Forget Smart Tags; TopText Is Doing What You Feared

Remember the hoopla I wrote about in July, where Microsoft's new operating system was going to have "Smart Tags" that turned words on web pages into hyperlinks that it or others could control? Bad press got Microsoft to abandon that idea, but it is in action now through another company's system.

Called TopText, the system from eZula causes yellow hyperlinks to appear under certain words on web pages, if you have the software installed. Which words? Any words that have been sold to eZula's advertisers.

As a result, potentially Coke could advertise so that any time "cola" appeared on the Pepsi site, the word would have a hyperlink leading back to the Coke site. Similarly, Ford could advertise so that the word "car" on any pages across the web -- including those at the General Motors web site -- would link to Ford.

The idea of third-parties adding hyperlinks to other people's web pages isn't new. Before Microsoft broached the idea, software such as Flyswat (later QuickClick), Third Voice and Amazon's zBubbles was also designed to let third parties add information to other people's web pages.

All of the packages I've named are now defunct, victims of the inability to get many users to download the software and the difficulty in making money off the tools. In contrast, TopText may have solved both problems, unfortunately so, in my opinion.

Distribution has been increased by cutting deals to bundle TopText with other software. The most popular among these bundling deals appears to be with KaZaA, a Napster alternative that's been downloaded by millions of people. Apparently unbeknownst to many of them, TopText has been installed with KaZaA, causing TopText's yellow hyperlinks to mysteriously appear on web pages for some users.

For its part, eZula denies that it is building its user base through some type of stealth tactics.

"We take several steps to make sure that users are choosing the service," said Michele McGarry, a spokesperson for eZula. She explained that a description that TopText is to be installed is shown, along with an option to opt in or out of the service.

Despite this, some users clearly were unaware that the software was installed on their computers, judging from feedback on forums and articles written about the program. One of my readers even contacted me trying to understand why yellow links had started appearing on pages he was viewing. He hadn't realized that TopText was installed, after downloading a different program.

Using myself as a guinea pig, I went to the KaZaA site to download its software. That, in turn, directed me to Download.com, which fed me the actual file. I then started the installation and quickly got to a "Partner Programs" screen that had this explanation:

"We have partnered with selected software companies to offer you useful additional software. In the next screen you can opt out of installing any of these. By installing each program you accept the terms of use and the privacy policy for that program. You can find the terms for each program below."

TopText was the first partner program listed, described as "a browser plug-in which gives Internet Explorer relevant quick links." Change the "quick links" to "paid advertiser links," and that explanation would be clearer. Hyperlinks to TopText terms of use and its privacy policy were also listed.

I later got another screen showing exactly which programs I was installing. TopText was among these, but it wasn't set to be automatically enabled. Perhaps it was set to automatically install in earlier versions offered by Download.com. However, in my case, TopText wasn't forced on me -- and even if it had been set to automatically install, I had at least two notifications that it was going to happen.

eZula appears to be solving the monetization problems that hindered other browser companions by selling its links to advertisers. Previous tools such as Flyswat also meant to sell their links, but they primarily tried to do it by cutting affiliate deals and also somewhat disguised the fact that links were sold by mixing in editorial-style links. This helped them win some positive reviews but didn't help their bottom line. In contrast, eZula is proudly positioning TopText as a pay per click advertising option.

The company charges advertisers anywhere between 30 cents to $1 per click. Sites have to be deemed relevant to the terms they select in some way, and so far, only trademark owners would be allowed to purchase trademarked terms -- and these really aren't sold at all, for the moment, McGarry said. What if a trademark was held by more than one company? It would probably be first come, first served, she added.

None of the previous tools had any ability to let site owners "opt out" of their systems. In other words, you couldn't install some type of code to prevent third party hyperlinks from appearing on your web site. While some site owners were concerned about this, we never saw legal action develop, probably because of the low install rate. These tools weren't seen as serious threats.

In contrast, when Microsoft suggested its Smart Tags system would be part of the Windows XP operating system, an opt-out system for site owners was planned. In addition, the system wasn't going to be switched on by default, or so Microsoft said. Despite these two barriers, there was enough concerned expressed that Smart Tags were mothballed.

Now TopText is doing just what many feared Microsoft would do. It's building a substantial user base, with over 2 million users running the software, eZula says. That software is altering the web sites shown to these users, and it does not provide site owners with the ability to exclude its links.

In my book, this is just wrong. I've got nothing against advertising, but placing links on other people's web sites is right up there with framing sites without permission. Framing without permission has lost in some key court battles, and I'd expect TopText and other "graffiti" style tools can expect similar losses when someone inevitably takes them to court.

TopText, as you would imagine, disagrees. No one has threatened it with a lawsuit so far, and it expect to prevail, should that happen:

"Our legal counsel has been aware of everything and is telling us to press forward, that everything is in accordance with the law," McGarry said.

In addition, TopText does make a legitimate argument that its users have rights. Some users no doubt indeed want TopText and like the links it provides. These users have every right to see the web in the way they want, using the tools they want, the company says.

"That's the way the Internet is today. The users choose where to go, what browsers to use, what fonts they view web sites in, what colors they like," said McGarry, who sets hyperlinks in her own browser to appear in pink.

This is the real crux of the argument over TopText and similar tools. Whose rights are most important? The users or the authors?

I suspect it will be the site owners that prevail. I think there is a strong argument that TopText is rewriting an author's material without the author's permission. Apply it to the real world. Some readers might like an annotated version of a popular novel. However, unless you own the copyright to that novel, you can't simply publish your own version. To me, TopText is republishing without permission.

eZula says it is listening to feedback from site owners but has no immediate plans to allow them to opt out from TopText links. Given this, you might try some third-party solutions listed below, express displeasure directly to eZula or perhaps those advertisers making use of TopText links. And, if you got the software installed without knowing or wanting it, uninstall instructions are below.

I had one last question for eZula. Would there be any problem on their end if Microsoft decided to move ahead with Smart Tags? There was a long silence at that one, then a plea that they'd have to look into it more, before McGarry ultimately said that if that's what the user wants, so be it.

"At the end of it, the users decide which of these tools to have on their machine," McGarry said.

eZula Support
http://www.ezula.com/HOTtext/support.asp

Explains how to remove TopText or how to get it, assuming you do indeed want the program.

Software replaces banner ads on top sites
News.com, Aug. 17, 2001
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-6897620.html

Another software application, Gator, has a new trick for interacting with web sites. It replaces their banner ads with those of other advertisers. But hey, says Gator, that's what our users want!

IAB Lawyers to Recommend Action Against Gator.com
InternetNews.com, Aug. 20, 2001
http://www.internetnews.com/IAR/article/0,,12_869591,00.html

The Interactive Advertising Bureau may take legal against Gator.

Latest Online Ad Gimmick: Hyperlinks
PC World, Aug. 3, 2001
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,57064,00.asp

Covers how TopText is distributed and includes a quote from Google that they aren't yet concerned about TopText links that appear in their search results. Google says this is still the case -- they aren't concerned, but only because their understanding is that the installed user base is still relatively low. Also mentions similar programs such as SurfPlus and AdPointer.

Can networks harness P2P for profit?
ZDNet, Aug. 2, 2001
http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/news/0,4586,5095127,00.html

Discusses how free software tools such as KaZaA are looking to bundling deals with ad companies in order to stay in business. In addition, advertisers say they love those TopText links.

Mystery links New Web advertising tool gets results, draws criticism
San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 2001
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/07/30/BU231339.DTL

Excellent article explaining how TopText is distributed, concerns raised by the tool and how it has gained favor with some advertisers such as Wells Fargo bank.

Scumware.com
http://scumware.com/

A protest site against the TopText software and similar applications such as Surf+. Lots of information and resources here. "We've been able to communicate with all of the TopText advertisers except one, and they have all cancelled their advertising," said Jim Wilson, who is behind the site.

Gazette article about stolen traffic through PPC
http://gethighforums.com/Forum10/HTML/001386.html
http://gethighforums.com/Forum10/HTML/001409.html

I didn't go through all of the nearly 50 pages of posts that start with the first URL and end with the second. But suffice to say, many at the Search Engine Forums are upset. Many are also discussing actions to take, such as emailing TopText advertisers and raising awareness about the program.

Don't Eat the Yellow Links
http://slashdot.org/features/01/07/31/2015216.shtml

Many Slashdot folks aren't too happy with TopText, either. But not everyone hates the program. "Keep your * hands out of my browser!!! If I want to use TopText, it's my * business, not yours. If I want to use their service on your web page, IT'S MY RIGHT. It's my computer. I can view your page any way I want. It's called 'fair use'," wrote one person.

eZula Petition
http://www.petitiononline.com/toptext/petition.html

A petition against TopText.

Deactivating TopText
http://www.ipagedir.com/ezula/deactivate.toptext.htm

Provides instructions on blocking TopText through code you can install on your own site.

eZula Script Killer
http://www.searchking.com/ezulakiller/

Executes a JavaScript reload that is said to disable TopText. However, it calls this script off the SearchKing web site, rather than your own web pages.

Fighting eZula
http://www.whirlywiryweb.com/q/ezula.asp

Want to know if TopText is installed? This will detect it and help you uninstall it, if you don't want it.

Metadata for Everyone
SearchDay, Aug. 2, 2001
http://searchenginewatch.com/searchday/01/sd0802-annotea.html

Even the W3C is looking at ways to allow third parties to add comments to documents they don't own or control.

Microsoft Smart Tags Abandoned
The Search Engine Report, July 2, 2001
http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/01/07-smarttags.html

Details on Microsoft giving up on its plan to add "Smart Tags" to web pages viewed by those using Internet Explorer and Windows XP, following bad publicity over the system.

Searching for a Faithful Companion
SearchDay, May 15, 2001
http://www.searchenginewatch.com/searchday/01/sd0515-companion.html

Companion tools like Flyswat and GuruNet seemed full of promise but lost steam by requiring users to download them and not paying their way to investors.

NOTE: SINCE THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN, HERE ARE SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND INFORMATION ON THE TOPIC.

Scumware steals your traffic
PayPerClickSearchEngines.com, Aug. 31, 2001
http://www.payperclicksearchengines.com/update-newsletter-016.shtml#a1

Some of these graffiti tools have had, or still have, partnerships with paid listing search engines to help fill their inventory. As a result, many words on a web page might get links leading back to the top advertiser for that word at a particular paid listing service or to a list of search results from the service. GoTo never seems to have done this. According to this article, FindWhat and Kanoodle had partnered with Surf+ but have stopped. Some other, smaller services are also named. The best advice is to check with any paid listing service you advertise with about whether they have these type of partnerships, if you are concerned they're not likely to bring quality traffic.

Smart Tags: Dumb Technology?
WebReference, Aug. 29, 2001
http://www.webreference.com/xml/column38/

Though Microsoft has pulled back on its plans to deploy Smart Tags, the technology is still there and can be made active, assuming users have all the necessary components installed. This article takes a closer look about how you can deploy it for your own purposes.

Gator.com Sues IAB
InternetNews.com, August 28, 2001
http://www.internetnews.com/IAR/article/0,,12_874391,00.html

Gator, accused by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of replacing banner ads illegally, fires back by suing to have the allegations ruled unfounded.

"Keyword" software raises ire
MSNBC, Aug. 24, 2001
http://www.msnbc.com/news/618966.asp

Comprehensive look at the current issue with graffiti software. Discusses how some partnerships with some paid placement search engines caused some Surf+ users to reach porn sites and how FindWhat broke off its partnership with Surf+. Please note that MSNBC seemed to be having problems on Sept. 4, making this link not appear. I expect that should be fixed soon.

Gator's Legal Feud Means Big Publicity
Forbes, Aug. 29, 2001
http://www.forbes.com/2001/08/29/0829gator.html

A look at Gator, with stats on clickthrough, number of users (8 million) and the 200 advertisers paying at least $25,000 each to participate in the program. My favorite part is this: "The hitch is that Gator ads are never served on the actual site--they are always popup ads that float over areas of a Web site where advertising is traditionally served. And according to Gator, that makes the company's practices perfectly legal." Actually, no one has any idea whether this is legal. It's not a situation we've had before, and we'll only know if it is legal as lawsuits take place.