It's 10 pages, and 1.3 megs.

There are (possibly) two ways to keep these bad boys off your pages. The first is to email a list of all domain names you wanted blocked to :support@ezula.com with a request to block them from displaying TopText ads. Then you wait a few days.

(Hmmm... Email to opt out of a database you never asked to be included in, to avoid having to pay for someone else's intrusive advertising?

Wuzzat sound like?)

This was reported in a number of places, among them SlashDot. The problem is, it may not be entirely accurate. One person who tried this received a response that was mainly a pitch for the product.

Great. You try to opt out and they pitch you. Says a lot about the Clue Level at support@ezula.com, eh?

More to the point, the response contained this interesting comment:

As a general matter, eZula does not exclude websites from viewing through the TopText plug-in on a site-by-site basis.

Does that mean they CAN'T, they WON'T, or they will IF you do some particular dance they've defined?

I called Henit Vitos, their VP of Business Development and Sales, and asked that very question. She refused to answer, except to tell me that I had to email support@ezula.com if I wanted something for publication. She said I would receive an answer within 5 minutes.

I haven't received it yet. To be fair, they're in California and the email was sent at around 4 PM their time, so that may not indicate anything but that they all went home for the day.

I sent the following:

Ms Vitos,

I am doing an article on products like TopText.

I am not looking for a response promoting your service. I've seen your promotional materials, and I've seen the responses you send when people ask about having TopText ads blocked from being displayed on their web properties.

The quote was "As a general matter, eZula does not exclude websites from viewing through the TopText plug-in on a site-by- site basis."

Question One: For the record, does this mean that you CANNOT block domains from having TopText ads displayed on them, or you WON'T do it?

Question Two: If you can, and will under certain circumstances, what does a person have to do to ensure that TopText ads are not displayed on their properties?

Thank you for your time and assistance.

Paul Myers

I'll let you know their response. If any.

....

The second way out is to visit Bob Massa's site and check out a script he's developed. To quote from a post Bob made to a popular marketing forum:

The website at http://www.searchking.com/ezulakiller has the script available along with instructions and other information and links to other sites who are joining us in the fight. It also offers a forum where we will make the source code of this program available and encourage discussion among other programmers and developers to continue working on ways of providing protection from any updates of this Ezula software as well as any other software which may be developed in the future whose purpose would be to violate the rights of webmasters around the world.

For the record, this combination of taking an ethical stand and putting his money where his mouth is is pretty typical of Bob. We need more people like that in the marketing community online.

Hat's off to you, Mister Massa!

....

Then there's Surf+.

This one's a REAL winner. This is the one that resulted in a porn ad being reported on a child-safe site.

From the software promoter's site, http://www.filemix.net

Surf+ is a FREE software application that enhances your browsing experience. It becomes part of your Internet Explorer menu, providing the following cutting-edge features:

1. Pop-up Manager. No more annoying pop-ups that keep jumping at you! [snip]

2. Privacy Guard lets you control your browser cookies. [snip]

3. EasyLink converts keywords into links. [snip]

Translation into reality:

"We'll suppress the ads that the owners put on their sites, and replace them with ads our paying customers think should be on those sites. While we're at it, we'll do a bit to protect your privacy, but may put porn links in sites your kids visit."

Oh yes, by installing the software you also agree not to join in any class action suits against them. All covered under the corporate law of the Bahamas.

Why do you suppose those last two items were added, hmmm?

....

How do you protect your site from these links?

Bob believes that the script at SearchKing will also work on Surf+, as they use similar approaches to adding the links.

....

But Wait! There's MORE!

Okay. We have three different programs that can put links to other people's ads on your content. Pretty quick, your pages will look like a patchwork quilt of ad links.

Seems like the only thing safe any more is our advertising, right?

Moolish fortal...

Enter Gator. It acts as a password reminder, form-filler- outer, and all around handy repository of all sorts of info you wouldn't want anyone else to get hold of. It even does price shopping for you.

Gator also has the ability to roll ads on top of your ads. Yeah. Right over the top. They even brag about being able to:

Communicate with millions of consumers: Anywhere on the Web Including sites that do not accept advertising Even at your competitor's website

Clearly, they consider it okay to drop ads in places they are expressly and actively NOT wanted.

Like TopText, it's sometimes bundled with other stuff, so you can end up installing it without knowing or intending to. And it's apparently not especially easy to remove.

I'll look to see if there's a way to stop this one after my stomach has a chance to recover from doing this article. (See http://www.takebacktheweb.com for one answer...)

If you're using Gator now, consider switching to RoboForm. http://www.roboform.com/ (Note that Internet Explorer 5.0 has some problems with this program.)

It doesn't track and report your activities, and it has a utility to convert Gator password files to RoboForm's format.

....

Each of these companies includes their ad-machines in freebie stuff that's targeted to consumers. Consumers who, in most cases, have no conception of or concern for the fact that the content they're getting free is paid for by the advertising the site owner chooses to display.

Consumers who, not understanding where the excess of advertising originates, will probably ignore ALL the links, abandon the sites they see them on, or blame the site owners for being greedy SOBs. In the long term, business site owners will get hit hard by this.

As usual, the worst enemy of marketing is unscrupulous marketers...

....

The long term result of this trend is nasty.

In the short term, you do the work creating the site. You pay a designer, or do the html yourself. You pay close attention to the links you include (or don't). You spend good money or precious time (or both) driving carefully targetted traffic to your site to create a result that you want.

Then these companies sell advertising on YOUR site to YOUR competitors. And you get nada for it. Zip. Bupkus.

And you're still out the expense.

....

There is a word for taking a valuable commodity from its creator without their permission and without compensation.

Theft.

The fact that the theft is random doesn't change the nature of the act. Your web site is your property.

No one has the right to use your resources to steer people to your competitors. No one has the right to put ads on your site if you choose not to accept advertising. And no one has the right to put porn links on child-safe sites. Not even randomly.

I don't care if they're Microsoft or some kid with a compiler working out of his basement.

And anyone who uses or promotes this sort of software is abetting the theft.

....

Of course, the software promoters will tell you that their programs don't actually put the links on your web pages. They just insert them in the users' VIEW of your web pages. Legally, that might well provide some protection.

Morally, that's completely irrelevant. It's theft, even if it turns out to be legal.

Side thought: I'm not a lawyer, but we have some among the group. Anyone want to venture an opinion on whether this behavior qualifies as conversion of assets? Unjust enrichment? Some other actionable offense?

....

Let's use an analogy from television.

Let's suppose that a company created a device that would give digital quality pictures with nothing but rabbit ears. In return for giving you the device for free, they got to control the commercials.

How do you think Pat Robertson would feel if they covered the ads during the 700 Club with commercials for the National Abortion Rights Action League? (Or vice versa. This is meant as example, not political commentary.)

Should a person's efforts be turned, without their permission, to the promotion of ideals or services in which they do not believe?

I dooon't theeeenk sooo....

How do you think Tony Robbins would feel if his infomercials were interrupted by commercials for Hustler Magazine and Marlboros?

Or maybe if Citibank sponsored a program on public television, and their commercials were supplanted by ads for American Express?

Just how long do you think this would last?

....

Then there's the question of editorial integrity.

Long time readers will know that I always disclose those times when I make money from a recommendation.

I don't recommend things unless I believe in them, but I'd be silly to refuse money for a recommendation I was going to make anyway. (In most cases. There are exceptions.) Still, you have a right to know that, so you can take it into account if you think that's a factor.

This isn't a big deal. It's just what you're supposed to do if you want to be honest with your readers. But what happens when you see those links on my site, and don't know that I have no connection with them?

I haven't tinkered with the main part of my site in literally 3 years. (It's horrible. I do almost everything by email.) You can imagine my surprise when Marc Goldman (http://www.goldbar.net) told me I was advertising for Charge.com - in the text of an article. The ad was being displayed by TopText.

Does that look like an endorsement from me?

Not to Marc, because he knew where it originated. But to someone who was using KaZaa, and didn't know about TopText, it might.

Sorry, folks, but I'm picky about who I endorse. Putting an ad on my site carries the very real possibility of implying an endorsement from me among those who know my policies.

That is more than just a little annoying. It's misleading.

....

All in all, not a "Nice Way To Do Business(sm)."

Don't put up with this nonsense, people.

First, don't use these programs. For info on how to remove them, and how to alert people to their presence and consequences, visit:

http://www.takebacktheweb.com/

And check out their approach that allows you to redirect people using these programs to a page that tells them what's going on.

Education is the best ammunition.

....

It comes down in the end to one question: Who owns your site?

I say it's you.

What do you say?

Paul

Comments on this story are welcome. Email me at :editor@talkbiz.com

-----===(*)===-----

Recommended Resources

MaxPatch Ink

Run by Phil McKinney, a subscriber to this fine publication, MaxPatch Ink sells inkjet printing supplies.

I was running out of ink for one of my printers, and noticed his sig file. I said to myself, "Self, why not buy from the folks that read your newsletter?"

Not finding a good answer, I decided to check it out. The price was right (under $7 a cartridge), the guarantee was right, and they had a 9.1 out of 10 rating with the independent rating service they use. (By over 500 actual cash paying customers.)

I emailed Phil with some questions, and got very fast answers. So, I ordered. The product was delivered quickly, and the quality of print was the same as OEM cartridges.

Save yourself some money next time. Check out Phil's site.

http://www.maxpatchink.com

(No affiliation.)

....

Poor Richard's Internet Marketing and Promotions by Peter Kent and Tara Calishain

Brought to my attention by Renee Legatt, the book's publicist (and a subscriber), it wasn't a hard sell to get me to review it. After all, Kent's "Poor Richard's Web Site" is one of my top four recommendations for new online businessfolk.

The book covers all the traditional basics, as well as a LOT of things you should avoid. That last is, perhaps, its strongest value. The pitfalls of marketing online are too numerous and dangerous to be ignored.

While I hold to a more direct response approach for product marketing, I would highly recommend this book for anyone marketing a service online, or using the Internet for publicity or lead generation. It's an excellent primer for these areas.

In fact, if you've been marketing anything online for less than a year, it's probably a good idea to check it out. I've been at this for 6 or 7 years, and I got some good pointers out of it. The list of resources is worth the price of admission by itself.

Note: This is an actual book. On real paper. (Remember those?)

http://www.poorrichard.com/promo

(No affiliation.)

....

Maximum Persuasion by Kenrick E. Cleveland

Kenrick Cleveland is one of the world's leading experts in influence training. He's spoken at some of Jay Abraham's most expensive programs, and is consistently the highest rated presenter at the events he attends. (He's also a subscriber.)

I recently got a copy of his course, "Maximum Persuasion 2000."

The course consists of 16 tapes and a workbook. The claim: "How to talk anyone into giving you anything, any time."

Kenrick knows his stuff, and this course shows it. If you're in the business of persuasion (and aren't we all, in one way or another) I recommend that you consider this one carefully. It's not cheap, but the results are worth it. The skills you learn will be useful for the rest of your life.

Warning: This is powerful mojo. Handle with caution.

http://www.poorrichard.com/promo

(No affiliation.)

-----===(*)===-----

Next issue we'll cover some aspects of email marketing that you might find troublesome, and how to deal with them. (No, it won't be a tirade about spam...)

Til next week, Same Bat-Time, same Bat-channel.

Paul :editor@talkbiz.com

-----===(*)===-----

To subscribe to TalkBiz News, send an email to :subscribe@talkbiz.com

To unsubscribe, send an email to :unsubscribe@talkbiz.com

Pass this newsletter along to anyone you like, as long as it's passed along complete.

Paul Myers, 2001

-----===(*)===-----

"100% of the shots you don't take don't go in." - Wayne Gretzky


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