In which a tech startup gets sneaky

The original Plaxo is a little address-book organizing tool that I had always liked quite a bit. It’s got an Outlook plug-in which lets it sit in there and pay attention to the email addresses of people who email me and the people I email. There’s some global information superhighway sort of thing out there that it uses to synchronize these email addresses with everyone’s profiles, so my address book has — for many years now — been more or less up to date. It’s cool.

But now, however, I am having second thoughts about this seemingly-innocent little company.

They’ve started a new Web 2.0-type program called Plaxo Pulse. (It’s in beta.) Plaxo Pulse is sorta-kinda a good idea. It traipses through your address book and emails people to tell them whenever you do something on the tubes. I am now being barraged with emails telling me every time any of my friends post a blog entry, change their cell number, move, post a photo somewhere, etc. I can only assume that the people who consider me a friend (and who use Plaxo) are receiving the same barrage.

That in itself is not so evil. The creators of Plaxo Pulse were wise enough to allow me to disable these email alerts.

Here is why this is evil, and why people should be getting angry: (1) Plaxo Pulse uses blog RSS feeds to import a user’s blog posts into itself and (2) Plaxo Pulse steals blog comments.

  1. Plaxo Pulse uses blog RSS feeds to import a user’s blog posts into itself.

    That means every time I post a blog entry, the entry appear here on my blog (as it should!) and it appears again on the Plaxo Pulse site. This is bad. For years and years there has been a great debate over how Google feels about “duplicate content”. Most people feel that Google penalizes content which exists simultaneously in two places. Whether you believe in the Google “duplicate content penalty” is irrelevant. Google may very well not explicitly penalize one site for plagiarizing another, but there is definitely some sort of effect. Let’s say I write the world’s most brilliant post on the topic of swimming pyromaniacs. There are probably not a lot of other people writing about this. My website would theoretically start to rank highly in Google SERPs whenever someone searches for wet fire-lovers.

    Now let’s imagine that eventually lots of people start talking about swimming pyromaniacs. When other people post blogs about it, they naturally give me credit for exposing this insane practice by linking back to my site. My website receives a SERP ranking “boost” because it is receiving inbound links from other websites mentioning the same topic. (I also — again, theoretically — receive a “boost” because of the age of my post on the topic — I talked about it first — and because of the general popularity of my site.)
    I have advertisements on my site. I get paid when people click these ads. I have a vested interest in ranking highly in Google SERPs.

    But now the exact same content I posted about swimming pyromaniacs is appearing on the Plaxo Pulse website. Plaxo Pulse is a huge website with hundreds of thousands of pages and is growing like kudzu. Plaxo itself is tremendously popular, much more than David Gagne. It is very, very likely that the content I wrote which now appears on the Plaxo Pulse website will rank higher in Google SERPs than that same content on my website. (When someone searches for swimming pyromaniacs in Google, the Plaxo Pulse link is going to appear higher than the link.) The huddled masses tend to click what’s at the top in Google. That means that my ad will not be seen. That’s bad for me.

  2. Plaxo Pulse steals blog comments.

    Even more nefarious is the fact that the blog entry which appears on the Plaxo Pulse website allows visitors to post comments to it. These comments are not posted to my site. They appear on Plaxo Pulse. This is wrong on so many levels. If I don’t ever check Plaxo Pulse (and, presumably, if I have all my Plaxo Pulse email notifications disabled) I will never know that someone commented on my eloquent dissertation on swimming pyromaniacs. If enough people post comments to the Plaxo Post plagiarization of my writing, it will most definitely appear to be more popular (as far as Google is concerned) than my original essay. In fact there will likely be people that read and comment on swimming pyromaniacs at Plaxo Pulse who don’t even know that exists, much less that it / I was the author of the topic.

Here is an example:
My co-worker Bob has a website called Numenware. On January 1st he posted a blog entry about an esoteric math news item. Bob’s original post is here. Bob’s content is plagiarized verbatim on Plaxo Pulse here. A savvy reader will note that someone named David Fotland has posted a comment to Bob’s blog entry at Plaxo Pulse. This comment was “stolen” by Plaxo. It does not appear on Numenware where it should. If I was Bob I would be quite peeved about this.

2024-01-15: Dead links in this post have been removed and/or updated.

There are 9 comments on this post

  1. How is it stealing if:
    – You’ve agreed to Plaxo’s Terms of Service
    – and you’ve chosen to link your blog to your Plaxo pulse???

    Basically, if you don’t link your blog to Plaxo, they have no way of knowing anything about your swimming pyromaniacs blog article. But if you do link your blog, as Bob has done, then you agree to have this content aggregated into your pulse stream. Other people are simply commenting on any individual items within your blog stream.

  2. Don’t worry. I’ve heard of this David Fotland character. Seems to be causing a lot of hubbub around Plaxo these days.

    If I were him, I’d change my name to David Gotland, and then go buy some land, and then stand on that land and scream for days about how your name is Gotland, and yeah, you do.

    You should try posting on something your own size David Hotland. That’s right. That land you bought is hot. Why you ask? Because I just set it on fire, bitch!

  3. David-to be clear: we’re not stealing anything. But this is an area we’d really like to do more with (e.g. syndicating pulse comments back to the original blog), and I’d love your input on how we can best accomplish it.

    Here’s the situation as I see it: plaxo users choose to share their blog (and other types of information like photos, articles, etc.) inside pulse, sometimes publicly, sometimes only with a select group of contacts (e.g. family, friends, or business network). We make it easy for other plaxo users to leave non-anonymous comments with each item they can see in pulse, which creates a very high signal-to-noise ratio, because you know everyone in the discussion.

    Now for privately shared items, we can’t just publicly re-post their comments to a public blog, because the user chose to share it only with some people. But for people who share their blog publicly within pulse (which is not uncommon, esp. for digerati who are used to sharing their thoughts for a public audience), it’s definitely not desirable to have two separate comment threads, one on the blog and one inside plaxo. I think ideally comments could get syndicated in both ways–plaxo users could see what comments were posted to the blog, and comments made inside pulse would find their way back to the blog as well. That way there would just be a single conversation.

    So the question is: assuming you agree with this use case, technically speaking what is the best way to accomplish it? For getting blog comments *into* pulse, I guess if the blog has a comments RSS feed that’s discoverable, and we can associate comments with the blog post they’re from, that shouldn’t be too hard. But for getting pulse comments back onto the blog, I’m not sure what the best solution is. Given the prevalence of comment-spam, most blogs don’t make it easy to post comments in an automated way. I could imagine building plugins for wordpress and movabletype and so on, but I’d prefer a more open solution. Any ideas? Thanks! js

  4. David, I am furious. When I first saw this, I was completely thrown for a loop trying to figure out what had happened, before I figured out that Plaxo has totally shanghaied a comment thread on my blog. Joseph, the way to solve the problem is to NOT HANDLE BLOG COMMENTS IN PULSE.

    Sure, I could disassociate myself from my blog on Pulse. Better yet, I could drop out of Pulse altogether. I’ve used Plaxo since prehistoric times, and think it’s a great service, and yeah yeah I know my list of contacts is really my “social graph” in disguise and so Plaxo can turn into a SNS inundating everyone with information about what everyone else is doing like my friend bought a pair of socks somewhere or my colleague bookmarked some page on delicious, and become one of the COOL Web companies. Sorry, if I wanted to waste my time doing that sort of stuff I would have set up a Facebook account.

    Oh no, actually I did. Then recently I had my first encounter with the feared Beacon monster. I had downloaded Joost–you know, the online TV channel/viewer thing, which I never watch–and they spammed me with some mail about some recent shows and out of boredom I half-accidentally clicked on a music video by some artist named Rihanna who rarely seems to be fully clad and then lo and behold, the next time I logged into FaceBook it was ready to inform all my friends about my surreptitious viewing of the writhing singer. I *think* I was able to stop it from doing that, and now I *think* I’ve turned off all such foolishness, but it’s scary enough that I considered cancellingf my Facebook account entirely because it’s just so USELESS and INCESTUOUS reading about some guy who posted on some other guy’s wall or installed the latest stupid application.

    If Plaxo wants to leverage its based of customers and contact info, which is great, it should figure out something more intelligent than shooting firehoses of low-density information around and it certainly shouldn’t start rogue comment threads. Why not try something around degrees of separation?

  5. To be clear, if you’re main problem is with SEO of your blog entries Plaxo Pulse won’t interfere with that at all. As it stands, almost all content within Pulse requires a user to be logged in to view it. When Google is crawling, they won’t be able to see your blog post since they’re not logged into Pulse. Your public blog will still be the authority on swimming pyromaniacs.

    If Pulse ever starts display user’s content publicly without asking the user, then there might be a larger problem =)

  6. I’m sorry blogging has become such a problem. It was bound to happen when stupid people with nothing to say decided to steal.

    Imagine poor Shakespeare’s feelings if his “blog” and his work was plagiarized all over the place.

    Keep fighting, David. If anyone can fix it, you can!!!

  7. ReadWriteWeb has a story on this here.

  8. I’m not sure if anyone from Plaxo is still following this, but wouldn’t it be a simple solution to just enable users to shut off the commenting on the feeds they share in their profile? This would fill in content, provide the the lifestream functionality, and also soothe the desires of the blogger…

    If you wanted to be REALLY nice, you could even provide a link to the original post that encourages commenting (eg, View the original post to comment >>).

    It makes me wonder if Pulse isn’t more about Plaxo than it is about giving control to the end user. And anyone out there correct me if I’m missing something, but I think Web2.0 is about giving control to the end user…

  9. Plaxo was evil five years ago (do a Google search for Plaxo and evil).
    They are still evil and sneaky.

    I never signed up for the service that I know of.
    I have searched my emails for a confirmation message that you get when you do sign up for something like Twitter or Facebook.
    But somehow I am a member.
    And today I got an email from a distant acquaintance that is “accepting” my request to connect with him on Plaxo.
    I never made that request.

    I spent an hour on their Web site looking for a way to turn this off and all I found was a bland high-sounding privacy policy.

    I have searched the blogs and all I see are people complaining about Plaxo and what looks to me like paid shills in the comments who are saying “What are you whining about? Others are just as bad.”

    Well actually no, the others are not just as bad. Plaxo takes sneaky and evil to another level. Now they are part of Comcast and I cringe when I think what will next appear in my inbox.

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What Is This? is the personal weblog of me, David Vincent Gagne. I've been publishing here since 1999, which makes this one of the oldest continuously-updated websites on the Internet.

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