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Date: Mon, 8 Jul 1996 10:55:25 -0700
From: Chuck Munson <email@example.com>
Subject: Anatomy of a Netscam:
Why Your Internet Search May Not Be as Honest as You Think
The following is being sent with permission of the author.
--Chuck Munson (Univ. of Maryland College Park Libraries)
Anatomy of a Netscam
Why Your Internet Search May Not Be as Honest as You Think
By David Corn
Sunday, July 7 1996; Page C05
The Washington Post
CAN YOU own a word? On the Internet you can.
As the Internet expands, with an explosion of Web sites,
cyber-entrepreneurs have tried mightily to figure out how to cash in.
The problem has been that Web culture, so far, is antagonistic to
charging money for information. Only a few information-providers --
mainly pornographers -- have been able to entice Web-scanners to pay
for access, and conventional advertising on the Web has yet to prove
itself. Consequently, corporations looking to squeeze profits out of
travel on the information highway have been concocting creative
schemes. And one of the more imaginative notions -- which relies on a
pitch bordering on false advertising -- bodes ill for anyone who fears
that the Net might become over-commercialized and that deep-pocketed
parties might find ways to exert control over the as-of-yet unwieldy
Last year, Iron Mountain Global Information Systems (IMGIS), an
"interactive target marketing" firm based in Irvine, Calif., bought up
exclusive rights to specific words in the leading search services for
the WorldWide Web. To understand the significance of this maneuver,
you have to be familiar with how the Web works.
When someone signs on to the Web, often the first place he or she
turns is a site that searches the rest of the Web. These "search
engines" go by such names as Yahoo!, Lycos, and Webcrawler. At one of
these sites, you type in one or more words to describe the sort of
information you want. Then the search service provides you a list --
it can be quite long -- of sites related to the key words. Yahoo! and
the other search engines are the key gateways on the Internet. For the
right price, they will share their gatekeeping power with advertisers.
IMGIS purchased the rights to 55 words related to politics: among
them, "elections," "Democrat," "Republican," "president" and
"Congress." So when subscribers to the leading search engines request
a search based on one of the words, a flashy banner appears at the top
of the resulting page, promoting a "Top 10 Political Sites" list.
Click on the image and and you are transported to a page with colorful
displays for the top-10 political sites. Click on any of these
miniature billboards, and you "travel" to the actual site for one of
the top-tenners: the Democratic National Committee, the Political
Hotline and -- surprise -- George magazine.
What is a bit sleazy is that this "top 10" listing is not based on any
qualitative or quantitative measure. It is not the 10 most popular
political sites with cybersurfers. Nor is it an expert's judgment of
the 10 best political sites. It is, in actuality, a listing of 10
political sites that are willing to pay IMGIS to be included on the
list. IMGIS charges $3,000 a month for the display space at the top
of the Top 10 page; spots further down go for less. And on Yahoo! --
the most popular search engine -- the initial banner that directs a
consumer to the Top 10 site is not even labeled as an advertisement.
The bottom-line: IMGIS is buying up key words in order to push
Internet traffic to its clients' sites.
Internet users aren't defenseless. Below the colorful "Top 10" banner
there is a listing of all relevant Web sites and this list can be
easily scanned. IMGIS is banking on the hope that many people will not
go that far.
"Seventy percent of all people looking for information will click on
our [top 10] ad," says Danielle Striker, the director for sales at
IMGIS. That is, they will follow the ad rather than select a site from
the list produced by the search.
As of the end of June, the IMGIS top 10 site was filled, with ads for
the New York Times and Politics Now (a project of The Washington Post,
ABC News, the National Journal, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times)
occupying the two most prominent positions. Both the Democratic and
Republican parties were there. But not all of the top 10 sites had
paid for their space. Several, including the Times and the GOP, were
taking advantage of a free trial offer. The Democratic Party was
listed even though it had informed IMGIS it was not interested.
Jeff Quiggle, the manager of the Electronic Policy Network, a
collection of progressive Web sites, noted that his outfit, which had
accepted a free trial run in the Top 10 list, would not pay to remain
on the list. "My concern," says Quiggle, "is that you wind up calling
something a top 10 site when it only lists sites that can afford to
pay. And you get a list that is weighted to conservatives because
that's where the money is."
Paul DeBenedictis, president for new media at Hachette Filipacchi,
publisher of George, says that he has no such concern and that George
deserves to be on any top-10 political site. George, he adds, has paid
IMGIS to be there through the November elections.
To date, IMGIS has spent $2.5 million purchasing key words from the
search services. Besides its 55 political terms, it has also snatched
up the rights to a number of words related to banking, finances,
sports and real estate. (Striker declines to say how many.) But,
according to Striker, the company got into the game early -- that
means last fall -- and obtained the rights to the political words
through the year 2000. The firm was clever to strike early. Some
search services no longer sell exclusive rights to words. Instead,
they rotate the ad traffic for a given word.
The company's political-words project is clearly just the beginning of
a larger effort to make money off the flow of Internet traffic. Its
first endeavor of this sort was a similar initiative involving real
estate-related words and real estate listings. Asked about IMGIS's Net
plans, Striker replied with a laugh: "I can't go into it too heavy --
or I'll have to kill you." But, she boasts, that IMGIS is leading the
way in "driving the consumer to a page."
Is there anything wrong with this? Certainly, a top-10 list based only
on a site's willingness to pay for an ad is not the crime of the
century. But it is misleading and cheesy; some folks on the Internet
toil long and hard to compile true top-10 site lists. One can hope
such trickery is sniffed out by savvy netizens.
More disturbing is the attempt to commercialize key access points to
the Net. If one compares the Web to television and radio, it's easy to
dismiss such concerns and ask, why should the Web withstand the
commercial pressures that turned television and radio into ad-driven
mediums? Here's why: The Internet ought to be regarded as a community
resource like a library; the search engines are its card catalogue.
Imagine if attached to a card for a specific book were a glowing
review for another book on that subject -- and that by pushing a
button the other book would be delivered to you automatically. The
knowledgeable and determined reader might head into the stacks to
locate the book she first came to find. But many readers might take
the easier option -- and be channeled in a direction open only to
those who have the money to pay for it.
It is not too hard to conceive of worrisome scenarios. A
pro-Republican dirty-tricks outfit could purchase rights to the word
"Clinton" and then lure readers to a site full of anti-Clinton
material. Or vice-versa for Bob Dole. Suppose Operation Rescue
Catholic Church bought up the word "abortion" and then ran an ad
declaring "abortion is murder" at the top of every page of the search
Corporations could use all sorts of "top 10" gimmicks to bring
consumers -- especially children -- to ware-peddling sites. A recent
study by the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based non-profit
group, found that on-line marketers have "microtargeted" children with
practices that would be illegal if used in cable or broadcast
television. The Web and on-line services, like America Online, have
not been subject to such rules. Will young people who type "rap music"
into a search request be presented with a spiffy ad that once clicked
upon brings them to a site with a rappin' Joe Camel?
The Internet has not been washed over yet by the wave of
commercialization that dominates broadcast and cable media. There are
some Net-observers who believe that the Internet, due to its consumers
(who have gotten used to obtaining information for free) and its
nature (decentralized and interactive) will not support a culture of
advertising the way centralized media (like TV and radio) with passive
audiences do. That may be true.
Even so, intense corporate attempts to influence the "click-stream" on
the Internet are likely to continue and should be watched, even if
they may now seem trivial. The real problem is not a phony top-10
site. What is disturbing is the prospect that monied interests will
devise ways to commercialize and control key portions of what is now a
free-for-all and relatively egalitarian medium. That is what the
people at IMGIS -- and, no doubt, other firms across the nation --
hope to do. As Striker says of her company, "We're pioneers."
David Corn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation magazine
(www.thenation.com). Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
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