Wired and Annalee Newitz Drop the Ball

I read an article in Wired while I was on the plane last weekend and it annoyed me so much that I actually took notes in the magazine to write a blog post about it, but had to wait until the article was released this morning on Wired for you guys to know what I was bitching about…

Hearding the Mob: Crowdhacking on the Web

Now, it usually makes me chuckle to read mainstream articles on our industry. No matter how good the reporter, it is impossible for someone not immersed in our industry to understand all the nuances and specifics involved in it. But, damn it, I expect better from Wired and from Annalee Newitz.

“But as rating systems have become more popular — and, as Resnick shows, valuable — there has been what some would say is a predictable response: the emergence of scammers, spammers, and thieves bent on manipulating the mob. Call it crowdhacking.”

First, I won’t even go into how comparing the eBay rating system to Digg isn’t even on the same planet as far as Internet marketers are concerned. But there were several points in the article I took issue with that made it obvious that while well-meaning, Annalee had missed many facets of the industry she was reporting on.

“John Morgan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says reputation gaming is surprisingly common on eBay. Morgan recently published a study in which he found more than 6,000 examples of buyers and sellers engaging in transactions solely to boost one another’s scores. These auctions frequently had titles like “100+ Feedback” and a price of 1 cent. Often, the item for trade was a booklet explaining how to increase feedback by reselling that same booklet.”

Now, what failed to be looked at were the specifics of John Morgan’s study (edited to add a link describing the study). When making this statement, Annalee fails to point out during what timeframe the study was conducted (edited to add that it was conducted over a period of six months) and what overall percentage of the auctions it represents.

Catherine England, an eBay spokeswoman, was quoted in an article on the topic stating that eBay has 105 million listings at any given time and about 6 million new items posted daily. That means 6000 is less than .006 percent of eBay’s listings at any given time (assuming all the ones in the study were found at one time – which they were not). Come on – is this really a “sign” of a massive problem?

“A glaring example of this was disclosed last year, when then VP of Yahoo Shopping, Rob Solomon, admitted to Forbes that the company’s merchant-rating system had been “rigged” by a Brooklyn-based company called PriceRitePhoto… Yahoo finally banned the store, but it returned within months under the name Barclays-Photo, according to the Better Business Bureau. After several more complaints, Yahoo removed BarclaysPhoto from its listings. As of late January, it continues to operate (with suspiciously excellent ratings) on eBay.”

A glaring example? Please! Scammers are everywhere. They’re not specific to rating systems. Additionally, again, they fail to put this report of one example store in context with how many stores are running on the Yahoo shopping platform.

“The payoff can be huge. Getting fronted on Digg means millions of readers and has the potential to catapult a story to the top of a Google search. If the dugg site has advertisers, it’s a financial windfall. If the site sells something — say, a gadget or a funny T-shirt — the rewards can be even greater.”

Apparently, Annalee has not read many case studies on the “value” of Digg (or most social marketing) traffic. Visitors, yes. Catapult a story to the top of Google search? Um, I can’t figure out if she means the Digg page will rank or just does an overly simplistic reference to the power of Digg on obtaining external backlinks. I’m going to feel safe saying she likely doesn’t mean the latter.

Financial windfall? Has anyone ever seen someone claim being front-paged at Digg was a direct “financial windfall”? I made other passengers laugh their asses off at me as I laughed out loud at an article telling me if I could get Dugg, I’d be rolling in the dough. Digg has a purpose and selling cool bumper stickers is not one of them.

“A Web site called User/Submitter charges $20, plus $1 per digg, to boost a story to Digg’s front page. The site accomplishes this feat by paying an army of digg users 50 cents every time they vote for three User/Submitter-selected articles. Speaking anonymously, the operator of User/Submitter says that in just two months of operation the site has garnered more than 100 clients”

Seriously, I’m supposed to take the business model of some guy paying people 50 cents per three Diggs as a sign of the industry as a whole? Or be impressed that he has 100 clients paying 20 dollars to sign up, plus 1 dollar per Digg? And what is their success rate for propelling an item to the homepage of Digg? No, really. There’s a successful business model – wow, quite the financial windfall (oh, I so *did* go there).

How many people do they have that are so financially strapped that they are running around Digging items for 50 cents per three Diggs? How much of an impact is this one business model making on a community? I highly doubt the top 100 Diggers that control more than fifty percent of the homepage content are running around Digging bullshit for 50 cents per three items.

“But Messenger wasn’t just being altruistic. He bought Spike the Vote because he knew Digg’s followers would put a story about what he had done on Digg’s front page. This, he figured, would attract customers to his search engine optimization business.”

So now it isn’t ok to market? What real world business isn’t doing charitable donations of some kind to get themselves positive publicity? This isn’t manipulation, it is good, old fashioned marketing 101 and I applaud Jim for being smart enough to market his SEO services through a charitable act.

“And last August, a top 100 Digg user known as Geekforlife sold his account on eBay for $822.”

So, a top 100 Digg account is worth less than 1000 dollars? It must be due to that massive financial windfall (yup, went there again). I’m not saying the account wasn’t valuable, I just would like to see it put into perspective. I’d also like to see them state what happened the second it was uncovered and found out. This account isn’t still running around Digging stories for 17 cents per pop. ;-)

“Last September, Fred Stutzman, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina, followed a link on del.icio.us to an identity-management startup called my:eego. Curious, Stutzman began checking out the users who had recommended the service. The first 16 all had exactly the same linking pattern… Hours after Stutzman blogged about the Sybil attack, del.icio.us deleted the accounts of the link spammers. Had the Sybil gone unnoticed, however, my:eego’s scheme might have worked. Legitimate users like Stutzman would have visited my:eego and possibly bookmarked it, creating more buzz on del.icio.us until the misled crowd had provided the link swarm my:eego was after.”

Ok, if a del.icio.us user is bookmarking pure shit simply because 16 other users have bookmarked that pure shit, then the problem is with the del.icio.us users and our society as a whole for not being able to think for themselves, no?

“Last November, a story titled “Geek’s Guide to Getting in Shape: 13 Surefire Tips” quickly tallied more than 100 del.icio.us links before blogger Niall Kennedy outed the article as geek bait. Turns out the story was planted on several aggregators by a Web site loaded with advertising for cheap dental plans.”

So it was geekbait… again, if 100 del.icio.us users bookmarked crap, see my response to the above. There is plenty of quality linkbait out there aimed at geeks by unrelated sites where the content is good, useful or unusual and fun. Just because it is bait does not make it bad. Social marketers can’t catch a fish that isn’t biting. And finally, because it was the perfect way to end an article that seemed determined to shout fire in a crowded social room…

“In July, Lodwick, CTO of the company that owns the Web site CollegeHumor, wanted to see how many people on del.icio.us would be willing to link to something for money. He started a contest in which he promised to pick, at random, one del.icio.us user who linked to the contest site and give that person $100. He had nearly 2,700 links when he awarded the check to “NedOne.” As for the thousands who provided meaningless links for nothing? They’re proof that the crowd can’t always be trusted.”

So, he launched a contest that offered the people *already reading him* and new people who maybe hadn’t seen the site, that drove traffic to his site, which people may have liked and then bookmarked and that is a scam? If you offer 100 dollars to college students who need beer to bookmark a great site (emphasis on the quality of his site) they already read and bring in new users… again, I repeat, scam? No, that’s called incentive marketing and as a result, it became news.

This could have been a great article. But they dropped the ball. Instead of creating an informative piece on how social marketing works and showing legitimate and non-legitimate examples, they twisted an entire industry based on a small percentage of it to create a piece that over hypes the scandals in this segment of Internet marketing and under delivers on the facts and usefulness. Great work Wired.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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