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More Questions On Adware & Search Ad Distribution

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Last month, we wrote about allegations that Ask Jeeves was gaining distribution through misleading installations of software. A month later, and the allegations continue, plus the issue grows to involve the entire industry more generally. A recap of some recent stories, plus a closer look at how I come away mislead by one of Ask's bundling partners.

More on Google's Role: Syndicated Ads Shown Through Ill-Gotten Third-Party Toolbars out today from adware/spyware researcher Ben Edelman looks at:

  • Google ads appearing through Ask Jeeves toolbar and software distribution, which has come under fire for possibly misleading installations.
     
  • Google ads appearing through IBIS WebSearch toolbar distribution, despite practices by that partner that seem to violate Google's software principles.

Meanwhile, Uneasy Rider out last week from Newsweek looks anew at accusations that the Ask Jeeves-owned MySearch toolbar gets installed unknowingly by computer users. Installations mean traffic for Ask Jeeves, but the accusations of user hijacking could sour the planned InterActiveCorp purchase of the company.

The story recounts Ask Jeeves putting the blame on distribution partners doing things they shouldn't and facing termination by Ask if caught. Barry Diller, chair and CEO of InterActiveCorp, dismissed concerns as an issue in a recent analyst conference, the article also notes.

The Newsweek article was sparked by Ben Edelman's recent investigation into alleged misleading software installation practices by Ask Jeeves. Ask sent me its responses and denials of wrongdoing, which I published in my Ask Jeeves Denies Adware Installing Charge & Other Accusations post. But I heard soon afterward from Edelman feeling the company really didn't answer things fully. He emailed me:

I don't think AJ has responded at all to Ask Jeeves Toolbar Installs via Banner Ads at Kids Sites or Comparison of Unwanted Software Installed by P2P Programs: iMesh. Furthermore, they've said they've terminated the single distributor I showed to have improper practices in my video posted earlier this month. But they've said nothing about how this happened or how this problem could have continued without them noticing. And they've made no statement that's at all relevant as to the fact that I have multiple other videos on file, showing other distributors doing the same thing. I can't characterize so incomplete a response as "a response" as that term is ordinarily used.

Up Close With iMesh

Curious to see for myself, I took at look at iMesh today, one of Ask's bundling partners mentioned in Edelman's original report and again in his latest one. The iMesh home page tells me I can use it to connect with fire sharing networks to find music and video on the web. It promises things like "100% Clean - No Popups - No Spyware - No Trojans." The home page says nothing about installing a general purpose search toolbar. The closest it comes to this is saying:

Search for Music and Videos on iMesh from within Internet Explorer!

Clicking to download the software takes me over to Download.com's download page for the program. That page also says nothing about getting a general purpose search toolbar as part of this software.

How about the install? A very long privacy statement comes up. If you read through this, about midway down, you discover for the first time that a toolbar comes along as part of the setup:

10.3 The iMesh Software installs a toolbar into the web browser (the "iMeshBar") on Your computer. Upon receiving Your search query, the iMeshBar conducts a search with the web browser and in the course of processing a given search query, sends a request to Licensor's servers. This request includes the keyword query, time of day, browser type, default language setting, IP address, an anonymous unique ID, and a code which identifies the distribution source of the iMeshBar used by You to conduct your search. If the search query is being generated as the result of a misspelled URL or search term entered in to the browser address bar, Licensor also receives the misspelled URL address or search term. Licensor uses this information in order to properly process your search request. For example, this data provides Licensor with: information on which language You prefer to use; aggregated click information for the purpose of ensuring that Licensor's search partners are appropriately compensating Licensor; information that allows Licensor to make accurate payments to its distributors; aggregated usage and retention information; and aggregated search query information for the purpose of further monetizing commercially oriented search keywords.

Here's what I take away from that:

  • I can search for files (such as music and video, as promised on the iMesh home page) from a toolbar in my web browser.
     
  • Nothing is said that other types of searches are offered.
     
  • If I enter a query into my browser address bar or enter an incorrect URL, that will be turned into a general search request

Carrying on past the agreement, the installation program says it will install iMesh but makes no mention of any other products or software that will come along for the ride.

iMeshBar That Doesn't Do File Search

So what happened? After my installation, the iMesh search application came up. This let me search for music and files as promised. I did a search for "cars" and got lots of promising MP3 files listed.

I also got the iMeshBar toolbar installed into my Internet Explorer browser. This is what's supposed to help me search for files via iMesh, as promised on the iMesh home page. However, that's not the default function. By default, if you enter a word and hit return or click "Search," you get back results from an iMesh-branded version of Ask Jeeves-owned My Web Search.

What if you want to change the default to file search, as promised? You can't. An option to change the default behavior is listed at the top and bottom of search result pages.  However, you can only change to one of four major web search providers: Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves or LookSmart.

There is a special iMesh button on the toolbar. Does pushing this get me actual iMesh music/video/file results in my browser, as promised? Nope. What it does is cause the iMesh software application to fire up, and then the results appear over there, in that entirely separate application.

iMesh Verdict? I Felt Mislead

So what's the conclusion about iMesh? Has this Ask Jeeves partner done wrong by me? Yes, though I honestly expected worse.

  • I was never told I'd get a general purpose search toolbar as part of the installation, but I did.
     
  • I was promised a toolbar in my browser to deliver actual iMesh file search results, and that didn't happen.
     
  • My default browser search behavior was surprisingly unchanged. iMesh didn't try to change the default search provider that's linked to the native Search button in IE. However, it may be because the Google Toolbar already made changes earlier and resisted alteration. It could also be that my Microsoft anti-spyware tool blocked this change from happening.

Overall, I find myself generally agreeing with what Edelman said about the installation when he looked at it. iMesh didn't even hint that I'd get a new general purpose search toolbar in my browser, but that's what it gave me. Contrast that against the statement Ask Jeeves said it wants to have happen after Edelman's claims came out:

We want consumers to download our toolbars for the great functionality we offer and the volume of decidedly positive feedback combined with the millions of active users who have sent over 1 billion smileys to date seems to indicate people are doing just that.

With iMesh, nothing I've seen indicates that a consumer downloading iMesh had any clue that they'd also get an iMeshBar providing general web searching via Internet Explorer, rather than actual file searching. At the very least, requiring iMesh to link to the help page about the iMeshBar from the iMesh home page would have provided a better clue.

Getting Rid Of iMesh

Done with my testing, could I free myself of iMesh's clutches, often an issue with adware and spyware installations? iMesh provides its own uninstall program that's easily found via the iMesh program folder. In addition, there's an option to remove iMesh from the Windows Add/Remove Program control panel. So, two easy ways to remove iMesh.

Ah, but what about the iMeshBar itself? The Windows Add/Remove tool shows this as a separate installation. That leads me to wonder if removing iMesh using its own uninstall tool will still leave the toolbar behind. I suspect this is the case. I know that after using iMesh's own tool, iMesh disappeared from the Windows Add/Remove tool, implying it was gone from my system. The iMeshBar add/remove option remained, however.

I haven't yet rebooted my computer, something the iMesh install program says it needs me to do in order to finish the job. Once that happens, it could be that the iMeshBar will also disappear. I'll report back here on what happens. But if the iMeshBar remains, it's another misleading point to me. If I say to remove iMesh -- and you don't clearly indicate that iMeshBar is a separate program when installing -- then you should take it away when I uninstall.

By the way, the Newsweek article noted above sheds some new light on the Ask situation, with Ask saying it is now monitoring uninstall rates across its various distributors. If it sees a spike, then it supposedly knows a particular distributor may be doing something wrong.

What I'd like to see -- as author Brad Stone of the Newsweek article points out as a problem -- is a clear affiliation between Ask and these products.

For example, go to My Web Search and try to discover how it's affiliated with Ask. The Ask brand is nowhere to be seen that I can easily spot, despite the fact that Ask owns the property. Drill into the help page about the toolbar, and there's still no mention. If I go into the help page about My Info, THEN notice a page about help for the separate My Way site, THEN go to the About Us page, I finally discover:

My Way is a property of Ask Jeeves, Inc.

That's a lot of work, if I want to understand the parent company behind all of this. How about an About Us link right on the My Web Search site itself that identifies Ask as the owner. Then if people have issues, they can take it right to the top.

I want the same on cobranded sites like the one iMesh operates. The About My Search page there, listed on the home page, should make it clear that Ask Jeeves is a partner in what's being shown. That should be a requirement for Ask partners, along with a way to report if you felt you were someone misleading directed to the site. That way, if someone has a problem with an Ask partner, the message can easily be delivered.

Growing Concern On Ad-Backed Adware & Spyware

The latest articles from Edelman and Newsweek are just part of a trend of renewed focus on appropriate ad support of adware and spyware. Some further reading:

  • Are ad networks getting a free pass? from MarketWatch is a look from last month at how New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and others are looking at legal aspects to stem spyware. The worry for ad providers such as Google, Yahoo or their resellers is that participation with such programs -- even indirectly -- could come back to haunt them. It also looks at how much having a code of conduct may protect providers.
     
  • Spyware, Adware, and the Future from iMediaConnection looks at a recent panel on spyware and adware about advertisers themselves perhaps wanting to disassociate from being show via adware. Of course, if you buy search ads with Google, you can't prevent this unless you exclude everything but Google's own sites. On Yahoo, you can't prevent this at all. Source exclusion for the extended search networks both provide isn't offered.
     
  • FindWhat Profits Down Amidst Tough Decisions from last month looks at how FindWhat said recently it would remove distribution partners generating a "meaningful percentage" of clickthroughs that aren't converting for advertisers. Adware/spyware traffic isn't specifically called, but some distribution via these means is probably involved.
     
  • Big Firms' Ad Bucks Also Fund Spyware from the Los Angeles Times from May looks at how adware and spyware generates cash for ad networks, with intermediaries often sitting between the main ad providers and the distribution partners.
     
  • FTC Honcho Praises Spitzer's Suit Against Adware Purveyor from MediaPost in May has a US Federal Trade Commission representative suggestion that putting out ads via software tie-ins without proper disclosure might be considered deceptive advertising.
     
  • Edelman Reports on Google's Role as "Advertising Intermediary" from Ben Edelman earlier this month looks at how Google ads get distributed via middleman/intermediaries via software that may be installed in a misleading fashion.

Want to discuss? Visit our forum thread, Smore' Bad PR for Ask - MySearch Toolbar Installs


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