They always say that when it rains it pours, and this week certainly was a good example of that to me. While in and out of various doctor’s offices and hospitals, a particular form of advertising that I used on Syndic8 became a huge issue with well-intentioned folks all around the world, inspiring a flurry of posts on various forums and resulting in Syndic8′s eviction from Google, as a purported keyword or link spammer.
Here’s my side of the story…
I registered Syndic8.com in August of 2001 and the site was online by September of that year. At first it ran from a hand-built server in my home office, through my DSL connection, which, at the time, cost me $10/GB after the first 3 GB of transfer per month. Bit by bit, the site became more feature-rich and more well known, and traffic started to build.
After months of data transfer bills in excess of $200, I had to find a better way to host it. I found that I could rent a machine at a hosting company for less than my bandwidth bill. I also tried to make the site self-funding in the process, adding some Amazon Associates and Cafe Press links along the way.
The site’s popularity grew and grew, and a friend asked me if he could purchase a link on the site. We agreed on a price, and I put that first link up. Once that first link was in place, potential advertisers noticed it, and they also expressed interest in links. While trying to keep the site from looking too busy, I managed to squeeze in a number of links on the front page and in other places. I was always up-front about this, and never resorted to hidden text or anything of that nature.
The money was pretty good, paying my ever-increasing hosting costs and letting me repay the personal deficit that I had built up over the first year or so of operation, and even building up a reserve in anticipation of further expansion of my server subscription (currently at over $600/month).
Early this year an existing advertiser approached me with an interesting proposition. They asked me to create some sub-domains on the site, point the DNS records for these sub-domains to their server, and to link to them from the front page of Syndic8. I took a look at their proposed content and it seemed pretty decent, articles about mortgages, insurance, and so forth, with some links to affiliate programs and some AdSense blocks. On the surface, all seemed well, and I agreed to take this on. I didn’t look at every page, but the ones I looked at seemed fine. The pages were, in fact, designed to get the attention of search engines. Given that there’s a whole industry built around SEO (Search Engine Optimization) I didn’t know that I had crossed a line here, but in retrospect it is clear that I had.
All was fine until early this month when someone “found” this (hiding in plain sight at the bottom of each and every page on Syndic8) and decided to make a public issue over it. In an instant, at a time when I was least able to respond, my little site was the subject of a lot of attention and scrutiny, none of it good.
In the space of a day, things progressed from “hey, look at this” to “those dirty rats” to “let’s tell Google guy” to “ok, they are toast.” The trial, sentencing, and conviction took place in the blink of an eye.
I became aware of this somewhere after the “dirty rats” stage. and wasn’t sure how to proceed. Never having been the subject of a public attack before, I wasn’t quite sure of the proper protocol for responding. It was interesting (and a bit disappointing) to see bold, vituperative public posts from people that I knew, had worked with, and had even helped in the past. I was labeled as a spammer, a hacker with no business sense, and accused of all sorts of indiscretions. Exactly one person thought to email me and say “I’m not taking sides here, but I know it must suck to be you right now.”
In this link-happy world, I have found that people are more interesting in talking about you than talking to you. In the past, I thought that a private conversation was the first step toward resolution in a situation like this. That’s not true anymore. Do something wrong and a hundred bloggers will be happy to publicly point at it and to take some joy in your trouble. I’m not complaining here, just stating a fact. The Cluetrain tells us that “markets are conversations”, but I think there is actually a reluctance to engage in private 1:1 discussion about this. Apparently it is easier to create a link than to send an email. For the record, anyone who wants to email me can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What have I learned so far? First, be careful about slippery slopes. Once you take on a particular form of advertising, the next one doesn’t seem all that bad, but before you know it you are doing things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. Second, consider alternatives to the ad-supported business model. Lots of people seemed to think that I could have raised funds in this way. Perhaps, perhaps not. It is clear that trying to create something that’s large and self-sustaining requires more attention to the business end than I was capable of giving it. Third, respond, and respond fast when you make a mistake.
What’s next? Our mission remains unchanged, to create a large, public directory of reviewed RSS and Atom feeds. The offending ads are gone from the site, and I will certainly not be accepting any more ads of that nature. The site will stay up and running, perhaps with an alternate funding source. I’ll talk to Google and see if they will let me back in.
So that’s the story of my week so far, and it is only Thursday morning.