Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spam has moved to copy/paste and URL hashes

One of my responsibilities is to create an email newsletter for some friends of mine. In order to do that I scour the Internet using Google Alert, RSS feeds and other nefarious means like that. The job consists of opening each page, copy pasting the URL, the title and then finding the most effective way to express the content of the page, which is often one of the first paragraphs. And what do I get when doing that? A sort of weird marketing spam that is as annoying as it is (in my view) pointless.

Here is what happens: first you go to a page using a normal URL, let's say you googled it. Once it loads you look at the address bar and see what is called a hash added to the URL, probably used to identify your visits for marketing purposes. Example NewScientist: mouse over the link to see the actual URL, then click on it to see what actually happens. I have tracked this to the AddThis scripts, when configured with the parameter data_track_addressbar:true. So in case you wondered if the site you are visiting chose to add that ugly hash there, yes it has!

Another thing that happens: You select a paragraph of a page, you copy it, you paste it in your email only to see added stuff to the text, like "See more - some URL". Check it out at Astro Bob's. Try copying something from the blog and pasting it into Notepad. The crappy string at the end is added by ShareThis, usually by its WordPress plugin. This time it was their fault, as they added some crap in the plugin. All Astro Bob has to do [hint! hint!] is to disable the feature.

Now all that remains is to understand why. According to marketing reports, the sharing of information on the Net via copy&paste is more than 80%. So they want people to be able to control what happens with the information they publish, and it is a reasonable goal, but this is not the solution. Instead, what users will do is either get annoyed with the spam they have to clear from URLs and pasted text or, and that should concern the site owners, not copy from them at all. And if you thought having your information disseminated on the Internet without your knowledge and/or consent was bad, wait until nobody cares about it at all.