'Don't Call Us, We'll Call You': Web Trickery Exposed

12 December 2006

NEW YORK: The old Hollywood cliché has recently gained new currency in the 21st century Klondike of the internet. Nielsen/NetRatings reports it has uncovered and neutered a guileful traffic inflation scheme by the aptly named financial website entrepreneur.com.

NNR reported 7.6 million unique visits to the site back in April. But it has now slashed this figure to just two million after discovering that entrepreneur.com visited the surfers - and not the other way around.

It did so by covertly inserting pop-up software onto visitors' computers, which was duly activated while surfing other sites. But these were pop-ups with a difference. They peddled not third party ads but editorial content direct from entrepreneur.com's server - so that each pop-up counted as a unique visit to its website.

This more than tripled the site's reported traffic before the stratagem was uncovered one month later and excised from the NNR data.

According to Benjamin G Edelman, entrepreneur.com is not alone in its knavish tricks. Nor is there any certainty that such a practice is illegal - although similar cases have sparked civil lawsuits.

Edelman, a Harvard doctoral student, has compiled a large database comprising many kinds of adware, especially pop-ups. He specializes in providing expert testimony in lawsuits involving adware.

He reports other sites that have seemingly used pop-ups for editorial content in the last year, among them Condé Nast Traveler magazine's concierge.com; forbesautos.com, a unit of the Forbes financial publishing group; and popular humor site heavy.com.

Comments agency.com vp for media Scott Symonds: "You would hope that publishers of high-quality content would use advertising techniques that were in keeping with that."

But: "Pop-ups could be a legitimate way to reach new viewers if the publisher took certain precautions, like not using [them] to inflate traffic or satisfy orders from advertisers".

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff