The Facts about Unethical Contextual Ad Programs
There are a number of new technologies which allow advertisers to steal your web traffic directly off of the surface of your web site. Over the past several years advertising and marketing companies have moved away from pay-per-click banners ads and have begun to move into contextual advertising platforms. Contextual ads do not utilize banner graphics, instead they transform web text into clickable links to targeted client web pages. The problem is that some unethical advertising and marketing companies are inserting these contextual ad links into unsuspecting web site without the site owners knowledge! To accomplish this these unethical marketing companies are exploiting & utilizing adware and spyware programs which are installed onto consumers computer systems.
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not against opt-in advertising programs whether they be banner ads, or ad linking. I strongly believe that web site owners should have the right to advertise but I also believe they should have the right to control the viewable content of their web sites and be able to choose who can use their site for advertising. If I am selling a service or a product I strongly object to my direct competitors being able to use my site to sell their products or services. Nor do I want my viewers to get the impression that I am endorsing a product or service that I did not agree to endorse.
The primary difference between the problems discussed on this site and the many other forms of contextual advertising is that these programs are not opt-in and a number of unethical developers and ad servers have decided to cash in on this new technology by developing their own unique plug-ins which are now currently being distributed on as add on bundles within a large number of shareware software products. (Netscape browsers do not appear to be effected)
Smart Tags and Smart Links are a fairly new form of linking technology which Microsoft included in its browsers and allows links to be added to web content via the IE browser. Browser linking technologies work with client side add-on plug-in software features designed to work with Internet Explorer (primarily for PC) and started when Microsoft incorporated "smarttags" or "smartlinks" into the Explorer Browser. It was soon discovered this feature could be exploited to add plug-ins that would enable unique "smartlinks" that a large numbers of web surfers could view. This ability has developed into a new form of advertising called contextual advertising.
This technology developed and expanded with a merger of the now defunct Napster searching & networking capabilities and distribution methods of the new Peer to Peer File sharing programs. Currently one of these plug-ins called TopText is being used on a large scale to misdirect web surfers by inserting advertising links into the body of unsuspecting web sites sites. TopText is a plug-in developed by a San Francisco company called eZula. Also known as iLookup, HotText, ContextPro. eZula is famous for adding ugly orange-yellow advertising links to web pages without authorization from the owners. (Another form of web viewer theft is Gator's banner Ad switching.) Here is an interesting article which explains this concept contextual advertising and Gator in more depth: Is gatoring unfair or illegal?
eZula is cashing in by selling key words and phrases on a large scale and transforming them into active ad links where ever they appear on the web. Here is an excerpt from their promotional material claiming to have a database of over 5,000 words to sell to advertisers. eZula distributes TopText by hiding these plug-ins as bundled components to freeware & shareware software programs to be downloaded by unsuspecting people. eZula's TopText is included with many shareware programs but is primarily distributed with "peer to peer" file sharing applications used to manage and search for MP3s on the Gnutella network such GoZilla, Limewire, Bearshare, Audiogalaxy, iMesh, & KaZaa. (see our article The Dirty Little Secret About KaZaa and iMesh)
As an example of the scope and extent of the number computers that are effected consider that an estimated 293 MILLION computer users have downloaded KaZaa Media Desktop just from CNet.com in the United States alone. These estimates do not include the figures from the many other download locations across the internet. If you include these other locations that this program can be downloaded from that figure could well be doubled.That means that well over 600 million computers can see these unauthorized ad links which can redirect your viewers!
These plug-ins will allow individuals browsing a web site to view unauthorized advertising hotlinks which are broadcasted to the infected browsers of consumers all over the world. eZula essentially rides on a web sites URL without paying any of the maintenance costs, and dilutes the value of authorized advertising purchased directly from the web site by the display of these unauthorized competing advertising links. It changes the appearance of the site by superimposing it's links on top of the web page text, and causes confusion for consumers when superimposed over the sites preexisting links. This practice is a clear case of copyright infringement and deceptive advertising.
This new technology has splintered off and is being used by several different marketers. This is a very new technology and very little information or outside documentation exists on the subject, however, it is a growing phenomenon as more and more people experiment with it's uses and capabilities as well as misuses. (Which is why I have developed this site.)
Although the primary exploiter of this new technology is eZula's TopText there are several others, one of which a program called "ClientMan" which displays links very similar to TopText Links. Although it is not related to TopText it does display the yellow links in a similar way. It also opens pop-up ads. Its operator, odysseusmarketing, is Walt Rines, a notorious spammer. It claims to be written for him by nostrumindia.com, a software development company. I am waiting for more information on this new "pest", however, I have been told that the latest version of Spybot with the latest updates should be able to target it. Another alarming aspect of "ClientMan" is that it can by-pass ZoneAlarm's Firewall program. When "ClientMan" installs itself it automatically clicks to "yes" and "always" button of ZoneAlarm to allow it full access to the internet without the user knowing.
There are several different developers of this type of software which are available as free downloads. Browser biased linking - also called "Contextual Advertising" - can be accomplished in several ways depending on the software used. In some instances users of these products can add links to other sites by the broadcasting of key words and phrases and assigning attributes to them which will turn them into links back to their own particular web address while others it is accomplished by highlighting key words, images or entire pages of web sties to transform objects or word elements within the IE browser window into active hotlinks.
Like other programs, DeltaClick (another program that uses contextual advertising through a BHO called DeltaBar) can segment consumers based on the category of sites being visited, surfing behavior or preferences, and user-supplied demographics. The system can also target specific URLs -- allowing an automobile retailer to have its Web site link appear when users visit Autobytel.com, for instance -- and lets marketers input a brief text message next to their site link or special offer.
Another software called Surf+ which had posed a significant risk to web developers and site owners also had the capability of adding working hotlinks to viewable web content, although currently they have suspended the transmission of their linking program they could resume at any time. Flyswat/QuickClick is another software one that has had the ability to add competitor links to the viewable surface of a users browser window. Flyswat was part of NBCI and the status of this currently defunct program is unknown. Yet another product which can ad links is a small stand alone product called Browseup, a new company which needs to be watched.
With a different spin on traffic stealing, there is a company called Gator with their own unethical advertising program. Although they are not adding textual hotlinks they have developed the ability to exchange authorized advertising pop-ups with their own clients ads. Please read our article Is Gator Highjacking your Banner Ads? for more information.
eZula's TopText advertising program is operating on a very organized platform working with a large list of paying clients. The links are broadcasted on a very large scale and processed in such a way that they can track the "click through" rate for billing the clients. (see our Hall of Shame for a detailed list of clients.) eZula links appear as dark yellow and highlight bright yellow when you mouse over them and even pop up an annotation description! See our TopText Screen Shots for examples of what they can do.
As mentioned earlier, Surf+ which is also included in a large number of freeware and shareware programs has temporarily suspended it's linking program, however when they were in full operation they did not appear to be working in an organized and structured way. Clients were allowed to ad their own links to point to any URL of their choosing for mass broadcasting to any browser which also has a Surf+ plug-in. Surf+ links were notorious for leading unsuspecting surfers to pornography and other inappropriate content. There is great concern that once Surf+ reorganizes their program they will be up and running again. Surf+ highlighted the words they were transforming into links with blue/green highlighted overlay. What is ironic is that Surf+ advertises it's self as a filtering program to restrict pop-up's and cookies!
Flyswat/QuickClick has undergone several ownership changes over the past two years. Originally a stand alone program, NBCi used the technology under the name QuickClick, however, with the demise of NBCi their QuickClick program stands in limbo. Flyswat was also used in NeoPlanet 5.1 which bundled Flyswat into its self-styled 'Internet Desktop.' Flyswat also created yellow links within the web pages along with a drop down menu. These links could overlay any existing hyperlinks on a page. Although NBCi has been dissolved and Neoplanet is now working with Annotate.net the final fate of Flyswat is undermined. We are waiting to see who purchases the rights to this defunct software. During it's use it was very similar to eZula's technology and was also used as a reference tool as demonstrated by this screenshot.
Most of these programs broadcast links look like standard underlined hotlinks to the average user. To the average person or uninformed surfer all these links appear as a link that could have placed there by the web site developer so naturally viewers click on them.
Browseup is another software company that has the ability to ad links onto the surface of other web sites. They have a sophisticated product which allows users to not only ad simple text links but also allows them the ability of dragging and dropping images and text files over a preexisting web site. The result of this is that a user of this type of software then has the capability of building a completely virtual web site layered over yours by utilizing this layering technique thereby "piggy-backing" on your URL. Currently they are a stand alone downloadable freeware product and to our knowledge at this time they are not bundling their product with other software companies. Due to the alarming and sophisticated abilities of this program they bear close watching.
Since these links are more or less a layer operating through the client side browser it is not impaired or hindered by server firewalls. Nor does it require any change in the actual web documents coding. All of this is can be accomplished without the site owners knowledge or authorization.
The companies that produces and market these types of technologies tout them as a wonderful breakthroughs which will enhance the web surfers browsing experience. The purpose of this technology was originally to allow people to form a small network of interlinked sites and annotations for research (i.e.for educational or scientific research) or as an improved method of searching the web for particular information as in the case of the MP3 software. An additional capability these programs is the they fall into the "spyware" category are also able to track, profile and monitor the consumers to target specific advertisements.
Most of these links look like standard underlined hotlinks (either dark yellow or blue depending on the type) in the body of the standard text of a web site and highlight bright yellow when you mouse over them and even pop up an annotation description
To the average person they look like normal links that were placed there by the web site developer so naturally viewers click on them.
This technology works with object linking and open hyperdocument system (OHS). It does not alter the main sites coding in anyway. It is almost as if a transparent layer has been added over the existing web site through the IE browser which they can add new content directly over your existing web site. This is what is called contextual advertising however many concerned web developers call it Theftware & ScumWare. Since it is more or less a layer operating through the browser it is not impaired or hindered by firewalls. All of this is can be accomplished without the site owners knowledge or authorization.
This is a very new technology very little information or outside documentation exists on the subject, however, it is a growing phenomenon as more and more people download this free software and experiment with it's uses and capabilities as well as misuses. (Which is why I have developed this site.) This new technology has splintered off and are being used by several different marketers. The primary user of this new technology is eZula and Top Text, next is Surf+, another is Browseup (a new one who needs to be watched) and then there is Gator with their own spin working with pop-up ads. (There are some other versions popping up but at his writing I do not have much documentation on them.)
The potential for abuse of these types of softwares by unscrupulous individuals who misuse them can be far reaching. They currently are allowing competitors to add links to the surface of your web site and lure your potential clients and customers over to their own web sites, and they have the the potential to allow people to turn your web site into a portal to pornographic sites and material and even attach x-rated images to the surface of your site. These new technologies can lend themselves to plain old fashioned harassment and malicious mischief of all sorts leading your visitors to strange and unrelated locations.
The companies that produces and market these types of technology tout them as a wonderful breakthrough which will enhance the web surfers browsing experience. The purpose of this technology was originally to allow people to form a small network of interlinked sites and annotations for research (i.e.for educational or scientific research) or as an improved method of searching the web for particular information as in the case of the MP3 software.
The potential for abuse of this type of software by unscrupulous individuals who misuse it can be far reaching. It currently is allowing competitors to link to the surface of your web site and lure your potential clients and customers over to their own web sites, and has the the potential to allow people to turn your web site into a portal to pornographic sites and material and even attach x-rated images to the surface of your site, to plain old fashioned harassment and malicious mischief of all sorts leading your visitors to strange and unrelated locations.
As of this writing we know of only one search engine that is actively partnered with eZula and that is LookSmart. For more information on this please see Thiefware's report at http://www.thiefware.com/looksmart.ezula.shtml This is a clear violation of regulations set down by the FTC against unfair competition in the market place. Please take the time to check out our legal information section to file a complaint against eZula with the FTC!
Another sad but true fact, is that since this is a relatively new technology, the average person does not even know that is exists or how to use it. The abuses that are currently occurring are being done by professionals within the internet hi-tech world!
Unfortunately, at the currently there are no specific laws regarding the use and abuse of this technology, however, there are a number of FTC regulations to protect us -- all we need to do is start filing complaints.
Written by Debbie St.Clair
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Original URL: http://www.unwantedlinks.com/Contextual_Ads.htm