Is Facebook’s third largest advertiser really a site that tries to trick people into switching to Bing? Apparently not. Still, Bing’s not happy with the tactics and is ending its relationship with the publisher.
The site, Make-My-Baby.com, now appears to have gone down. But earlier today, it was suggesting that people needed a plug-in to use it — one that would install a toolbar and change their search provider and home page to Bing. The site had allowed people to create baby characters.
Not Facebook’s 3rd Biggest Advertiser
“Make-my-baby was not one of the top advertisers on Facebook,” emailed spokesperson Andrew Lipsman.
Postscript (2:40ET): Facebook also tells me that Make My Baby isn’t an advertiser at all. From an email that spokesperson Brandon McCormick sent:
Not only is make-my-baby.com not one of our largest advertisers, they are not an advertiser at all. In fact, their practices are against our ad policies and would be rejected as a result. This is true whether they tried to run ads with us or an affiliate did.
Postscript (3:00 ET): I’ve now got a copy of the comScore report. It looks at total display ad impressions for the “social networking” category in the third quarter of last year. That category includes buys on MySpace and Facebook (and according to comScore, a few smaller social networking sites).
Make-My-Baby.com is indeed the number three on this list, which means it is the third biggest SOCIAL NETWORKING advertiser according to comScore but not necessarily the third biggest Facebook advertiser (nor did Ad Age explicitly say this). Most ad impressions in this category apparently come from Facebook, but in this case, apparently its MySpace buys that were putting Make-My-Baby tops, given Facebook is denying this company advertised at all. But I’m checking on that.
Bing Affiliate Outed By Google
The Ad Age article caught the attention of the head of Google’s search spam fighting team — and unofficial defender of all things Google — Matt Cutts. Cutts did a post noting that the Make-My-Baby site had terms that required a switch to Bing:
If make-my-baby.com is Facebook’s 3rd biggest advertiser, I wonder how many people are installing this software without reading the fine print that says “Installing the toolbar includes managing the browser default search settings and setting your homepage to bing.com” ?
Actually, you didn’t have to drill into the fine print of the site’s terms and conditions page to learn this. When you’d first visit the site, you’d get a big “Plugin Required” message as shown above [picture from Read Write Web, as the original site is now down]. Directly below that was a message that explained that a toolbar would be installed and implying that your search provider and home page would be switched to Bing.
Still, to me, it was a pretty tricky move. There was no easy way to “exit out” from having the plugin installed other than to close the page itself. It’s likely plenty of people installed the toolbar when they might not have wanted to — and were switched to Bing.
Bing Fires Affiliate, Er, Publisher
I asked Bing about the affiliate. It commented:
Distribution deals and affiliate programs are an important part of how all search engines introduce their products to customers. That said, we have been made aware of some practices that are in conflict with Bing’s principles and are addressing them directly with this affiliate partner.
It’s not clear if the affiliate will be dropped entirely. The specific landing page people were switched to, http://mmb.bingstart.com, continues to operate with a “ZUGO” code that stands for what appears to be Make-My-Baby’s parent company. That suggests the affiliate may still be earning for searches.
Postscript (2:15 ET): Bing has now sent an updated statement:
Distribution deals and affiliate programs are an important part of how all search engines introduce their product to customers. That said, we have been made aware of some practices from a specific publisher that are not compliant with the guidelines, best practices and principles put in place by Bing. As a result, the relationship with this publisher will be terminated.
I’ve bolded the key change. Rather than “address” issues, Bing is now terminating the relationship. Bing also says the company wasn’t an affiliate but rather “a publisher who has a relationship with one of our distribution partners.”
I’m assuming this means that Make-My-Baby was a distribution partner for the Zugo toolbar and that Bing will retain a relationship with Zugo but has effectively told Zugo to fire Make-My-Baby.
Bing declined to answer how long it has been running this type of affiliate program, how it solicits people to be in it (is there a self-serve option?) or how much it pays.
Postscript (5:25 ET): OK, I have some more answers from Bing. Make-My-Baby was an affiliate of Zugo. I asked how Bing could directly fire a Zugo affiliate and was given a non-answer:
In any Bing distribution program, there are guidelines that must be followed to ensure a positive experience for customers. We were made aware of a particular publisher who was not in compliance with those guidelines, and that publisher is no longer part of this program.
The actual answer remains that Bing probably cannot “fire” a Zugo affiliate but rather can tell Zugo that one of its affiliates is violating Bing’s distribution requirements to pressure Zugo to act.
As for Zugo, Iwas told it is not an affiliate but rather distribution partner. What’s the difference? Bing said:
It’s really a distinction without a difference.
Bing also confirmed that it continues to have a relationship with Zugo. That also means that all the people who had their pages changed by Make-My-Baby will continue to get redirected to the benefit of both Zugo and Bing, as best I can tell, despite the fact that they were obtained in a way that Bing disagrees with.
Bing: Google Did It Too!
When Bing emailed me with info for the 5:25ET postscript I integrated above, it also said:
No one, including Google who also uses distribution channels like OurBabyMaker.com, wants to have their brand associated with a negative customer experience.
Hmm. OK, I’ll bite. I headed over to that site:
Its not run by Google. It is run by IAC, which has distribution deals with Google, especially through toolbars that it owns.
Installing the software instantly caused my anti-virus software to jump in and scream that it wouldn’t let me install it. I’m not inclined to test it more. But if I had, I get the impression I’d have ended up with the Smiley Central toolbar or some variant, which may have shifted my defaults over to Ask (complete with Google ads) or perhaps to Google. I’m checking with Google on this.
Ben Edelman — who has consulted for Microsoft in the past and is involved in a lawsuit against Google — has documented some of the changes that the IAC toolbar has done on the past (see here and here)
Bing & Buying Traffic
Bing has tried a variety of things to attract searchers to its search engine, most recently, Bing Rewards — which gives credits that can be redeemed for prizes. SearchPerks was an earlier incarnation of that. Cashback gave discounts on purchases.
Of course, Bing is not alone in trying to buy search traffic. Google has done plenty of distribution deals itself. In fact, like many search engines back in the late 1990s, Google even ran its own affiliate program that paid $0.03 for each search an affiliate generated.
Ah, but Google never tricked anyone into changing their defaults! Sure, nothing like what the Bing affiliate above was doing comes immediately to mind, though I’m sure there were similar examples that didn’t get wide attention. But then again, Google — which preaches about how everything should be “open” and that people should have choice — is hardly squeaky clean when it comes to generating search traffic.
Google & Buying Traffic
Google & Dell’s Revenue-Generating URL Error Pages Drawing Fire covers a deal — now ended — with Dell that caused some people to wonder why they’d end up on ad-filled pages powered by Google, when entering an incorrect URL.
Hey Firefox – Let Us Pick Our Own Search Engine! covers how Google has long been the default search engine on Firefox — no need to “trick” anyone into this, since Google bought that distribution, despite arguing that the EU should force Microsoft to make people choose in Internet Explorer. Bing is finally being allowed as a choice on Firefox after years of being blocked — and then, not until Firefox 4 (see Firefox 4 To Add Bing As Search Option).
Enough With The Switching
None of this excuses what the Bing affiliate was doing. Ideally, I’d like to see both Bing and Google come together on a common site where people could go and easily detect if their search provider or home page has been changed in a way they don’t like — and easily fix that. Both companies have fought directly and through proxies to change user settings. I’ve had my fill of emails from people confused about what happened to them, when this type of switch happens.