Benjamin EdelmanResearch on WhenU Search Engine Spamming, and Its Consequences

May 12, 2004 - Updated May 22, 2004

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Today I released WhenU Spams Google, Breaks Google 'No Cloaking' Rules, documenting at least thirteen web sites operated with WhenU's knowledge and approval (if not at WhenU's specific request) that use prohibited methods to attempt to manipulate search engine results as to searches for WhenU and its products.

Some of these cloaking sites do offer information about WhenU, but their genuine information is interspersed with a mix of gibberish as well as with articles copied, without attribution of any kind, from the New York Times, c|net, and others. Meanwhile, most or all of the sites were registered with invalid whois data -- most registered on the same day through the same registrar, but to five different names with five different gibberish email addresses in four states.

Sound too weird to be true? It turns out these behaviors are part of a practice called "search engine cloaking" -- designed to make search engines think a site is about one subject, when in fact the site redirects most visitors to totally different content. The situation is complicated, and the easiest way to understand it is to read my article, complete with HTTP transmission logs and annotated HTML code.

Meanwhile, Google's response was swift: I notified Google of the cloaking infractions on Sunday, and WhenU's sites were removed from Google by Wednesday. Try a Google search for "whenu" and see for yourself: You'll get critics' sites and news coverage, but not www.whenu.com itself.

In subsequent research, I also found that WhenU has been copying news stories from around the web, without any statement of license from the respective publishers. See WhenU Copies 26+ Articles from 20+ News Sites. After I released this article, WhenU deleted the article copies from the dozen WhenU sites on which they had been posted. Fortunately, I kept plenty of screenshots. Meanwhile, at least one affected publisher has confirmed that the copies were unauthorized.

These aren't WhenU's only controversial business practices. For one, there's WhenU's core business -- showing context-triggered pop-up advertisements that cover other companies' web sites, without those sites authorization, a subject which has brought on extensive litigation. In addition, I previously discovered that WhenU violates its own privacy policy. In its privacy policy (as it stood through May 22), WhenU tells (told) its users that "URLs visited ... are not transmitted to whenu.com or any third party server." WhenU's software installers continue to say the same, sometimes even more explicitly ("does not track, collect or send your browsing activity anywhere"). But my research indicates otherwise -- that WhenU transmits to its servers the specific web pages users visit, and that it makes these transmissions every time users see WhenU advertisements. Details, including HTTP logs and screen-shots, are in my WhenU Violates Own Privacy Policy.