The Old School Scam Infecting Facebook

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A curious detail was reported in Advertising Age this week. According to an eMarketer report, Facebook took in a whopping $1.86 billion in advertising revenue in 2010. The social network's third biggest advertiser? If you've never heard of that company, don't worry--very few have. It's a site that lets users play dress-up with a goofy-looking image of a baby (add a mustache, add eyeglasses, etc.). How does a site like this generate enough revenue to become Facebook's third-biggest advertiser? That's what tech blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick aimed to find out. The results were pretty unsettling.

Upon visiting, users are immediately prompted to install a browser plug-in to "present an enhanced experience." But enhancing your experience isn't the only feature it's giving you. As the fine print of the plug-in explains, it's also resetting your browser's default search and homepage to, Microsoft's search engine. According to Kirkpatrick, Microsoft pays off these affiliates to switch users to Bing regardless of how unsavory their methods may be.

"Apparently the whole thing is working out pretty well for everyone involved," Kirkpatrick writes. "Enough people install this plug-in, and it captures enough downstream revenue, that it pays off for the company to buy more Facebook ads than any company on earth, except for AT&T and" The blogosphere reacts:

  • This Is Unacceptable, writes Andy Lark, a self-described global communications and marketing professional: "At some point, there needs to be an ethical standard for affiliate marketers. And if the industry doesn't do it, I'm sure the Government will ... Prompting people to give access to their browser's settings under false pretense, and then changing their search provider and home page, is unethical."
  • This Is Astonishing, writes Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read Write Web: "It's pretty remarkable that even at the top of this giant success story of Facebook advertising, and perhaps near the top of the story of Bing's steady rise as a search engine, is a Web 1.0-style pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible internet users"
  • Reminds Me of Days of Old, writes Harry McCracken at Technologizer, recalling the "ugly practices of the early-to-mid-2000s in which advertising companies and their partners used a number of practices to install software that pelted PC users with pop-ups and otherwise fouled up their computers... For the most part, the companies involved in the earlier round of cheesy PC invasions got what was coming to them."
  • Hold On: It's Not the 3rd Largest Advertiser  Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land does some follow-up research with ComScore, a marketing research company that tracks Internet data. According to the company, "Make-my-baby was not one of the top advertisers on Facebook" in 2010.
  • Microsoft Terminates Its Relationship with the Company  In a letter to Search Engine Land posted this afternoon, a Bing spokesperson says:
Distribution deals and affiliate programs are an important part of how all search engines introduce their product to customers.   That said, we have been made aware of some practices from a specific publisher that are not compliant with the guidelines, best practices and principles put in place by Bing.  As a result, the relationship with this publisher will be terminated.
  • Either Way: Let's Not Completely Give Up on Facebook Yet, adds Lark: "Facebook, like any fast growing, young enterprise, in an equally young industry, has it’s work cut out for it in managing dynamics like this. Moves like their late-night retraction of its controversial new feature that allowed 3rd party apps on the site to request the home addresses and phone numbers of users was a good move and gives me confidence that they will sort this as well."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.