Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Smear the world.

Please allow me to state the obvious. Advertising is
monkey butts.

You know what I'm talking about. Baboon butts. In estrus, the females' colorful behinds swell grotesquely to attract the attention of the dim-witted males. Up to certain practical limits, bigger and more grotesque is better, if one hopes to stand out among all the other grotesquely swollen behinds a prospective male may be faced with.

Forgive the unpleasant analogy. (Well, I find it unpleasant. I don't know about you. You sicko.) My point is that advertising is a survival trait, a sexual mechanism with which companies compete against their peers. It is not, ultimately, for the benefit of consumers--though consumers sometimes benefit in the process (much like the aforementioned dim-witted males). Notably, though, if a consumer benefits in the process, that is the means, and not the end, of advertising. When advertising succeeds without ever benefitting a consumer, it's still successful advertising.

So what is spam? Allow me to delve into appropriately uglier metaphor. Spam is what you get when a dung beetle suddenly has the ability to smear the world with poo, in the hopes in attracting one or two interested mates, somewhere out there. From the beetle's point of view, this gets the job done, which is really all that matters. (Remember, if you're not a potential mate, the dung beetle doesn't care what you think of him. True for dung beetles, true for spammers.)

Why am I taking uninspired cheap shots at spammers? Because I recently discovered a new kind of spam. Well, I don't know if it's actually new, and maybe it's well-known in the right circles, but I've never heard anyone mention it.

To describe this form of spam, I first have to confess: I check my web page's access logs. Well, not the logs themselves. I run Webalizer, which chews up access logs and spits out little ego-serving charts and histograms. The most interesting bit is the list of referrers: pages which link to my page.

To be fair, I'm not alone in this. It's quite common for webmasters to watch their referrer logs closely. It's so common, in fact, that enterprising spammers have apparently turned this into a "targeted advertising" opportunity.

You see, the silly thing about referrer logs is that they can be faked. When a client (such as a web browser) connects to a web server, the client tells the server "how it got here", and the server stores that in its access logs. But the server just takes the client's word for it. Why would the client lie, after all?

Well, one reason to lie: if the webmaster is likely to visit "referring" pages out of curiosity, this gives you an opportunity to generate traffic to any site you want.
All you need to do is write a custom web crawler that always lies about "how it got here", mentioning in every case some special page of webmaster-targeted advertising. If you set the crawler loose on the web, you'll soon have thousands of webmasters visiting your site, expecting to see links to their pages, and instead finding your annoying ads.

I've seen at least one instance of this in my referrer logs. It's a site that offers to direct "active webmasters" to your website using a "proprietary technique" with "categorically no spam involved". It's clear that they're marketing (as well as using) the technique that I described above. (They also say it's patent pending. Heh.)

The interesting thing is how emphatic they are that they're not spamming, and that they're on the up-and-up. 'Course, they don't mention that their technique generates traffic by deceiving webmasters, or that it requires widespread violation of the HTTP spec.

It seems imprudent to post
the specific link here, since that would generate the very traffic that the spammers are seeking. But I felt compelled to mention the phenomenon. Has anybody else seen this? Is this a well-known thing? Is there a cool derogatory term for people who do this?


  1. I was driving home the other night and heard what could possibly be the live equivalent of SPAM morality. It seems that Sony has hired attractive actors to play fake "tourists". These tourists hangout at theme parks, natural attractions (think Grand Canyon) and boardwalks, asking people to take their picture with Sony's new T68i GSM phone, which has a camera accessory. Once the photo is taken, innocent conversations are struck up about this wonderful technology, and “gee you should get one too…aren’t these things amazing…ohh let me tell you where I got mine, you’ll want to get one for yourself – possibly three”
    Plants have been used for years, however this practice of actively pulling out passers-by to hawk their wares is beyond advertising and patently intrusive. Dubbed Stealth Advertising by the industry itself, it is apparently becoming widespread. By randomly striking up seemingly spur of the moment conversations, these shills run through their scripted sales pitch to the courteous passerby and reduce even politeness to advertising.
    An even sillier variant of this technique involves what are referred to as leaners. These highly attractive people are paid by alcohol producers to hangout in bars and "lean" into a crown at the bar and order a particular drink. "Ohhh have you tried X vodka, its the best Vodka I've ever tried. You should order one too...I love it!"
    Random, intrusive, unsolicited advertising imposed on you without your consent or possibly even your awareness - sounds like SPAM to me.

  2. you need to show butts!