Harvard Student's Reports Cast Pall Over WhenU Practices

A series of research reports written by Harvard Law student and Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Edelman have rankled the adware community of late-- particularly WhenU, the self-described desktop advertising network provider that is the subject of the Edelman report entitled "WhenU Spams Google, Breaks Google 'No Cloaking' Rules." The report spurred Google and Yahoo! to drop WhenU's listings from their search indexes last week.

According to the report, WhenU posted links to "bogus" Web sites full of gibberish text that repeatedly mentioned WhenU's products. When users clicked through to these sites from Google search results, WhenU would redirect the users to news articles that presented the New York-based company in a favorable light.

WhenU was dropped by Google and Yahoo! on May 12; on May 13, WhenU CEO Avi Naider confirmed the accusations, but added that the questionable practices were the work of its heretofore undisclosed search engine optimization (SEO) firm--which, he said, was promptly fired following the news. Naider said he expects to be relisted by the major search engines soon.

Harvard student Edelman said that he was unable to determine which SEO company was employed by WhenU, although in a report released on Monday, he said SEO firm Synergy6 is his "best inference."

Edelman noted that Google and Yahoo! have had frequent problems with cloaking in the past--but that each provides strict and clear rules stating the consequences of the practice, in addition to warning publishers not to engage in business with SEO firms that claim to boost natural results through algorithms. Edelman also noted that prior to his discovery, WhenU had engaged in the practice for "at least 6 months."

Richard Hagerty, CEO of search engine marketing firm IMPAQT, claimed that "no respectable SEM (Search Engine Marketing) firm would recommend [cloaking] to their clients. I can't imagine any firm would take the risk." He added that there are so many Web pages that it's difficult for Google to police all of them, but that the search giant makes very clear what's acceptable and what's unacceptable SEM behavior. "This is about masking negative publicity," he said.

According to Hagerty, adding content matching search terms and increasing the number of valuable links on a Web site are among the legitimate ways that companies can boost their natural search results rankings without resorting to cloaking.

Perhaps the bigger issue is whether the negative publicity generated by WhenU's "search engine death sentence," as one report put it, will adversely affect adware providers. Jupiter Research Analyst Nate Elliott doesn't seem to think so. "This is a SEO issue," he said. "It just so happens that it happened [to WhenU] and people enjoy talking about it because it's an adware company." Elliott also pointed out that the fact that a Harvard Law student discovered the controversy won't adversely affect Google or Yahoo! either.

Despite recent news reports' claims that Edelman is an "anti-spyware" activist, the Harvard Law student and Ph.D.-hopeful has maintained a more diplomatic stance. "I don't think of myself as a 'spyware activist' or 'on a mission' or any such thing," he said. "Ultimately, my main role has been as an officer of the court, [e.g.] as an expert in litigation--not as any sort of activist. 'Just the facts,' so to speak."

Other reports published by Edelman this week include "WhenU Copies 26+ Articles From 20+ News Sites," in which he questions WhenU's practice of copying at least 26 recent news stories regarding its own practices from at least 20 publications, posting stories on at least 12 distinct WhenU Web sites. Edelman said that WhenU removed the articles as a result of his research, despite the fact that he was unsure as to whether WhenU received authorization to redistribute the copyrighted content.

As the report states: "Beyond cloaking, WhenU also attempts to shape its image by redistributing, on its various Web sites, news articles favorable to WhenU. In general such redistribution might be perfectly honorable. But when the copied content includes entire news articles, without any statement of authorization from the respective publications and without even the articles' original copyright notices, such copying might be thought to constitute a violation of copyright law."

In a March 2004 report, entitled "Methods and Effects of Spyware," Edelman claimed conclusive evidence that both WhenU and Claria Corp. violate their own privacy policies--and can thus be classified as spyware--by collecting and transmitting personally identifiable user data to their respective ad servers.

According to Edelman, deceptiveness is inherent in the spyware business model. "No consumer would ever agree to have [spyware] installed on their computers if they really knew what it was going to do."

"Certainly," he said, "existing disclosure practices are inadequate, because usually users have no idea how these programs got there in the first place. Disclosure alone is not sufficient to fix the problem; it's more important to get consumers to think about [what they're getting into] in a more meaningful way."

Edelman said that marketers need to consider for themselves whether adware is an honorable form of advertising, and whether they want to have their brands associated with what is essentially another form of consumer spam.

Yahoo! did not respond by press time to a request for comment, and Google declined to comment for this story. WhenU was unable to respond by press time.

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