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Opinion & Essays - August, 2002 Issue #96 

Scum Ware:
How Competitors Can Steal Your Website Visitors

By Vera Appleyard
Web Content Manager, Aspen Education Group

Many companies are unaware that millions of web surfers have downloaded adware or spy ware to their computers, often without realizing it. These software programs often come bundled with programs the user intends to download, essentially tricking the down loader into installing a program that will track their surfing and search habits on the Internet. This software allows advertising companies to deliver what is known as “contextual marketing,” which then enables them to manipulate websites that do not belong to them via an unsuspecting user’s browsers. These programs then “deliver” very obvious pop-up ads to that user’s browser. Or, using even more deceptive means, they manipulate the text on the web page to create highlighted links without the website owner’s permission. These links take the user to a competitor’s website. Contextual marketing uses keyword technology to decide what websites a surfer might want to visit, claiming this is a helpful service rather than the blatant misleading of web surfers.

It has recently become apparent that some boarding schools have signed up for this type of service, possibly because they are unaware of the ethical questions it raises. Generally, the most reputable companies would be reluctant to use such a deceptive and misleading marketing strategy. Consumers often download these adware programs without realizing what they are and what they do. Then, when these ads pop up on a competitor’s website, they give the impression that the website owner is directing the visitor to a “recommended” link. However, the ad essentially steals that website’s legitimate traffic and sends it to an unrelated competitor’s website with the same subject matter.

Contextual marketing, supplied by companies such as Gator, When, and Ezula, enables advertisers to advertise on competitors’ websites without the competitors’ permission, essentially piggybacking on a competitor’s traffic-building expenses and efforts. To illustrate, let’s say Scully’s Hardware owns a website for their store. Another major competitor can pay for an account with a company such as WhenU.com, so their ad would pop up over the Scully’s Hardware website if users visiting that site have the spy/adware on their computer. Many companies have said this is the equivalent of someone gluing their billboard advertisement on the front window of a competitor’s store. Can you imagine if Circuit City put their billboard in the front window of Best Buy? It’s the same principle.

Most people are tricked into downloading this spy/adware on their computer. Sometimes they’ve been on a site and a software download window popped up, asking permission to download something. Since some components, such as Shockwave, are legitimately used to view some sites, they go ahead and download. However, often what is actually downloaded is Gator or some other program that purports to give special offers, but is actually spy software and an ad delivery system. This is how they make their money, and it is their primary reason for existing. They are not concerned with the coupons or services; they want to send their clients' ads. This software invades users’ privacy: it watches how they search and the types of sites visited, then sends targeted ads to their browsers.

How do you beat such a system? Knowledge, education, and awareness. Never download anything without being completely aware of what it is. If it tries to scam you with buttons on the window, use the x in the upper right corner to close out the window.

Search your computer for software that doesn’t belong. For example, programs such as the free program, Kazaa, gives the option to download only the music-sharing facility, but recommends downloading their full suite of programs. This is called “bundling” and most of what is delivered is spy ware software that delivers ads to unsuspecting surfers. Such programs can be uninstalled, to free yourself of these ads.

To find out if you are a victim of this misleading form of advertising, visit these two sites: http://www.thiefware.com http://www.scumware.com.

There are efforts via FCC regulations to make contextual marketing illegal, but in the meantime, becoming an educated consumer is the best way to prevent these advertisers from delivering such suspect forms of advertising.

Companies that use the Internet for revenue would be wise to dedicate a computer for tracking these companies, since most employees won’t want these obtrusive programs on their computer. Install as many of these programs as possible on the dedicated computer, and surf through your website once a week to see if competitors’ ads are showing up on your site and hijacking your visitors. Contact these competitors to let them know your objection to such misleading practices; they might not even be aware of the ethical implications of what they are doing.

There are also programs available to help you keep your computer clean of these spy/ad programs, such as Ad-aware (http://www.lavasoft.nu/). This free multi spy ware removal utility scans your memory, registry and hard drives for known spy ware and scum ware components and lets your remove them safely.

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