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Web Increasingly Cluttered By Sites Full of Paid Links

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The search engine ad industry appears to have touched off a moneymaking frenzy only slightly less intense than the original dot-com boom. But I can't help but think that this new wave is generating too many useless link directories designed to provide no value to site visitors, while making money the same way Google and Yahoo do, by showing links to sites that pay each time someone clicks on them.

Many redistribute text ads sold by Google and Yahoo, which makes the Web feel like a hall of mirrors.

Another Web search firm, Interchange Corp., jumped into the local-content market this week by launching a site for which it paid $700,000 to acquire the domain name -- Local.com. Rather than spawning thousands of distinct sites like Marchex does, Local.com offers a single, Google-like search box inviting people to type in the place and type of goods they are seeking.

Not all sites created to display search ads are content-free, of course. Another search-marketing firm, InfoSearch Media Inc., runs a site with 250,000 articles on various topics (ArticleInsider.com). The articles were written under contract by more than 200 writers and were commissioned specifically to get listed in search engines, according to chief executive Steve Lazuka.

The articles earn revenue by displaying text ads from Google, but, just as important, they showcase the kind of content that InfoSearch Media sells to other sites wanting to boost their rankings in search results at Google and its rivals.

Lazuka's technology allows site publishers to log in and specify what type of content they want online, then receive several pages of copy supposedly written in a style designed to offer the kinds of sentence structures, titles and copy flow that search-engine software looks for and is likely to rank higher in results. It sounds like a content factory, but at least the articles are written by humans. More disturbing is a trend Lazuka said appears to have picked up steam in recent months.

Called "content scraping," it involves software programs that grab snippets of text from a variety of different Web sites and reassemble them into sentences on particular topics to help flesh out garbage Web sites. Since search engines penalize sites that duplicate or steal text from other sites, these programs attempt to fool them by shuffling words as if they were cards.

Lazuka and other site owners said they see more and more sites publishing snippets of their content that appears to be created in this fashion. "These scraper sites are a real problem, and it can wind up penalizing your site if the search engine thinks you are responsible," Lazuka said.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.


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