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
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
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
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$) decide what words get which links, and the SmartTag
feature in the new releases of Internet Explorer places the
links on the desired words. A SmartTag link looks like the
squiggly line that appears under a misspelling in MS Word.
What a coup, huh? Microsoft gets to put links on virtually
every site on the web, all for the cost of developing one
feature in one program.
At first, this feature was going to be turned ON by default. A
rather loud outcry from the business community got that
shelved. The feature is still there. It just has to be turned
on by the user. For now...
So, what can you do about it?
They (M$) 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
If you have any doubt whatsoever about the intentions of the
people behind this sort of software, check out their pages.
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
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"
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:
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 :firstname.lastname@example.org with a request to
block them from displaying TopText ads. Then you wait a few
(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
Great. You try to opt out and they pitch you. Says a lot about
the Clue Level at email@example.com, eh?
More to the point, the response contained this interesting
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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:
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
Thank you for your time and assistance.
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
I dooon't theeeenk sooo....
How do you think Tony Robbins would feel if his infomercials
were interrupted by commercials for Hustler Magazine and
Or maybe if Citibank sponsored a program on public television,
and their commercials were supplanted by ads for American
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
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
And check out their approach that allows you to redirect
people using these programs to a page that tells them what's
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?
Comments on this story are welcome. Email me at
Run by Phil McKinney, a subscriber to this fine publication,
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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
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?)
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
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.
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.
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¸ Paul Myers, 2001
"100% of the shots you don't take don't go in."
- Wayne Gretzky