came across what looks like a huge trove of scammy, spammy spam - on Facebook. And it involves Microsoft. Advertising publication AdAge reported tonight on findings from advertising analysts that Facebook sold an estimated $1.86 billion in worldwide advertising for 2010, an amazing sum. Who's spending all that money on Facebook ads? A long, long tail of self-serve advertisers for sure - but near the head of the tail is someone that should have raised a whole lot of red flags.Matt Cutts is the head of Google's anti-webspam team and tonight he
At the end of the AdAge article is a passing mention that the 3rd largest advertiser across all of Facebook, after AT&T and Match.com, is a mysterious company listed as Make-my-baby.com. That site bought an estimated 1.75
million billion ad impressions in the third quarter alone. It doesn't seem like a very nice company. Note:Statements from Facebook and Microsoft are below.
Matt Cutts did something anyone could have done. He visited Make-my-baby.com - but be careful if you do the same.
Updates: AdAge's Edmund Lee confirmed by email that his use of the word million was a typo and it should have been billion. Thanks as always to our eagle eyed commenters. See also Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand, who used contacts at Bing to follow up on this story. It appears that Comscore is denying the report that it found Make-my-ugly-baby was the third largest advertiser, that Bing is making obtuse statements and that the website in question has now vanished from the internet. Interesting.
Microsoft also just sent us this response:
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.
Further update at 11:20 PM PST: A Facebook spokesperson contacted us and said that the company looked around inside its system and concluded that "make-my-baby is not an advertiser at all on Facebook and any affiliates that try to push people there we would shut down. Those ads would not be allowed as part of our policy."
So Facebook says it's never heard of these people and Bing says it has decided to terminate its relationship with them. It may be relevant that Microsoft owns a meaningful amount of Facebook. Very interesting.
Yet Another Update: Below is the Comscore chart that AdAge's Edmund Lee was referring to in his post, he says by email. Here's the text description:
"...ComScore's third-quarter analysis, which looks at how many ad impressions advertisers bought on Facebook and MySpace, though Facebook accounts for almost all of the ad buys."
Conceivably, all those fabulous baby making ads might be the stand-out success of MySpace. Or Facebook is being fooled by a giant ad buyer.
How Does This Work?Microsoft's Bing, like many other companies online, offers affiliate marketers a percentage commission for revenues they drive to the company.
When Zugo gets users to use Bing, those users will click on some number of search ads. Bing will charge advertisers for those clicks, then give Zugo a percentage of that revenue.
Apparently the whole thing is working out pretty well for everyone involved. Zugo, or whatever company in a chain of affiliates it is that's behind this, has found a toolbar promotion strategy that converts very well. 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 Match.com.
The "terms and conditions" link [on Make-my-baby.com] takes you to http://mmb.bingstart.com/terms/ which has phrases like "If Chrome ("CR") is installed on your PC we may change the default setting of your home page on CR to Bingstart.com."
I also noticed this phrase in the Zugo toolbar section: "To uninstall the Toolbar, please visit the Toolbar FAQ ( http://www.zugo.com/toolbar/faq/ )." Sadly, that url is a broken link. It looks like a few people have had trouble uninstalling the Bing/Zugo toolbar, according to pages like http://support.mozilla.com/en-US/questions/746034 or http://mymountain.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-to-remove-bingzugo-toolbar-hijack.html
If make-my-baby.com is Facebook's 3rd biggest advertiser, I wonder how many people are installing this software without reading the fine print that says "Installing the toolbar includes managing the browser default search settings and setting your homepage to bing.com" ?
Some might say that all is fair in love, war and affiliate marketing - that this is just smart work by whoever is behind it. Of course these are 3rd party analysts reporting on the advertisers, too. Make-My-Dumb-Baby might only be the 4th or 5th largest advertiser in reality. It may be spending only a few hundred thousand dollars a year, we can't know from the outside. ComScore, the firm cited for the advertising analysis, does make its very good global name from doing these kinds of estimates well, though.
Either way, I think that prompting people to give access to their browser's settings under false pretense, and then changing their search provider and home page, is unethical.
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. Is that a sustainable monetization strategy? Maybe it is. There is, as they say, a sucker born every minute. There may well be a sucker found every minute too who wants to customize a baby picture on the internet.
Between the incredible growth of casual games that arguably do little for the collective human experience but consume a growing amount of it each day, and monetization like this, it's hard sometimes to take Facebook seriously when it says it wants to bring people together and make the world a better place.
Is no one minding the store? Or are they just minding the cash register and turning away from what the customers are up to? It's in the short-term economic interests of both Facebook and Microsoft to ignore what affiliates are doing. "It's entirely possible, even likely, that Facebook and Microsoft didn't realize this was going on," Cutts said tonight. "I wouldn't assume they were aware of what was going on."
It's notable that this came to light just hours after Facebook posted a 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.
To be fair, it must be very, very challenging to run, grow and innovate with a company that serves 600 million people around the world with a radically new kind of technology (social networking).
I emailed email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to request comment. The press email to Facebook generally gets routed to the right person to answer a question, though it is after midnight West Coast time right now. The email to Microsoft's press account bounced.
We've emailed Microsoft's PR firm as well and will update this post with any comment we receive. See above for the company's reply.