Among the most powerful trends of the last three years has been the emergence of community/social media/social-networking sites with large user bases and incredible traffic. The traffic enjoyed by these successful virtual communities creates financial incentives for bad actors who want to hijack traffic for their own purposes. The open participation inherent in user generated content provides numerous opportunities for the parasitic marketer.
Exploits can take the form of spam posts, sock puppetry, trust fraud, and scams that use social engineering to take advantage of the good faith users. The exploit may also be by way of paid advertising that promote illicit or illegal activities (porn, pills, casinos, and payday lenders) or ads that insert malware on users’ computers. These anti-social and sometimes criminal activities are generally carried out despite the wishes of the site owners and community residents.
In the physical world, spam, scams, and unsavory promotions have parallels: billboards, liquor stores, and payday lenders on every street, and prostitutes and hustlers on every corner. These are the telltale signs of urban blight in a community and, left unchecked, lead to abandoned and neglected property and a spiral of decay. Urban blight creates flight; anyone who can afford to leaves.
Virtual blight in an online community drives away “respectable” traffic and depreciates the contributions of community members, reducing or destroying the value of a brand. Internet marketers invest substantial effort and money to make their websites successful and build a brand. To preserve that brand from the ravages of blight, marketers need to consciously combat it on their own sites and ensure that their marketing efforts do not create or fund blight on other sites.
The Ten Commandments for online marketers
- There is one Internet. It is a shared resource. Any marketing strategy that relies on polluting the internet by pushing unwanted noise into community space is suspect. It is one thing to strategically place information scent that leads users to your site; it is another to spray that scent on every tree and fire hydrant.
- You shall use neither bots nor macros to create links, nor spread comments promoting your site. Spambots can not only cause your site to be banished by search engines, they leave a huge footprint across the web and can tarnish your brand with a stink that can’t be washed off!
- You shall not allow your advertising and affiliate dollars to go to scrapers, scammers, nor spammers.
- Honor your visitors. Do not sell impressions or links to companies you do not vet. As a publisher, you are endorsing your advertisers every bit as much as if you give them an editorial link. Caveat Emptor may be the motto of cut throat capitalism, but it is not a good strategy to protect your brand. If you are not satisfied with the moral and ethical practices of your advertisers, do not sell them advertising. Syndicated advertising networks offer an easy path to monetizing traffic in the short term but you risk associating yourself with the sites where you advertise.
- You shall not make use of sock puppet accounts for vote stacking, spamming friend requests, nor other schemes. Sock puppetry and false friending is so obviously a form of fraud that no one can argue it is an ethical practice. Do not succumb to the argument that others are doing it if you want to build a sustainable business.
- You shall not form cabals nor engage in elitist plots to disenfranchise people. Karma matters. If you treat others badly, they will eventually form a mob and come after you.
- You shall not grieve other users by spoiling their fun, troll, nor post flame bait to get attention. Acting up to gain attention only works for a short while, then you get banned, filtered, and ignored.
- You shall not scrape content, plagiarize, nor assist in the theft of virtual assets. Stealing content is stealing, simple as that. Scraper sites are the most prolific and pernicious form of Made For Advertising (MFA) sites.
- You shall not distribute badware, scumware, spyware, nor malicious bots. This point is so self-evident it shouldn’t have to be mentioned, except that the proliferation of Malware is accelerating and the potential damage it can cause is frightening. Criminal activities ranging from identify theft, transaction fraud, click fraud, and distributed denial of service attacks are all being carried out by botnets that contain hundreds of thousands of compromised machines. Most of the global spam problem can be traced to these compromised computers as well. Despite the clearly criminal nature of malware, Google recently estimated that 1.3% of search result pages contained a link to a site that potentially could infect the user’s computer. Most of these exploits are distributed via Iframe injection through advertising networks.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s traffic, nor engage in parasitic marketing. If somebody is doing well, give them a pat on the back instead of trying to pick their pockets.
Advertising budgets are the fuel that drives the spread of blight across the internet. Make sure your money is not promoting blight even if you must forsake short term profits in favor of protecting your brand. While it is easy and tempting to pour money into any channel with a positive ROI, you may be cannibalizing your brand in the process. Even if your strategy is making money and your brand survives, you are funding parasites who devalue the communities that support your business.
The commandments represent what Internet users already expect. Unfortunately, many players rationalize their own breaches whenever a little cheating is profitable. We, the Internet community, need to take a stand against blight. Major online properties need a code of conduct to ensure that they do not contribute to the problem, and they also need best practices for controlling blight. Investors should ask managers what they are doing to protect the value of online assets. Everybody needs to worry when the next advance in black hat technology has the potential to turn billion dollar web properties into a slag dump.
Jonathan Hochman has two computer science degrees from Yale. He runs an Internet marketing consultancy and a web development shop. Jonah Stein, who contributed to this article, is Managing Director of www.AlchemistMedia.com, an SEO/SEM Agency and creator of www.VirtualBlight.com, a site dedicated to organizing Netizens Against Online Spam, Scams & Scoundrels.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.