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Smart Tags and Scumware - an update.

There was a furor in 2001 regarding Microsoft's much maligned use of Smart Tags on the web and understandably so. 

For those of you who aren't aware of Smart Tags, one of the applications for them was to give companies, willing to pay the price, the ability to introduce their own hyperlinks onto your web pages - without your knowledge. 

This was to be achieved by special instructions being sent to the browsing software to highlight certain words on pages, enticing surfers to move their mouse over them. A drop down box would then appear over the highlighted word offering a selection of links related to that word. If the link was selected, a visitor would transported from that site to another. 

The owner of the web page would have no control over the destination, nor receive any compensation for unwittingly providing the lead.

You can imagine the backlash from not only web site owners but surfers regarding this invasion of privacy and parasitical form of advertising. If Microsoft had gone ahead with the strategy, it could have meant the end of the affiliate industry and many online business. Microsoft shelved the concept - sort of.

Office XP uses the tags to enhance application functionality in Word, Excel etc. In Word 2002 for example, if you start type a person's name who is in your Outlook Address book, Word recognizes this and can display options for that particular person, such as being able to send them an email or open up the address book to display their address details. It's clever stuff and very useful, but that's where it should stay. 

But Microsoft having backed down didn't stop other unscrupulous companies from picking up on this concept and perfecting it. There are so many browsers infected with scumware now, it's quite incredible - the last estimates I saw were well over 100 million. 

I regularly receive email from site owners angry and confused by incidents where they view their sites on someone else's computer and see words highlighted throughout their content - that they didn't highlight themselves when creating it. When they move a mouse over their content, to their horror a menu has been displayed with links leading out of their site!

Some of the companies involved with scumware include:

eZula's TopText

...and that's just a few - there are dozens more. Textjacking is only one of the aspects of scumware. Depending on the software, it can record every move you make on the Internet and report it back to the company - all under the guise of "enhancing web surfers Internet experience". 

This "enhancing" actually means building up a huge profile on an individual purely to ascertain what kind of ads to display to them and to sell that information to other companies.

How does scumware get on your computer?

With the proliferation of free software in the last half dozen years, we've tended to become complacent with what we are installing. Many scumware companies have their software bundled with free applications. One of the more popular types of software infected with scumware are file-sharing applications. Remember, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

To get around legal problems, when you install the software application, there is usually mention made of the scumware in the EULA - the End User License Agreement. You know, that document that's usually 3 miles long and full of legal jargon! Most of us just click "I agree" and continue with installation.

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It's really important to read those terms and look for text that indicates that the software (or application bundled with it) may somehow modify web pages that are viewed.

I have nothing against a clever advertising campaign, and targeted advertising can be of benefit to people. If I have to look at promotional material, I would much prefer it to be related to the web marketing or ecommerce industry. But the targeting of advertising is the responsibility and privilege of the individual web site owner.

As far as I'm concerned, the textjacking strategy mentioned earlier in this article is nothing short of a breach of copyright. The software developers and advertisers participating should be prosecuted to the fullest degree.

Related learning resources:

The great web advertising debate:

http://www.tamingthebeast.net/ articles/webadvertising.htm 

Email marketing ethics and spam reporting:

http://www.tamingthebeast.net/ articles/EmailMarketingEthicsSpamReporting.htm  

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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