How often do you find a cross-over story about three notable Left Coast industries: venture capital, media, and -- err -- sex?
It seems that noted San Francisco sex writer Violet Blue did some checking on what the SF Chron and sfgate.com were doing with her content (NSFW WARNING) and didn't like what she found. Her past columns had been copied to another domain, all outbound links (and some punctuation) stripped, the articles split into multiple pages, the pages stuffed with keywords - some inappropriate, and festooned with pay-per-click ads. And it emerged that multiple domains had also been aliased to these dead-end copies. Now where have we seen that kind of behavior before?
Here I should mention that sfgate.com is apparently - by admission of the author - within the letter of her contract by making this use of her work. That relationship, now terminated, was based on a level of trust that she feels has been abused, and made no explicit stipulations on how the content can be reused. The interest here is what this incident may say about the ongoing behavior of the MSM online, and its implications for the industry's business model.
This occurrence is not a one-off. The Violet Blue post also mentions the LA Times as creating similar ad-stuffed dead end pages, also with a list of multiple aliased domains. What caught my attention was that both the Chron's and Times' alias lists incuded subdomains of one common domain: perfectmarket.com. Perfect Market is an LA-area startup that claims to:
[help] newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters with a web presence and other online publishers grow their revenue with little effort and no risk. Our proprietary technology solution better fulfills the needs of intent users – people who arrive at their sites through keyword searches seeking specific information – with exactly what they're looking for in our customers' online content. Optimized content with relevant ads generates higher click-through rates for advertisers, and dramatically more revenue for publishers and their ad network partners.
That glowing description does seem to fit the prosaic implementation discovered by Ms. Blue, so it seems safe to conclude that Perfect Market is the technology and services partner that assisted the Chron and Times in stripping the original content into its SEO'd counterparts.
Perfect Market is a well backed venture. It has raised over $20m in venture capital, the most recent round closing in February and announced yesterday. Interestingly, this round was led by the bankrupt Tribune Company, parent company of the LA Times. Perfect Market also has solid backing from more traditional VCs, including Trinity, Rustic Canyon and IdeaLab. (Mayfield also has a board seat, though no publicized investment.)
Again, nothing to see here from a legal perspective. The company is selling a service and technology to its MSM clients, who bear responsibility for its operation against content that they have bought or licensed.
There are three business perspectives that do emerge. The first is the potential reaction of authors who find their work used in this fashion, and the consequent ability of MSM sites to work with those with an established byline. Ms. Blue has pretty much covered that by example, so I will pass.
The second is the reaction of the so-far-unnamed party to the transaction: the search engine. The keyword and ad-stuffed dead end pages apparently produced by Perfect Markets's technology are isomorphic, from a search company's point of view, to those created by more questionable tactics such as scraping. The intent is the same: to spam the index. This is the behavior that routinely gets questionable sites shoved to Google's back pages, or banished altogether. One has to wonder just how long this type of abuse will be tolerated, simply because it's being practiced by a recognized media outlet. (And we can note in passing that the irony of an MSM that routinely suggests that deep links are 'stealing' behaving in this fashion is thick enough to spread on toast.)
Finally come the implications for the businesses of the MSM sites themselves. While Perfect Market suggests that what they are enabling is an exhibit of MSM brand power, reality would seem to be the opposite. It should be clear that neither the potential reader nor the original author are going to be happy with the existence of a keyword stuffed, link stripped dead end page. The difference between these pages and those of a more prosaic SEO spammer is simply the brand attached to them, which might entice the reader to click through. It should be clear that the Chron, the Times, and other MSM outlets behaving in this fashion are doing no less than milking their brands to the detriment of long term trust and value. It is a subtle, but telling, exhibition of their desperation.
It looks like LA Times, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinal, South Florida Sun Sentinal, Hartford Courant, Allentown Morning Call, Virginia Daily Press and the New York Daily News are all using this or looking to.