When Does Social ‘Aggregation’ Become ‘Stealing’?


[Bear with me. This isn’t really about Google. I promise.]

So, last week I accused Michael Gray of being off his crazy pills when he accused Google of stealing content and hijacking traffic by showing a business’ hour and review information in the SERPs. Michael and I don’t always agree but I typically ‘get’ where he’s coming from. However, this time I didn’t. It seemed like he was making a big deal out of nothing because, as Patrick Sexton so eloquently tweeted, businesses want customers, not Web visitors. If Google wants to improve user experience by displaying business information in the SERPs, that seemed okay. They weren’t stealing it; they were just being useful by aggregating it.

But then something funny happened. And it was suddenly like I was chewing on the exact same crazy pills the doctor had prescribed Michael. It started with a WordPress plugin.

I love Tamar Weinberg’s Techipedia blog. I may always misspell it (my brain is convinced it’s Technipedia), but she provides some of the Web’s best material on social media. I headed over there last week to link to one of her posts and noticed that she was using the BackType plugin for WordPress that allows you to pull content from sources who mentioned a certain URL. Because we linked to a post written by Tamar, she’s using the plugin to pull in ALL the comments that people left on our blog post that linked to her. So everything that OUR commentors said about OUR post now shows up in the comments of her post.

It looks like this:

As a blogger protective of her community, you can probably understand why I wanted to punch that plugin in the face. From the outside looking in, that plugin steals our comments, our commenters and moves our entire conversation to a foreign location. Dude!

I discovered the plugin through Tamar but it’s obviously no fault of hers what it does. She’s just trying to guestimate relevant content to her community. And a quick search shows she’s certainly not the only person using it. I became obsessed with looking into this plugin and the effect that ‘aggregating content’ was having on our site and our community.

Aggregated Duplicate Content

We did a search for an exact comment left on an Outspoken post to see if Tamar’s blog post outranked us for our own content. We were happy to see that it didn’t, but we also know that we’re lucky in that regard. We have a strong link profile on Outspoken and we’re able to match up against the strong link profile held by Tamar.

That made us keep digging.

We went to another post of hers and took an exact comment that was taken from January’s roundup post on Matt McGee’s Small Business SEM blog. Anyone familiar with that blog knows it has a strong reputation for producing great content. However, even with that reputation and link profile, it’s still Tamar’s site that shows first for the search. That made me worry. Because if this can happen innocently with a blog as strong as Small Business SEM, then what does this potentially mean for smaller/niche bloggers without such high profiles and backlink equity? Or, if we’re getting mischievous, what if someone wanted to purposely hijack your community and commenters? It felt as if this plugin was giving them a way to do that.

Aggregated User Experience

Potential for duplicate content issues aside, what about the effect aggregation is having on user experience? Thanks to this post, we’ve now linked to three of Tamar’s posts in a context that has nothing to do with the thoughts and theme of her original post. That means that every comment now left on this post will be aggregated into the actually-relevant comments on her post. What happens when irrelevant comments start to overpower (or at least outnumber) the relevant comments? Her audience is probably going to get confused. Even though the plugin is obviously meant to increase user experience, I question whether or not it actually does.

The plugin does a good job identifying what blog the aggregated comments come from, however, since when do people read on the Internet? They don’t. What if people miss the credit link and don’t realize the comments are from our community, not Tamar’s? They may ask a direct question or make a direct comment to one of the Outspoken commenters and find themselves frustrated when there isn’t a response. Then they start questioning the friendliness and helpfulness of one or both communities. That’s not good.

The Question…

It’s all left me wondering something.

With Google aggregating business information and displaying it in the search results and with plugins aggregating tweets and comments from one community and displaying them on another… where’s the line between aggregation and content theft? I was quick to dismiss Michael’s claim that Google was stealing content because I thought it provided value.  Does that matter?  Do we measure degree of value? Is everything on the Web simply fair game?

I’m asking you.

Your Comments

  • Tamar Weinberg

    Thanks for writing this, Lisa. I’ve been debating how to deal with BackType, especially with regards to totally irrelevant comments on blog posts.

    When the comments are relevant, the tool is a godsend. When the comments are totally off-topic, the tool is a nuisance.

    I want to make it clear that I don’t want irrelevant comments on my blog.

    I’ve manually purged a ton of comments ever since I installed the plugin, but it’s clearly not enough. The thing is — the way BackType is set up right now — I don’t even see the incoming comments, so I haven’t been able to confirm or delete them.

    There have been a few times when people say “hey, you’re pulling in unrelated discussion.” That’s when I start deleting the comments. It’s been a hassle so far, hence the reason for me to try to figure out what approach is best.

    For the purposes of capturing relevant discussion, I guess I will have to start going through each individual comment, turn on BackType moderation, or turn off the plugin. I haven’t quite figured out which way suits me best. I’ll figure it out — thanks for giving me some motivation on that front. :)

    • Lisa Barone

      I imagine you get A LOT of links to your blog every day so I can’t even imagine the work it must be to go in and manually kill comments. Do you think the time investment in doing that is worth the value your readers get from it? I’m definitely interested. I can see how it might be interesting to pull in relevant conversations from all over the Web, however, the plugin itself kind of freaks me out a little just because I can see all the ways it can be used for evil by people who aren’t as community-focused as you are.

      I appreciate you chiming in. You know I’m an avid reader of Techipedia…even if I can’t spell it. ;)

      • Tamar Weinberg

        I think that it’s a lot of work for little return, but there’s some gain there when I have all the *relevant* discussion in one place, especially if nothing else, for the simple act of aggregating the data for all readers to see (and even to help them discover other relevant blogs!)

        It’s rather cool to see the “around the web” discussion on blog posts. I absolutely know that this can get out of hand, though, and you nailed it. This is a huge problem with BackType.

        There ARE related discussions on other blogs, but you might be right — I’m going to have to figure this one out. I’m not really keen on the manual moderation of all these other discussions, which is why I hadn’t turned it on (thankfully it’s off by default), and usually just wait for the personal messages to come my way alerting me of pulling in unrelated discussion.

        I’m hoping there’s a better way, but probably not with BackType. Still, though, they do have a pretty sweet tool.

        • Andy Beard

          I am pretty much with Michael on this, and when I saw lots of comments on Tamars blog from other places recently, I almost wrote something.

          Even worse was the plugin is written such that all those comments also come through to me as an email subscriber to the comments on the post.

          Yes it can be abused. Just find someone using Backtype and there are certainly ways to get all their comment subscribers to receive tons and tons of spam about blue pills which is then email spam.

          ANother issue of course is what is fair to the commenter. It is bad enough monitoring a conversation at a place where you have commented, but Backtype adds another (maybe many) location to the mix.
          If you imagine a situation where every blog had backtype, and you linked to 40 in a roundup post, comments on that post are going to be scattered everywhere.
          What happens if it is tons of negative sentiment about a brand you represent now appearing in the comments of 40 blogs, not just one.

          Blogs tend to outrank social media sites like Friendfeed, Twitter etc, even for the comments.

          It is not just Backtype, I discovered some pretty nasty privacy issues with Disqus. Maybe it is time for commenters to own their comments 100% and have total control of where and if they get displayed.

  • adamvonwillis

    Great article, Lisa! This really is an area that hasn’t been talked about too much, but I think it’s going to prove to be very important in the future of SEO. My gut feeling is that services like BackType are terrible and killing the internet, but I also feel like it could possibly evolve into something more useful. I think this is one of those “only time will tell” issues.

  • Warren Whitlock

    Do you think you are Facebook now?

    You speak as if you own my comments or that publicly posted business hours are Intelectual property.

    You were right when you told Michael Gray that businesses should not put web traffic ahead of getting a customer. If Tamar wants to post this comment on TechipediaI I’m excited to be noticed… and I think you ought to be happy to get the backlink too.

    • Lisa Barone

      I don’t think I’m anyone, I’m just asking a question. With all the different types of aggregation, I think it’s something we’re going to have to look at more and more. Certainly not attacking Tamar, just thought I’d open it up.

      As a community person, I can see how it may be cool to get opinion from all over the Web. However, if you’re a niche blogger it may be disappointing to see larger blogs like Tamar’s outranking you for your own comment. There’s two sides to it.

      As for the linking issue…I’m not sure grabbing links to individual comments with the anchor text [outspoken media] is helping our linking goals any. :)

    • Ben Cook

      Warren, for the purposes of this discussion I think Lisa & Outspoken Media do own your comments (or at least the ones posted here). You’re free to go leave the same comments elsewhere but they certainly have the right to expect people to treat their comment content the same way they treat their blog posts etc.

      Also, I would be highly skeptical of that backlink counting for much but I’ll need to see the plugin in action a couple of times before being confident in that.

  • Ryan L. Cox

    [I promise this isn’t going to be too much of a I love Lisa. Okay maybe it might]

    There are few topics that get me stepping outside of my world (mobile & events) but this is one of them, and it’s one of three people that can get me to deviate from my already in progress keystrokes. Along the same topic: I was asked to stop using Posterous by a blogger this week, because she saw it as content stealing. This was someone I had highly respected in the branding space, and I had shared her blog from Facebook to RT’s, Posterous and everything in between for weeks. However with her manner in approaching me, I haven’t returned back to her blog since.

    How can that be?

    My distaste for something, that in the grand scheme of things she had every right to be ‘upset’ with, has kept me from returning – mind you to something that had been of extreme value content wise.

    Where is the line drawn? I share information through a feed system on twitter, and people turn to me, for that information. It gives every linkable credit possible, but should I be allowed credit for that information? What if I pick up a client from the ‘knowledge’ I’m passing along — is there any attribution that should be given? The comments created around my tweets, my posterous — that is never given in the comments portion of the actual blog. Is that fair?

    I find the area to be as gray as color-wheel possible. It’s the internet, there aren’t any rules. And if I link to your site in some manner, and attribution is given — what could you possible be upset about? More views? Extended exposure? However last time I checked, every coin has two sides. Share a link to my actual post. Give credit to any user name I have within that system. Don’t pull my content or comments into your space. These are opposing sides that have to find some middle ground to play fairly in. Otherwise, the internet would break. Plain and simple.

    Here is my 140 (more like 980) $0.02:
    – if link-backs are given, deal with it
    – good content beats bad
    – link profiles are a game with or without duplicate content
    – people game systems
    – people attempt to give just due, and in turn steal

    I don’t think there is anything that can be said for the un-official rules and regulations of the internet. The fact remains in my opinion we’ve done a fabulous job at making the sharing involved on the internet too complex. Over thinking the how’s, and forgetting the why’s. I don’t pretend to understand the majority of the nuts and bolts of this issue – it simply isn’t my field.

    But the outsiders opinion:

    We’ve let a guy with a gun into the party. We can either all work together, to make sure the gun’s never fired. Or it’s a fight till the death. We can all fight for the gun (link/search), and those people (websites) that get the gun (share) will kill everyone else in the process. Whether intentional or not.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think it’s the ‘attribution’ thing I don’t agree with. Because in this cause ‘attribution’ feels a lot like ‘stealing’. Attribution is when you reference something and then share where it came from. They’re just taking comments.

      And I’m not going to lie, the gun analogy totally went over my dumb little head. :)

      • Ryan L. Cox

        So in the case of the comments – I think we’d agree it’s stealing. It would be hard for anyone to even attempt to convince me otherwise. How is it not stealing from a friend to sell to another friend? I’ll take your comments, to engage my audience.

        But outside of this case, where is the line drawn on ‘attribution’ when it comes to sharing? Is this citations of the internet? I was never good at that in school papers.

        So was it a bad analogy, or just one that until showered u couldn’t say “oh I get it?” lol

        • Tamar Weinberg

          “I’ll take your comments, to engage my audience.”

          I hope that’s not why people are doing this. It’s certainly not why I use it.

          I take comments to feature relevant discussion, not to engage the audience. That type of engagement should continue to occur on the original/appropriate blogs.

          • Ryan L. Cox

            Unfortunately Tamar, I think you would be on the shorter list of people doing it for the RIGHT reasons, as opposed to the wrong.

            “That type of engagement should continue to occur on the original/appropriate blogs.”

            I agree completely. So let’s step out of the comments portion – what if I RT or share a post on Facebook. And the conversation happens outside of the original/appropriate blogs. Again, I’m gaining conversation, around a topic I had nothing to do with originating.

            Stealing by choice or my accident, I think it’s a horribly thin film to try to not break. And around comments, I think people are doing so, maybe not MORE THAN, but I’d say equal to – for the wrong reasons.

            Again – you wouldn’t fall into that category.

          • Tamar Weinberg

            Yup Ryan – I’m a purist. ;) I guess you’re right when you say that most people aren’t doing it for the right reasons.

            In the meantime, I’ve made some changes, thanks to Lisa’s nudging (which I appreciate!) I’ve begun to moderate these external comments. I’ve also gone through nearly 100 pages of comments to purge the irrelevant conversation. If you or anyone else sees a comment on my blog that isn’t relevant to the post, let me know and I’ll clean it up. :)

          • Lisa Barone

            So let’s step out of the comments portion – what if I RT or share a post on Facebook. And the conversation happens outside of the original/appropriate blogs. Again, I’m gaining conversation, around a topic I had nothing to do with originating.

            But that’s just the nature of the Web – to share content. Is it annoying when someone shares a blog post on FB and then that’s where the discussion happens? It can be…but how do you get around that? Try to lock down your content? Create a more open environment on your own site? I don’t know, but I don’t necessarily view that as being the same.

            I don’t necessarily know where the line is but, perhaps everyone who says its about ‘intent’ is right. But then you become Google trying to judge why people are doing things…and that’s just a slippery slope.

          • Tamar Weinberg

            This actually kind of relates to an old guest post I have on my blog about how content aggregators kill content creators. (And the irony of it all is that that particular post aggregates relevant discussion from Louis Gray’s blog.)

            It’s a tricky situation. I think it really depends on motivation as far as Lisa’s concern goes, but once the conversation branches out to locations you can’t even monitor (like a private forum or profile on Facebook), what do you do? And how can you stop it?

            I think we’re at an age where we can’t.

  • Tim Staines

    I think there’s another question to ask in this particular situation as well: Is Tamar (or any other plugin user) approving the BackType comments, or are they all just getting published automatically? I think it would be a lot less controversial if the secondary publisher was actively vetting them.

    The web is all about disseminating information, so duplicate content is IMO something that is inherent. To me the controversy is more associated with the way the duplicate content is displayed on the secondary site and indexed by the search engines. If a BackType comment is well labeled and understood by readers as being different from primary comments, that’s good enough to appease me on the first part.

    The second piece, the indexing, is a more difficult problem to solve. It’s almost like we need to use {p canonical=”http://my-domain.com”} for every bit of content we produce so as to get proper attribution from the engines. But I’ll come back to the secondary source and place responsibility there, maybe a {p can=””} tag is a more viable and reasonable solution to require of publishers of dup content.

    And while we’re on the subject of controversy, what happens when people start abusing systems like these with a more automated process than mine?

    Tim Staines

    • Lisa Barone

      I’m with you on that I’d be more comfortable if the originating author was approving the comments that were showing up, but it sounds like Backtype just pulls in. Tamar mentioned above that she edits out the comments that aren’t relevant, which I think is awesome. However, that’s a level of commitment I don’t think you’ll get from many other bloggers.

      I think my own feelings are pretty similar to yours. The idea of “duplicate content” is something we have to deal with the Web being so social. It’s when that stuff starts ranking that my head tilts just a bit. As a community person, I like that I can get views and hear what everyone else is saying about something. But again, I also get protective over the people who comment on my blog. I can defend them on mine. I can’t do that so well when their comments are pulled off-site and I don’t know where they are.

      I’m conflicted with it.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    I think it’s quite a bit of BS for anyone to think it’s acceptable for BackType to be pulling content of ANY kind en-masse. The comments posted on this or any blog are part of that conversation, and thus BackType is hijacking part of that conversation for the value and benefit of the page it’s being displayed on through BackType.

    I’m totally against it’s use. If an commenter gets an ego boost because their comments get spread around, that’s all it is, pure arrogant ego-boost, and BackType is pure scraping evil.

    • Lisa Barone

      It’s probably also a nice ego boost to be able to claim you have 90 comments on your blog when 3 of them are from yours and 80+ are from other blogs. I think taking full comments and conversations is kind of crazy. I get it’s cool for Backtype to think they can aggregate conversations, but it’s like taking someone else’s friends and putting them at your kitchen table. You end up feeling kind of awkward.

      • Alan Bleiweiss

        This reminds me of the days when I used to advocate to clients to get news aggregation feeds for the purpose of building content. At first we just pulled news feeds en-masse.

        Then I had to get the developers to jump hoops six ways to Sunday to mix and match from different sources, and make it appear more like “unique” content. Then I just bailed altogether because it was an asshat way to build content on the cheap that I finally needed to see for what it was.

        It does NOTHING to improve the quality of the site its being scraped to unless the recipient expends stupid amounts of time filtering like Tamar does, yet the overall majority will, as you said, NOT filter. And even when filtered, it’s NOT unique new content.

        That’s why I rail against article syndication to this day as well. If someone isn’t willing to pay for or develop unique content, and if they’re not themselves a search engine, it’s just wrong.

  • Glen Kendell

    Look at it this way, Lisa. Your community, even your company is like a bakery. You are constantly baking. You continue to make fresh content that only you can make.

    If somebody takes a loaf of bread without permission, is this stealing? Technically, yes. You are arguing that if one person steals a loaf of bread, how long will it be before everybody covets your bread and steals it. And how can you stop this from happening.

    If you have good bread, somebody is going to want to steal some. Take it as a compliment.

    However, if somebody takes your bread over and over and over and starts their own bakery with it, then you have reason to go after them with everything you’ve got. 37 Signals did this when GetSatisfaction started hijacking their customer support and they (37 Signals) were completely justified in doing so.

    So yes, protect your brand. Protect your bakery. But don’t worry about a few bread crumbs.

    • Lisa Barone

      That’s an excellent analogy. Thanks. We’d probably all act a lot more rationally if we worried more about the loaf than the crumbs.

    • Alec Perkins

      The problem with the bread analogy is that the original baker isn’t being deprived of the loaf. Instead, the aggregating baker is duplicating the recipe, in this case recipes containing a specific ingredient, and offering the equivalent loaf. For some loaves, the second baker even appears closer to the street (higher up in the search rankings). Also, GetSatisfaction wasn’t copying and reposting content, but rather presenting itself as something it was not in a very misleading manner, borderline fraud even. (The 37Signals incident actually led to changes by GetSatisfaction in the way it presents unofficial support pages.)

      The answer to the headline question is never (technically speaking). Theft requires depriving of posession, which the duplication and redistribution does not actually do, since intellectual property isn’t posessable exclusively. The correct term is copyright infringement. Some argue that it’s a lost view or lost sale, but that requires proving that each view on the infringing site, or illegal download, would have otherwise been a view of or purchase from the original source — not always the case. However, when the infringing site ranks higher for searches that point to those comments, it’s getting closer to the deprivation argument as it is actually in a position to intercept traffic that would almost certainly go to the original otherwise.

      This brings me to the Google situation. In the case of the business hours, flight times, movie times, or similar information, there is nothing wrong with Google showing them in the snippet. You can’t copyright a fact, like business hours. Also, it is not the same as intercepting all traffic destined for the business’ actual page for several reasons. First, that result does not compete on other search engines for rankings. Second, it probably leads to greater traffic for the source as it puts the link to the original right up at the top, above all other possible results. Third, in the case of the aquarium, it is not a lost chance to upsell the customer on some special something, as they have a chance to do so when the person actually arrives. The ‘actually arriving’ part is more likely now that the hours are conveniently posted and don’t require multiple clicks to get to. (Even a single click is much more friction to the experience than no click.) This applies to all brick-and-mortar establishments that by definition depend on feet through the door.

      With Google, that sort of reposting of ‘content’ improves the user experience and is win-win-win. Users can more easily look up small facts like hours and are happy, Google gets further known for being the place to look stuff up, and in the case of business hours, the business gets more feet of happy users through the door who have an experience that started with something pleasant. If the businesses can’t leverage happy users walking into their store, they shouldn’t be in business.

      As for BackType, I actually disagree that it is an improvement to the user experience, at least in its current unintelligent form. A lot of the comments reference something on the original page and don’t make quite as much sense, if any, out of context. Also, in the case of tweets, it gets filled up with retweets which naturally are all the same, and consequently are just clutter. BackType is useful in that it shows you where people are talking about the page, but it’s not a good way to follow the conversation. Disqus at least puts BackType results for tweets into a separate ‘reactions’ section instead. If the BackType results are curated, as Tamar does, then they do become more useful not only as a way to see everything being said about a page, but also places where interesting conversation is happening. Still, it is technically copyright infringment as the comments are copyrighted by the commenter, depending on the original site’s terms. If the BackType results were instead presented as being quotes from another site that don’t apply to the actual comment count, instead of natural comments, they would probably be less infringing and more useful.

      /captain semantic who is not a lawyer

  • Michelle Lowery

    The copyright statement on this site (and on many other sites) says:

    “No content on this site may be republished or reprinted in any fashion without written permission from Outspoken Media, Inc.”

    Doesn’t that also apply to comments? Doesn’t this let commenters know that once they post a comment on this site, it does indeed belong to Outspoken Media, Inc.? If so, then isn’t the plugin violating copyright?

  • Norcross

    It’s hard to say. I agree with Ben Cook’s recent tweet, that it becomes a Potter Stewart situation. What’s the other site’s intent? Are they trying to scrape your content to get traffic / ego boost, or are they just trying to aggregate the conversation? For someone like Tamar who clearly isn’t trying to game the system (as evidenced by her attention to the comments coming in) it’s probably a non-issue. But I’m sure many others are just trying to pad their own site. And that’s complete bullshit.

    • Lisa Barone

      Exactly. I’m not worried about the Tamars who use Backtype to aggregate content and better discussions, more worried about how easy it would be for someone to hijack a community or try to create authority where there isn’t any.

  • michael-gray

    Let’s make this simple, content belongs where it was put unless the owner gives permission to put it somewhere else.

    I’m not a lawyer, but in most cases a comment, or forum post, is owned by the person making that comment/post. They grant a soft licence to the site owner so they can display the content. Another example, you own everything you say on twitter or post on twitpic but grant those sites permission to display them, without relinquishing the copyright/ownership .

    So for another site to take them innocently or not is in violation of the law, and just plain wrong. Most people don’t care to uphold or defend that copyright in the instance something gets used without their permission, so it’s not a big deal.

    There’s also a fair use provision that allows you to legally use small excerpt’s of something you don’t own as long as you credit the source properly. It would be nice if the credit citation required a straight link, but that’s not the case. So someone can say John Smith said blah blah blah on example.com and that’s legal.

    Fair use is a fuzzy legal concept which is what scrapers/aggregators use to circumvent the legal system, sometime with malicious intent, sometimes not.

    Is it worth going after the scrapers … I like to ask these questions:
    a) are they republishing something that lessens the value of it’s original source
    b) are they providing a spiderable link that attributes credit to the source and doesn’t adversely affect search engine rankings
    c) is pursuing any legal action going to cost me more time/energy/money than it’s worth to just ignore it

    The legal copyright system hasn’t kept pace with technology, and for that we are paying the price.

    Now what was that about crazy pills … ;-)

  • Melissa - SEO Aware

    I have to admit I watch Michael on Twitter and due to the 140 character issue I couldn’t quite grasp what he was trying to say. After seeing what you have very clearly shown here I am getting his point. I have worked hard for everything that is on my site, therefore it should be mine. We all work hard and I also believe our comments are ours.

    A comparison, awhile back I found that someone was taking my full posts and using them as it was their writing on their blog. The also had Google adsense all over it…they were making money on my work. Google could be essentially doing the same thing. However, I never want to piss off the mighty Google because my site is doing well in the searches. Is this just a price I pay?

    • Tamar Weinberg

      Melissa, actually, no.

      You have a few options:
      1. Approach the owner of the blog and tell him to take it down.
      2. File a DMCA complaint against the web host if that fails.

      I’m actually going to argue that if someone links to me and there’s ensuing discussion that is relevant to MY content, my readers should be able to see it on my site. Otherwise, they’d never know (unless in the very rare case that they click on a trackback link — if one even exists!)

      However, I HATE it when my hard work (my blog posts take hours/days/months to write; I’m just not as awesome as Lisa) is ripped off in that fashion. I’ve sent numerous DMCA complaints to blog owners and I honestly can’t think of a time when the site owner or their web host didn’t honor them.

      If your full posts are still being ripped off, find out where they’re hosting and report it to their abuse team. Or reach out to them directly via the post or via comment. You’ll be surprised at how effective this is.

      • Melissa - SEO Aware

        Oh, I went after them with a vengeance and I sicked google on them. By making money on stolen work there were not only breaking the law, but breaking the terms of service with Google.

        The site went down in a matter of hours. I did take all the steps you mentioned above and I recommend them to all who have been through the same thing.

        Great idea posting it for people!

      • Rick

        “I’m actually going to argue that if someone links to me and there’s ensuing discussion that is relevant to MY content, my readers should be able to see it on my site. “

        I can’t agree with that – the web’s nature is distributed and you’re arguing that all of the content for any discussion about something that’s relevant to your content (and spurred by your posts) needs to BE on your site. Where does that end though? If I did a blog post spurred by one of your posts, does that get pulled into your site? What if I do a post spurred by THIS post, one degree removed? What if someone saw my post and posted in reply to that?

        What I think we need are ways do discover those relationships and more easily traverse them as readers and to see backlinking and some kind of crediting as authors. However, that can, practically, only go so far – at some point what we say becomes part of the general knowledge pool.

        • Tamar Weinberg

          I’m talking about this in relationship to the plugin itself, Rick. It’s my justification for using it.

          If I had no way of pulling in comments, there would be no issue. But I do and I’ve elected to pull in relevant comments.

          If someone says on his blog, “Tamar wrote this great article aggregating the best posts in internet marketing,” and someone says on that blog, “Tamar did a great job!,” I feel that I’m entitled to get credit for that. I’m entitled to showcase that on the blog. THOSE are the types of comments I want on my blog. Anything irrelevant to the linked-to post’s bottom line do not belong. Simple.

          Just so you know, the plugin adds backlinks (nofollow since they get thrown into comments, but yes, it links back to the original post) and credits the authors too. Take a look at the plugin to see how it works.

          As far as the one degree removed comment, I’m going to reiterate that the plugin doesn’t support that, so I obviously can’t do anything about it.

  • George Bounacos

    I may have been one of the few people who didn’t think Michael was totally out of line on the Google content issue. It’s the same argument to me that book publishers make to Google. That argument goes something like, “We don’t care about your user’s experience. By taking our information and letting someone comparison shop, we lose the ability to have a conversation with the person searching. ”

    [The video response was too too funny though. Homeless dude nailed it]

    Baseball folks will tell you that a batter making an out by putting the ball in play actually contributes more than a batter striking out because the probability of a defensive player making an error is much higher than the probability of a catcher dropping the third strike and putting a play in motion.

    I like syndicated content. I don’t like search engines using their reach to steal the click. I would prefer to see the plugin use the name, time and a teaser sentence to funnel someone back to the conversation where it’s taking place.

    Zemanta was doing that. I don’t know if they still do, but I used it for a few months, and I thought it added value at the time.

  • Mike Montano

    Hi Lisa,

    The goal of BackType Connect is to help publishers and readers see all the conversation around the web about a post or topic. Having said that, you bring up some great points that we’re very aware of. I should point out though, that the default setting is only to pull in conversations from Digg, Reddit, FriendFeed, and news.yc (where the publisher can be sure the conversation is relevant and adds values). Conversations from other blog posts is disabled initially for many of the reasons you mentioned, including relevancy and quality. In fact we constantly encourage publishers to leave the setting that way, because there are very few cases when anyone benefits from the comments on other posts out of context.

    • Lisa Barone

      Hey Mike, thanks for hopping in.

      I think the Backtype plugin has a lot of great uses, especially for seeking out social mentions you may have missed otherwise. Obviously, the issue comes when talking about blog comments which feel a bit more personal than other mentions because that requires actual interaction. Right now it looks like things are running like a power house – you can turn it off or on but there’s no way to control the pressure. That’s what people seem to be after. Otherwise, it ends up being a ton of work for dedicated bloggers like Tamar who want to bring in the full conversation, but who don’t want to spend their time evaluating relevancy. Not sure there’s a workaround for that, though.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  • Joe Hall

    Dang it I am always late to the cool conversations! Oh well.

    As a developer of apps I have to say that I LOVE social media aggregation. However, it is kinda like playing with fire in many ways. You have done a good job explaining how this use of aggregation is a bad idea so I won’t comment on that.

    I would rather like to talk about how developers get in this situation to begin with. Most app developers are either one of two types of people. 1. Extremely tech savoy, can program in there sleep, an no challenge is to hard for them. However they lack imagination and aren’t good with new ideas. 2. Full of ideas, tons of imagination and wants to cure cancer with AJAX, but lack the knowledge and skills to do anything. And then of course there are bajillions in between. Often times because type #2 are better at marketing and have more social skills they are able to secure enough money to hire type #1. They then tell type #1 “Hey we want to connect all the blogs that link to each other. by letting them all share the same comments! Then lets have ice cream!” Type #1 lacks a whole lot of foresight and codes the app to get paid.

    The moral of the story is just because we (app developers) can do new things with technology doesn’t me we should. Its fun to try different things and see what we are capable of, but in the end just doing something doesn’t quantify it as a good idea. Finding the good idea is a whole different post….

  • Aaron Bradley

    I think one of the differences between the Michael Gray’s rich snippet example and comment aggregation instance you describe is the ability to control whether or not that information appears. That is, search engines at least provide a protocol where indexing to some or all information is controlled, whereas the BackType plugin aggregates information without providing a mechanism by which site owners can opt out of that aggregation.

    But I think the more useful perspective is the one you’ve already identified regarding user experience. Rich snippets in search results, that extract content from an indexed web page, are successful and – I would argue – appropriate when they answer common reader questions without requiring them to visit a website. So there’s value to the user in seeing hours posted for a business as a result of a branded query for that business. Yes, that potentially “robs” that business of a virtual visit (although the website is there for the user to visit is they so please), but Google’s intention is not to drive visits to websites, but to offer users relevant information. The competitive space search engines play in is those results, and success there is measured in continued use of that search engine, not necessarily driving visits to websites. Whatever the impact on the goals of target sites, this certainly fosters good user experiences.

    A business could block search engine access to their hours using any number of mechanisms. What would be the result for that business? On one hand a risk that users would never find those hours, because of the attrition that comes of a forced click path – and so perhaps never visit that business. On the other hand, other sites – whether in a competitive or collaborative relationship with that business – would take up the slack, and I really doubt that any business would be able to claim that hours of operation are copywrited information. All in all, I would argue that rich snippets not only can provide value to users, but are just as potentially beneficial to businesses as harmful.

    Turning back to the Tamar example, how useful are Outspoken Media comments to readers of the Techipedia blog. Well, not very. They are more-or-less out of the context of what the visitor is reading, just as a search engine rich snippet is more-or-less in the context of the user’s search term.

    Should user experience be the sole measure of what constitutes theft via aggregation? No, but at the same time site owners that place their own marketing goals over the quality of their customer’s – or potential customer’s – online experience in conjunction with their brand might want to look long and hard at the holistic consequences of doing so.

  • Anthony Piwarun

    I think Michael’s comment “Let’s make this simple, content belongs where it was put unless the owner gives permission to put it somewhere else” sheds a lot of light on the situation. I had never heard of the BackType plugin before this but it seems very much like parsing an RSS feed and distributing on your blog because you think your readers would enjoy it. Wouldn’t you consider that content theft?

    • Tamar Weinberg


      I responded to a similar issue voiced by Melissa above in the comments. I think the issue is very different.

      I think Alec says it really nicely above: “The problem with the bread analogy is that the original baker isn’t being deprived of the loaf. Instead, the aggregating baker is duplicating the recipe, in this case recipes containing a specific ingredient, and offering the equivalent loaf. For some loaves, the second baker even appears closer to the street (higher up in the search rankings).”

      • Anthony Piwarun

        I realize credit is given in the footer of the comment but like Lisa said in her article – who reads that anyways? To me it’s equivalent to the “results not typical” disclaimer on fitness product infomercials. Sure, you are following your legal obligations by saying that but the truth is, nobody reads it.

        What if someone streamed your feed on their site, with a tiny disclaimer in 8pt font that read “this post originally appeared on techipedia.com”? Bakers analogy or not it’s misrepresenting content.

        • Tamar Weinberg

          “but like Lisa said in her article – who reads that anyways?”

          Much can be said about these comments too. I’ve been running BackType for about a year now and I don’t see *my* commenters replying to comments seen on other blogs. In fact, these comments show up after the discussion on my blog posts end, typically, so there’s no conversation to hijack at that point and the comments aren’t exposed to the people who you suspect would be looking at them.

          Again, maybe I’m the anomaly, but I’m using it to try to centralize the relevant conversation. That’s an impossible feat, but I’m using what’s available to me to highlight related discussion. I don’t think any users on my blog have any problems with it, and I don’t think it really diminishes the value of the discussion.

          And Anthony, like I said earlier, I think comments and original blog posts are VERY different beasts. Please see my reply to Melissa’s comment and my subsequent follow up to Rick.

          • Lisa Barone

            In fact, these comments show up after the discussion on my blog posts end, typically, so there’s no conversation to hijack at that point and the comments aren’t exposed to the people who you suspect would be looking at them.

            That’s actually an important point, I think. If the comments aren’t showing up until after the natural conversation has died anyway, then there’s much less risk of having a thread “hijacked” via the plugin.

            Again, maybe I’m the anomaly, but I’m using it to try to centralize the relevant conversation. That’s an impossible feat, but I’m using what’s available to me to highlight related discussion.

            I think ARE an anomaly. :) You’re using the plugin to enhance the conversation and you cherry pick the comments that are actually relevant to the thread and get rid of the rest. If we had a blogosphere full of Tamars, this wouldn’t even be an issue. But most people aren’t as committed or as caring about their communities/other communities.

          • Tim Staines

            If the comments aren’t showing up until after the conversation is played out on a post, they’re not being used to “enhance the conversation” at all . . . at that point they’re just being used bolster the comment content on a post that had otherwise seen it’s full potential (or close to it).

            Just playing devils advocate a little here; it would be easy to infer that BackType comments are being used to show the SE’s page freshness instead of the centralized conversation that is claimed in one breath and written off as post discussion in the next.

          • Tamar Weinberg

            Tim, this is a problem that SEOs or those immersed in SEO would have, yes.

  • Cory

    To be short and sweet, Lisa, I think what Google is doing can be considered “hijacking”, but the backtype plug-in isn’t nearly as bad.

    My only thought is to look at the analytics. You can find out that you have a traffic source from an aggregate that is referring your site, but you can’t find out that your organic search results are being affected by Google. What I mean is, you can always leverage your marketing tactics to take advantage of your referral sites by including links to your company or services in your content.

    But you aren’t seeing your “non-paid” keywords accurately if nobody is clicking on your actual website from a Google search. If you are the type of person that looks at website analytics to drive future marketing efforts (which I hope you are), then you aren’t seeing accurate data… and that’s bad.

  • Tamar Weinberg

    btw, someone alerted me to Rae’s tweet on the matter.

    I just want to clarify one thing, since Rae has it backwards. This plugin cannot be easily gamed. This plugin ONLY pulls in comments when you link to another blog that has the BackType plugin. So Lisa, in all three cases, you linked to me, and that’s why my blog pulled in your comments, since BackType assumes that the discussion is relevant. When I link to you, I don’t see the comments.

    That means nobody can just start linking to Outspoken Media and start automatically adding comments just like a rabbit is pulled out of a hat.

    It would be pretty lousy if you can generate comments that easily. You have to deserve the link, and only when you get linked to do you get to see the discussion.

    Here’s hoping people won’t not link to me because of how I want to pull in the comments. ;)

    • Lisa Barone

      I can’t speak for Rae on this one (nor will I attempt to), but we (really, I) absolutely linked to you because of the value of your posts. I think you constantly provide some of the best information on social media and I link to you because I think its relevant to our audience here. I think the problem for everyone is the way Backtype handles pulling in comments, not necessarly the bloggers/communities who use it.

    • Rae Hoffman

      Actually, Tamar, I get how the plugin works. That was simply a mistype on my part because I was typing fast and was busy most of that day driving to Troy, so I didn’t re-read it after posting it to notice the error.

      “So Lisa, in all three cases, you linked to me, and that’s why my blog pulled in your comments”

      If you read the post above, it’s pretty apparent that we get how it works.

      Because we linked to a post written by Tamar, she’s using the plugin to pull in ALL the comments that people left on our blog post that linked to her.

      I still dislike our comments showing on your or anyone else’s blog. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t link to sites using them. I think it amounts to people stealing our content and causing confusion. But, luckily for anyone using the plugin, Lisa rules the blog.

      • Tamar Weinberg

        That’s fine. Just wanted to confirm that we’re all on the same page. Thanks for chiming in.

        FWIW, after performing my cleanup, I don’t think I left any Outspoken Media comments on my blog at all, since they weren’t relevant to the blog discussion.

        Having to now moderate these comments now is a pain, but your concerns are very justified, which is exactly why I opted to do so.

  • Roy Reshef

    To start with, I am with Michael Gray on this one. Assume shop owners, who also do business on their own website. They may have an online shop there, or may have revenues from ads for related products which they do not carry in the shop. That tweet you quoted, “businesses want customers, not web visitors” is nonsense, sorry. Web visitors are also customers, and web traffic is also business.
    What does big G? They sum up the relevant information of the shop, so that actually the web visitor doesn’t even have to visit the shop website. They collect the nice revenues from THEIR ads. The shop owners are trapped in catch 22 – they cannot prevent G from crawling their website, that’s suicide in SERP. And G presents enough info so that people don’t have to visit their websites.
    As for backtype, this plugin is the child of a sick mind. Very often you see blogs which link to other blogs as part of the introduction / background information / footnote etc. In all of these cases aggregation of comments is pretty much irrelevant. I do not know the stats, but I think that the cases that blogs really drill down to the same issue as other linked blogs are a relatively low percentage of the total amount of links in blogs. And this plugin has no way to differentiate between one URL to another. So in most cases user experience only degrades due to aggregation of irrelevant comments. Not to mention that it can start blogger-wars of the kind “I won’t link to your blog even though I should do so, because you will steal my comments and boost your link profile” and this kind of BS.
    I’d leave aside the interesting question whose intellectual property are these very words which I’m typing right now (if anyone would like to claim ownership ha ha :). Is it mine? Is it yours? Is it fair game for anyone to capture and republish? I even bothered to read your comment policy, it says their “Do not violate… intellectual property rights in your comment” but it doesn’t answer this question. It’s way too late now to dive into that. Good night.