Why Occam’s Razor is like the Oxpecker Bird

The Thinker by Rodin

So I’ve been monitoring my web logs, as I often do. I am seeing referrals from washingtonpost.com. WTF? Washingtonpost.com is promoting my backwater little blog for no money? I don’t think so! The referring URL is actually to a page that I linked to in one of my blog entries. My blog entry (written first) pointed to an article on its web site. It seems that the Post knows that I have linked to it. Moreover, on the same page as the article itself it is highlighting my blog entry! (Here is an example. Look for the “Who’s Blogging” box lower in the page. Bear in mind my blog entry may scroll off their page after a while.)

How is this magic happening? It is thanks to Technorati, a blog indexer. When I publish a blog entry, I automatically ping the Technorati site. Apparently, Technorati reads the entry and then indexes it. Moreover, either it informs washingtonpost.com, or washingtonpost.com asks Technorati during the day what blogs are linking to its articles. Washingtonpost.com then serves my blog entry dynamically as a related blog link on the article page. The thousands of people hitting that page then may choose to read my related blog entry.

Many web sites these days are using the power of Technorati. (Technorati is sort of like Google for blogs. It calls its index “The World Live Web”.) However, washingtonpost.com has pushed the limits by serving recent related blog entries dynamically right on the article page itself. This is, of course, a variant of the Trackback technology pioneered by MovableType, the people who let me steal their blogging software. (Since I only host one blog, I can use it for free.) You can see Technorati in use on other sites like Salon.com.

To which I say, way cool! My blog could always use more page views. In addition, if I go through all the trouble of finding a related link on the washingtonpost.com site, why shouldn’t they link to me too? It should be a win-win situation. I draw some small amount of traffic their way, and they serve ads when my readers click on links directing them to their site.

But … but I know what is going to happen. It is too good to be true. This will soon become the spammer’s next frontier. Soon bogus blogs will be springing up faster than dandelions in the spring, all referring to prominent and recent Washington Post articles on Washingtonpost.com, or on other newspaper sites highlighting this technology. Presumably, the Post or Technorati have thought about this already, and are only serving trusted blogs.

Good luck to them, but it cannot last. I have noted before that spammers are evil, but ingenious. There is already blog entry generator software out there designed to fool search indexes and news aggregators. They create bogus blog entries with sufficiently interesting words that (they hope) will fool the search engines. They hope that Google and Technorati will not be able to tell real blog entries from the fool’s gold. This evil software in theory lures suckers to their sites and gives them, along with the bogus entry, a heaping dose of advertising. Yes, you too can make a million dollars off the internet, or so these companies claim.

Search engines and news aggregators will doubtless attempt to create ever more sophisticated technologies to get rid of these tomfooleries. Nevertheless, I can see that this will create an ever more vicious cycle. When that happens, then sites like washingtonpost.com will realize they are being suckered, and will stop featuring blogs like mine with related content.

In fact, this particular misuse should appear faster than an alcoholic can retrieve his hooch from behind the couch. I have not examined these related blog links, but I bet some spam links are already out there. After all, washingtonpost.com gets millions of page views a day from all over the world. Placing ads on their site costs serious money, typically purchased for thousands of dollars at a time. Why pay for advertising when you can get it free by creating bogus blog entries?

Therefore, I am betting that washingtonpost.com will show related blog entries for a month, maybe two, before the spammers spoil yet another great idea. Then I will be back to finding readers the old fashion way: through word of mouth or through fortuitous search rankings.

However, while this lasts clever bloggers looking to increase their page views and visits might think through an effective strategy. Thus far, most of my entries featured on the Post’s web site are for articles days or weeks old. Consequently, they tend to show up on the article’s web page itself, rather than indirectly through the “Full List of Blogs” link on the article page. If I were to blog about their top story of the day, I suspect my entry would not get prominently featured for long. It would soon scroll off the page because someone else would create a blog entry that is timelier or perhaps more interesting than mine.

I hope I am proven wrong. This is neat technology. Just as the oxpecker bird removes insects from the skin of the hippopotamus, it is both right and good that bloggers and content providers can also find symbiosis. However, you would be foolish to bet against the spammers.

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