Web Increasingly Cluttered By Sites Full of Paid Links

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Search-related advertising is fueling a new wave of Web sites that seem to have as much appeal as a cheesy Hollywood set. That's because many are created to look good to search engines, much as fake scenery fools TV cameras.

Everywhere I turn online these days I stumble over junky sites that do little more than clutter up the search results at Google and Yahoo.

Consider Angry.com, a site displaying paid links to self-help tapes, videos and other "anger management" products on the left, and additional sponsored links to topics having nothing to do with anger on the right. The site is purely an advertising directory, much of it unrelated to what visitors are probably seeking.

The people behind Angry.com and similar sites hope to capitalize on the rise of search advertising as the Web's leading way to make money, a phenomenon that has accelerated since Google and Yahoo found ways to distribute the ads they sell to thousands of other sites around the Web.

Search ads started as simple text links displayed next to regular results when you type a word like "camera" into a search box. Every time viewers click on one of the advertising links, the advertiser pays the search company.

Google and Yahoo have programs that allow those ads to be displayed on other Web sites and share the ad revenue with those site publishers, and Web sites have proliferated to take advantage of that. Some of the sites get you there under false pretenses, suggesting that you'll find articles about cameras but displaying only paid links of marginal relevance.

For example: Cameraz.com, where people wind up when they try to type "cameras.com" into their Web browser address bar but misspell it. Like Angry.com, Cameraz.com is an advertising directory with a list of camera links, and ads for sites unrelated to photography. And when you go to leave, up pops a small box asking if you'd like to reset your home page to another ad directory, at Searching.net.

All three sites are owned by Marchex Inc., a Seattle-based search marketing firm that sold stock to the public last year and is one of many companies trying to ride the boom in search engine advertising, which generated about $4 billion in revenue last year. Marchex picked up those Web addresses and more than 100,000 others last year when it bought Name Development Ltd. for $164 million.

This week, Marchex rolled out more than 50 Web sites based on Zip codes, such as 20010.com for Washington D.C., each featuring local weather, maps and sponsored links to local businesses. It announced plans to generate similar sites for almost all 42,500 Zip codes in the United States.

Great, I thought as I listened to Marchex executives discuss their local-site strategy on a conference call this week. That's just what the Web needs, thousands more destination pages with long lists of paid links.

Marchex contends that its strategy, which relies partly on what it calls "direct navigation," or people typing addresses into their Web browsers, will provide real value to Web surfers because it will gradually add real information to its many sites.

"We are very focused on finding and aggregating names that are generic in nature and fully defensible, and then building those sites into destinations rather than just lists of ads," Marchex president and chief operating officer John Keister said in a phone interview.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company