What is going on here?


Here’s a puzzle that more internet savvy readers may be able to help me with.

On March 7, I received the following email with the subject line “Broken link on your page”.

Hi Mano,

I came across your website and wanted to notify you about a broken link on your page in case you weren’t aware of it. The link on http://www.case.edu/provost/UCITE/learning/general.html which links to http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/teachtip.htm with the anchor text of “teaching tips is no longer working.

I’ve included a link to a useful page on Tips for Teachers that you could replace the broken link with if you’re interetsed in updating your website. Thanks for providing a great resource!

Link: http://onlinephd.org/resources/tips-for-teachers/

Best,
Carrie

I checked and Carrie was right, the old link was broken. (It should be noted that she was pointing out a problem on the website of my university office and not my blog.) I was able to find the new link and since the link she suggested had some useful information, I added that as well to the webpage. I sent her an email thanking her for pointing out the problem and got the following reply.

Hi Mano

No problem! Thanks for maintaining a great resource and I’m glad that I could be of assistance.

Best Regards,

Carrie

I then thought no more about it. But then on April 4, I got another email with the same subject line “Broken link on your page”. This one said:

Hi Mano,

I came across your website and wanted to notify you about a broken link on your page in case you weren’t aware of it. The link on blog.case.edu/singham/2006/10/26/negotiating_with_terrorists which links to http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/37191.htm is no longer working.

I’ve included a link to a useful page on Foreign Terrorist Organizations that you could replace the broken link with if you’re interested in updating your website. Thanks for providing a great resource!

Link: http://www.homelandsecuritydegree.com/resources/foreign-terrorist-organizations/

Best,
Tori

This broken link was from an blog post on my old site. Again, the link was in fact broken. The wording of this email seemed vaguely familiar to me and I went back and searched and found Carrie’s email and you can see that the wording is identical, except for the links and the corrected spelling of the word ‘interested’.

Intrigued, I sent an email to Tori, thanking her for pointing out the broken link. I got the following reply.

Hi Mano,

You’re welcome! If you find the alternate site that I suggested to be useful, please let me know.

Best Regards,
Tori

So the replies to my emails are similar but not identical. So what is going on here? I then sent out an email to both Carrie and Tori with the following message:

Dear Carrie and Tori,

I received emails from each of you pointing out broken links on webpages that I maintain and was grateful for the information.

However I noticed that the wording of the emails were identical (see below) and was curious as to how that came to be. Do you know how that happened?

Thanks,

Mano

I got a reply from Tori that said the following:

Hi Mano,

Carrie must be a colleague of mine. Although I don’t know her in person, our goal is to provide a similar resource to people who can replace their broken link. It is a great project, hopefully my resource can be helpful to you and your readers.

Best,
Tori

A couple of days later, I got an email from Carrie.

Hi Mano,

I believe Tori might be on the same project as me. Although I don’t work with Tori, providing a replacement for broken links is a great project.

Thanks for your time Mano.

Best,
Carrie

As you can see, the correspondence has been cordial. But I am still puzzled by what is going on, especially the peculiar identical wording of their initial emails, which neither really explained. Are Carrie and Tori people who work from a common script, like telemarketers? And what would be the point of pointing out fairly obscure broken links and suggesting new ones? Is this some effort to promote such places by getting links to them embedded in .edu sites, which I am told raises their rankings?

Is there a company that uses real people to scour the web for broken links and suggest new ones? Even if those links are to commercial sites and the idea is to boost rankings by creating inbound links, is that a viable business model? It seems like it would be hardly worth it to go to all this trouble to raise one’s web profile. Or is there something else going on here that I am not aware of?

If these emails and links were being generated by a computer, that might make it worthwhile. If so, computers are now far more sophisticated than I suspected, since I was clearly not able to distinguish between a machine and a real person.

Which raised in my mind a related question. Most people are aware of the Turing test as applied to computers in artificial intelligence work to see if people can distinguish whether they are talking to a real person or a computer. But it seems to me that this is dependent on the person who is interrogating the computer since it surely must be harder to fool an AI researcher than a layperson. Is there an ‘inverse Turing test’, applied to people, that measures how easily real people can be fooled by a computer into thinking they are talking to a real person?

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    So. It has begun.

    In seriousness, I think what is going on here is semi-automated spam. A bot scours the web for broken links, and a human is served up a list of the links with some surrounding text. For each link, the human spends 5 seconds or so classifying it with a topic, and then the rest is fully automated: An advertiser link with the same classification is selected, and an e-mail is auto-generated.

    A small percentage actually responds, so they can afford to do it for real at that point. Although the impeccable spelling and grammar on the part of the responders is a little puzzling… maybe they have a variety of macros to select from?

  2. Jared A says

    It’s possible that it is nearly fully automated like James suggested, but based on the types of internet part time jobs I have seen advertised, I wonder if it is only partially automated. I suspect Carrie and Tori are real people, perhaps college students or parents of small children who want to work part time from home.

    I googled for “internet presence marketing” and got lots of results. I don’t want to link the websites though because I am sure they do a good enough job on their own. 😉

    Imagine you are a company that wants to improve your internet presence. You can pay college students cheap hourly wages with no benefits to do this for you. Let’s be generous and put it at $10/hour. Imagine they manage to change 50 links in a 12 hour work week (probably pretty conservative if the trawling step is automated). In one month you have created 200 links and only have to pay ~$500. Unlike banners, these will be rather permanent. That is a rather insiginificant marketing cost for a large enough company. And if it wasn’t important to get people to visit your site, why do companies spend so much on horrible banner ads (which are impermanent and easily blockable by the end user)?

    Fixing broken links seems like a clever “in” to me. The employees are probably given form e-mails and instructions on the best way to convince people to link your website. Probably this is what happened for Carrie and Tori. From their perspective there is no reason to put more than minimal effort in, so why personalize the e-mail form?

    The more steps you can automate, the better (cheaper). But I bet it pays to have a few real humans in there with decent communication skills to actually deal with the other person when you request they link the paying website.

    The funny thing is that in your case there was a positive result for everyone. So I guess it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But once this crosses the line from intermittent e-mails helping you fix broken links to a constant barrage of spam then the utility will plummet again.

  3. plutosdad says

    I doubt they are humans. Humans might have written it, and at most maybe there is a person who glances at the emails and then sends it to the right queue.

    There are mailing services that have machines that put stamps on envelopes just a little crooked. These are used by non profits in fundraising, because research shows that people are more likely to respond if they think a human stamped and sent them the envelope. but no humans are involved.

  4. John Horstman says

    Scenario in #1 sounds reasonable. It could also be some sort of crowd-sourced project that exists simply for the sake of making the internet work better (some of us actually care about that :-P). The links are DEFINITELY served up by automated webcrawlers – could even be something rolled into Google, though I haven’t heard of such a project on their end – and one can actually leverage the Google web app suite to track broken links on one’s own site: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/helping-website-oweners-fix-broken.html

    I can’t find anything related searching the repeated phrases (I’m not paging through more than a couple hundred results per search), but it would be brilliant as a marketing strategy, since it’s actually helpful.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for investigating and providing this link. One learns new things everyday…

  6. jamessweet says

    I like it – it works well for everyone involved.

    I was only half-kidding when I linked to the XKCD comic in my comment #1. This really does seem to be a step in that direction.

  7. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Notice that in both cases the suggested replacement link was from an academic or government site to a good sounding, but COMMERCIAL site.

    You are being used to raise their search ranking, without their informing you of their motive.

    And the Google Page Ranking effect of a link from FTB is undoubtedly high.

    If someone does that again, thank them for the report and find another academic or government link.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I did notice that but have been debating whether the fact that they are commercial sites alone should be a disqualifying factor. If the information is useful in its own right, why not link to it?

  9. Peter says

    Yeah, the first thing that popped out at me was that the replacement links were both to for-profit schools.

  10. Henry Gale says

    Today the info may be useful. Tomorrow that link may lead to a webpage full of porn.

  11. Martin says

    Many thanks for posting this – I found it via google and it was really helpful when I got a similar email a week or so ago. The suggested link was to http://www.onlineuniversity.net. I got suspicious because, while the latter is not overtly commercial, it is very vague about what it actually is or where it gets its information from. More importantly, when I tied to reply to the email it got sent back and I noticed that I had received two emails from the same ‘person’ but with marginally different gmail addresses. In the end I took Tsu’s advice: fixed the link, but using known government sites.

  12. says

    The thing that brought me to this post is that I just received a very similar email. I copied and pasted the first portion of the email message in to Google, and this post was the first hit. While there was a broken link, that link was so non-essential to the post, and was easily corrected by adjusting the link to the website’s homepage rather than the individual page of the site. That was my tip-off that something was a bit off. Glad to see the comments of others. I cam going to respond to her email with a link to this site.

  13. Joseph Lo says

    Also, while the content on the commercial site might seem good, you have to wonder where they got it from. I’ve received many of these requests, and when I check the content they suggest, it’s usually correct but pretty generic sounding. I can’t prove outright plagiarism, but it does seem like a ploy to raise the rankings on a site, so that they can later use that site to sell ads, porn, etc.

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