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Posterous silently changes all external links to affiliate links (shamrin.posterous.com)
194 points by ash 2111 days ago | past | web | 183 comments



Hey guys,

Posterous partnered with Viglink.com back in December as an experiment to see if we could generate revenue by adding an affiliate code to links that don't already have one. We chose to work with Viglink because their technology doesn't interfere with the user experience at all.

1. Links in Posterous posts are not edited in any way 2. Viglink javascript intercepts clicks and adds an affiliate code when possible 3. Affiliate codes are not stripped or altered if they already exist 4. Copying links is unchanged

Before deploying this change, we tested it heavily to make sure we weren't doing anything that would be visible to the publisher or reader. The fact that it took 4 months for someone to really notice this is a testament to how unobtrusive it is.

Some people have commented that we should be sharing revenue back to the users. You are absolutely right. This is something we mentioned to Viglink at our very first meeting with them and something we will add when it's technically possible.

Admittedly, we should have announced this on our blog. This was definitely an oversight on our part. Our goal is to be 100% transparent with everything we do at Posterous, especially when it affects your blog and content.

From Posterous, we apologize. Going forward we will be sure to notify you of any changes we make to the site.

With regards to viglink: we really appreciate all your feedback and we're going to evaluate our use of the service going forward.

-Sachin cofounder, posterous.com

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You tried to get away with it under the radar, succeeded for four months and someone found you out.

The fact that it took four months is a testament to how well you did what you could to hide it.

If you really want to be transparent you do these things in advance, and you make that a big part of your mission statement.

Four months is not an experiment, an experiment is something you do for a week or two, maybe a month.

Links should point to their destinations, any trickery under water to redirect links to something else than what the browser says it will do is well across the line of what's ok and what is definitely not. If you did that on your own content it would be bad, to do it on other peoples content is even worse.

Maybe YC should add a 'business ethics 101' as applied to the web with their investment package ?

Or do they encourage this sort of thing ?

Why not simply shut it off by default and allow your content producers to enable it, that way you take the sting out of it.

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First off, let's turn down the rhetoric just a bit. You can like or dislike this feature without believing it goes "well across the line" of ethical behavior. We're talking about blog posts here, not scientific research or human life or politics or anything where a serious discussion of the ethics involved might be warranted.

Posterous isn't stealing money from anyone, and to the end user they aren't changing a single aspect of the user experience. They are altering the links of content creators slightly. Now, let's discuss that.

These links aren't being redirected to anywhere but the original destination. Adding an unobtrusive query parameter is absolutely not the same thing as pointing everyone to another website. I respect the opinion that it shouldn't be done, but I don't agree.

There are two arguments in play, the first is that altering links at all is fundamentally wrong. I can't refute that because it seems to be purely opinion driven. I can only say that I disagree, and that to me, things which have no detectable impact on the end user are not fundamentally wrong.

The other argument, and the one I find particularly silly, is this notion that Posterous shouldn't be privately profitting off other people's content. This is, in fact, how the entire economy of the ad driven web works. Users create content, site owners make money. See Google ads. What Posterous is doing is exactly the same thing, except it's better because I don't have to actually look at ads and I can still support the site.

Should Posterous have told people? Yeah. Should they offer an option to turn it off? Probably. But these are relatively minor complaints about an otherwise harmless feature.

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It's not about whether or not it is harmless or not. It's simply a sneaky way of going about an otherwise perfectly ok business.

There would have been absolutely no harm in informing the users if they were not afraid that it would turn people away from posterous, but the way this now comes in to the open and the apology fall way short of what I'd come to expect of them. I'm not a user but I've done my bit to promote posterous and I feel that my trust that those people are in 'good hands' is misplaced.

Altering links is not fundamentally wrong, if you inform your user about it.

Profiting of other peoples content is fine too, if you are aboveboard about that being the deal.

Doing any of this without putting it loud and clear in your terms of service is definitely not ok.

And to make it seem like this was 'just an experiment' is stretching credulity to the breaking point and well beyond, that simply insults the intelligence of the users and the people here. The only reason it was four months is because that's how long it took for someone to figure it out.

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Or they could have made an announcement. I have seen a lot of reviews and articles clearly mentioning that the link they are posting is an affiliate link and I don't find anything wrong with that. Because they are explicitly saying that it is an affiliate link and it is the choice of a visitor then.

There is nothing wrong with affiliate links, _as long as_ the visitor is aware of it.

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I don't think the visitors are the people that matter, but the creators of the content, other than that I agree, if they mentioned it explicitly and not clouded in legalese ('we can modify your content', which most people would interpret to mean we can edit your content in case it is offensive or in case it violates the tos).

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Overall, I think you handled this well, but...

> Our goal is to be 100% transparent with everything we do at Posterous, especially when it affects your blog and content.

I'm sure users will be forgiving, but your credibility may be blown (re: transparency) by not announcing something like this. Why is it so trendy to be 'transparent'? Why claim to adhere to principles that you clearly didn't follow?

(Sorry to nitpick! <3)

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I kind of feel bad now because this really isn't that big of a deal... I think I just couldn't pass on the opportunity to take my general dislike for 'transparency' out on someone. Sorry, Posterous! :(

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Not quite sure why you were down-voted; you make a perfectly reasonable point.

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Nitpicking.

You (where "you" is any "you") don't have to be 100% transparent. You are expected though to be 100% non intentionally-opaque. Not the same.

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  1. Links in Posterous posts are not edited in any way 
  2. Viglink javascript intercepts clicks...
  3. Affiliate codes are not stripped...
  4. Copying links is unchanged
and

  5. All outbound clicks are recorded by an obscure 3rd 
     party server without my consent or knowledge.
You are routing me through a third party server in the sneakiest way possible. Who the hell cares if the affiliate codes are getting rewritten?

I wouldn't mind if you were changing the href attribute of the links so that hovering over a link would've showed the real destination. But, alas that would've not fly with way too many people. Google link pointing at api.viglink.com looks suspicious and intrusive. What makes you think that hiding this redirect behind some javascript hackery makes it any more acceptable?

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api.viglink.com added to my hosts file

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Re: 4) Links are changed if you copy them. I went to the linked article, right-clicked the "Google" link and clicked "Copy URL". I went to gedit and pasted this:

    http://api.viglink.com/api/click?key=8eb8c964d427e97a1567cec6532655f0&v=1&libId=1272676171565&loc=http%3A%2F%2Fshamrin.posterous.com%2Fposterous-silently-changes-all-external-links&out=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&txt=Google&title=Posterous%20silently%20changes%20all%20external%20links%20on%20users'%20posts%20-%20Alexey%20Shamrin&format=go
This is in Chrome under linux. no extensions or adblockers running.

If there's a way for copied URLs to remain unchanged, I would have no problem with the viglink stuff.

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worked fine in chrome under windows 7. i got http://www.google.com/

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An "oversight" for four months? On a critical part of your business that has a direct impact on the perception of the quality of the blogs you host? Are you trying to become the Facebook of blogging (in a bad way)?

You have a nice service, but this is too much. Also, it prompted me to take another look at your terms of service, which are surprisingly onerous. You've lost a user and an advocate. Good luck.

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Good. Tell em! Even better that you're taking a real stand by putting your money where your feet are and moving on. Oh, shit, Posterous is free. Maybe send them a check for the valuable service they did provide you before moving on.

And really, what better blog alternative are you even going to go to?

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Free services need a business model. And they need to be transparent about that business model, preferably up front.

If you move on because you disagree with a change in policy you do not owe a free service anything for the time they provided you, I really don't understand where you got that idea. It's not up to the end user to structure a service.

If Facebook decides on some silly move tomorrow which causes users to leave in droves that does not mean we owe them for the time before, the same holds true for posterous.

They could have avoided this by publishing it in their corporate blog and by clearly stating their affiliate trick in the terms of service. Anything less simply won't do, especially not after four months. After all, the only reason it is four months is because some user walked in to it after four months, it could have been eight just the same.

I wonder if they would be calling it an 'experiment' then too, or if they would agree too that that is stretching credulity.

I hate corporate speech.

They should have just written:

"Sorry guys & girls, we've messed up on this one, we have amended the terms of service, and we've reset the 'viglink' flag on all existing accounts, if you feel like giving us a hand then please re-enable it but if you don't we understand.".

That would have taken a bit more guts though, but I'll bet you it would have been received a lot better and would have possibly been a net plus for them.

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Sachin, if I were hypothetically your in-house SEO, and I read this post at 3 AM in the morning, I would call you on your cell phone and wake you up. The potential for business-level risk terrifies me.

My guess is that you get a huge portion of your traffic from Google. Google needs the Internet's link graph to work. Dynamically retargeting links would be a catastrophe for Google if it caught on. It is possible that Google will say "Well, that is our problem", but I wouldn't predict that based on their previous behavior.

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I'd probably be willing to roll the dice. VigLink has investment from Google Ventures (Google's in-house investment arm), First Round, etc.

Peculiar, eh? I agree that Google should be miffed about such things.

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Google Ventures is a semi-autonomous fund. I would say that their participation does not necessarily imply synergy with Google, nor does it imply that Google's search team has vetted the impact on their results.

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They really thought this through. I was wondering why they didn't implement the "technology" in-house, without having to split their ramen with VigLink, but it looks like a well played position.

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My guess is that VigLink maintains 100's of affiliate accounts, so it would take a lot time to get the same coverage in house.

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Since the changes are made using Javascript, would Google even notice? Meaning, wouldn't their link graph be unaffected? I doubt they run each page through javascriot when indexing (then again, this is Google).

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Google does execute javascript: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1310061

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The only bit that doesn't sync there is where you mention how you've attempted to make it un noticable to users. That doesn't feel 100% open. It's not about making a blog post about it - it's about having it in the TOS and FAQ. Otherwise it looks like your trying to hide it - which feels sneaky :-p

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We chose to work with Viglink because their technology doesn't interfere with the user experience at all.

If middle-click is broken, then it does interfere with user experience.

The fact that it took 4 months for someone to really notice this is a testament to how unobtrusive it is.

Others have noticed it prior to this, Shamrin is just the first to blog about this. This is a horrible line of discussion, btw - to attempt to downplay your customers issues with "well, no one noticed".

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Thanks for your post. I love posterous services, but I think the affiliate link feature should be disclosed and clearly highlighted before the user signs up. You might say it doesn't affect user experience at all, but I disagree. Sometimes the viglinks add an extra one or two forwarding urls and this can delay the user getting to the link, and when they get to the link, it's a long affiliate link, rather than a short URL I originally posted. Also, there's the issue where some bloggers aren't comfortable with the affiliate links. All in all, this should be disclosed and highlighted in the sign up/feature page.

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To some extent, I would be more worried about the effect this would have on blogs hosted by Posterous. If I'm reading a blog and I find it doing something sneaky to track my behaviour, I'm not going to care whether it is the blogger or the host service, I'm just going to stick all related domains/IPs in the appropriate kill file under "don't spy on me".

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I'm curious as to whether you considered if this would have any effect on PageRank for content you host?

This type of behavior - using javascript to present the user with links different than the googlebot found - seems like the type of thing they frown on.

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Unless googlebot runs a javascript engine, I don't think it will ever be able to find out... unless a human over there reads this and adds this information to their PageRank database.

Google does this themselves for their search engine pages, in a way... if you have JavaScript running, there is an onmousedown pingback added for every link in the search results so they know what you click on. The link itself remains apparently unaffected. Check it out if you have Firebug/Web Inspector, each link has e.g. onmousedown="return clk(this.href,'','','res','1','','012394AFC')".

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Google does execute javascript, and even some flash, but not on all its crawlers (which is very understandable; building a DOM for every page on the web is expensive, even for Google. I say "build a DOM" because abstract interpretation is still far off, specially for the web and its cruft of languages, standards and quirks.)

http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/new-reality-google-follows-links-i...

http://www.labnol.org/internet/search/googlebot-executes-jav...

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This is interesting, but it leads me to ask, what can you expect a JavaScript-enabled web crawler do? Load the page into the DOM, wait a few seconds for the dust to settle, start firing click events on everything and recording what requests are generated? It would seem a crawler could cause some really undesirable behavior on your site if that were the case. Imagine click events that post comments, delete things, downvote them, or generate emails. Since they are hidden behind JavaScript a web developer might expect a crawler not to try them...

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There have been a few discussions about this topic in the past, and in the end it boils down to the developer being smart about the way he does requests.

I'm quite sure (wish I could remember where I read it) the crawler only actually performs GETs (which makes total sense because GET was always meant for retrieving and listing data), so a smart developer would use other HTTP methods (PUT, POST, DELETE) for actions that have modify existing application data.

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Hey guys,

We’ve avoided commenting until Posterous decided what they wanted to do in order to avoid interfering in what is no doubt a sensitive matter for them.

VigLink leaves decisions around disclosure up to our customers. Our terms of service require publishers to comply with all applicable local regulations but as these are still new and evolving, we leave it to our customer to judge what is most appropriate for their specific communities and their local legal jurisdiction.

In the coming weeks we will be working to make it easier for publishers to disclose the use of VigLink through branded badges a publisher may add to their site, linking to a clear explanation of what we do and offering the ability for a permanent customer opt-out. However, the ultimate decisions on how best to disclose will remain in the hands of our customers.

A few points of technical clarification:

We and our competitors do not affect the PageRank of a page. We have received assurances from Google that this is so (we are backed by Google Ventures) and Danny Sullivan has written that he’s received the same guidance from Google. (http://searchengineland.com/viglink-fire-forget-solution-to-...) Our publishers who watch these things closely report no change in PageRank as a result of using our code.

Posterous was not overwriting any existing affiliate links. Neither are 99% of our customers. The option is available for customers who would like it (those who run forums prohibiting commercial links for example) but very few have done so.

We work hard not to “break the web” – we don’t use redirects, ad blockers work as intended and even if our servers are unreachable the page continues to behave as expected. We’ve gotten reports that middle clicks under some circumstances were mis-behaving and so we’ve disabled all modified click rewriting until we get this issue sorted out.

We also work closely with merchants and affiliate networks to ensure we are meeting the requirements of their programs. Some merchants have “blacklists” or “whitelists” and we only affiliate links from publishers that those merchants find acceptable.

Any link can be marked “not rewriteable” by adding the attribute rel=”noskim” to the anchor tag. We will add a global tag that allows a page author to easily opt the whole page out of being rewritten.

Offering the ability for our customers to share the revenue with their customers is something we are investigating. There are numerous technical and business challenges involved but we hope to be able to offer this ability where appropriate in the future.

VigLink believes that sites that facilitate commercial activity are contributing to the ecosystem and unobtrusively deriving revenue from that activity is entirely appropriate. We recognize that community expectations about what is acceptable will vary widely and we think decisions about what’s most appropriate in a given context are best left to our customers. We are working to provide even more tools for all our customers meet the expectations of their community.

If you have comments or concerns about VigLink, you can contact us at feedback@viglink.com or me personally at oroup@viglink.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

Oliver Roup

Co-founder / CEO, VigLink

(Adapted from the VigLink blog at http://vglnk.com/M )

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I don't really see a problem with this as it does not strip off existing affiliate codes, it only adds them if they are not present. I mean, Firefox makes millions off of Google searches and nobody seems to complain about that.

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FF makes money off revenue generated when you search and click on google ad. They do not replace links on content that you generate without telling you. Apples/Oranges my friend...

Personally I use posterous as my personal site and I don't appreciate this.

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would you rather have banner ads? they have to make their money somewhere.

as long as they're not rewriting existing affiliate links, this is about as unobtrusive as it gets

[edit: rewriting the links directly, instead of using a third party that necessarily obfuscates the url would be less obtrusive, but the principle is still the same]

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>> they have to make their money somewhere

I'm not against Posterous making money online to provide me a free service. However, they should be transparent and clear about it. When I sign up, I want to be notified about this. I'm going to create a blog, publish posts, make readership and stay a good time there; so I want to know whatever thing happens in my blog and not only be surprised about it when it happens.

Point 2 is that they didn't have a clear strategy how to monetize themselves (which is crucial since nothing runs for free) from the beginning.

Come on, but this is like saying "Get your free domain here" and then telling you that the domain is free, but only if you pay for the hosting :(

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Yep. And for all the handwaving about transparency and 'going forward' there is no real offer of a solution for what they've done to date, in other words, they did it and intend to continue to do it.

If they're serious about this they'll switch the feature off for all accounts up to the moment of modifying their terms of service, and make sure that new signups are properly informed.

This so called apology seems to mix up the meanings of the words 'unobtrusive' and 'sneaky'.

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Of course posterous has to make money somewhere. But they should clearly spell out in the terms of service of the free product how they intend to do that.

And they should allow people to opt out of this, either by going for a premium product or by switching it off on an account-by-account basis. And given the nasty way in which this was introduced the default for all old accounts should be OFF, new accounts know presumably what they're getting in to after the terms of service are modified to reflect reality.

Nobody wants to withhold income from posterous, it's just that this is about as bad as it gets when dealing with the trust of your users.

I'm personally pretty pissed off about it, I did a speech here in NL not that long ago comparing Ning and Posterous and presented posterous as a very good alternative without any of the nasty tricks that Ning has used over the years to lock in their users.

I wished I could eat my words now.

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I agree. There is a big difference between getting a cut from generated search result (which is expected to change over time) and a users' blog post (which is often static after written).

And don't get with the problem with will cause to the linked sites in term of Google juice.

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There's no Google impact here -- Viglink is javascript behavior. Link juice is utterly unchanged.

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The google bot is capable of running some javascript, whether link juice is unchanged or not does not really apply here because they're simply adding affiliate codes, the destination page is unchanged.

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You're using their service completely free, so I don't think you are really entitled to any say on the matter. If you were paying for it you might have some reasonable expectation that they leave your content intact, but you're not. It's like complaining about high taxes and then turning around and complaining that the government isn't sending everyone's children to college for free. You can't have it both ways.

I think this is an absolutely acceptable (and, incidentally, completely innocuous) monetization strategy. It's not like they're rewriting your blog posts to give the false impression you're a Nazi porn star child molester. (I would be against that, for the record.)

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So whenever I use a free service, they are basically entitled to do whatever they want? What kind of logic is that?

If they can't handle it, people shouldn't offer a free service. But don't run a service for "free" and then try to make money with shady business practices.

In other words, you are not entitled to running a service for free.

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> So whenever I use a free service, they are basically entitled to do whatever they want?

Well, legally speaking, they probably are, yes. You get what you pay for, and the current entitlement culture because a lot of "free" on-line services don't come with financial strings does not negate this basic fact of life.

Now, whether they should disclose that they are doing this so that those using their service can decide whether or not they wish to continue doing so is an entirely different question.

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Why would there be different rules for businesses, depending on whether their offering is free or not? Suppose posterous would charge 5$/month for their blog hosting, and still would add the affiliate links, what would it change in your opinion?

I don't think it is illegal to add those links. I for one will stay away from them, though.

Also, Facebook is free. Why did they bother to introduce new terms of service at all? According to you, they could just do whatever they want?

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> Suppose posterous would charge 5$/month for their blog hosting, and still would add the affiliate links, what would it change in your opinion?

It is fundamentally different in law as soon as there is consideration in both directions, because then you have the basis of a contract.

However, if users aren't paying for the service (or otherwise giving some significant benefit to the service provider) then there is unlikely to be a legal basis for any obligation on the part of a service provider to those users. You can't have a one-way contract.

IANAL etc., but this is elementary contract law.

> According to you, [Facebook] could just do whatever they want?

Yes, they probably could, in law. Whether it is a smart PR move to alienate users of your free service by doing something that your user base does not like is a different question. After all, your users have no obligation to you either beyond whatever the use of your service is worth to them.

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Hm, I don't know how contracts work in the US, but at least where I live, I don't think "a service has to cost money" is part of what makes a contract legal. A contract is a contract, it doesn't matter if it is about money or anything else.

Also, it is not really free, Posterous is getting something in return. At the moment for example the affiliate links. So it would be a kind of quantum state contract? If they don't add the links, they are free, therefore it would be legal for them to add the links (or do bad thing X). Then suddenly they wouldn't be free anymore, and they would have to remove it again.

I don't think that makes much sense.

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Where do you live, where contracts don't have to involve consideration in both directions?

That consideration doesn't have to be financial, but there has to be something of value in the deal for both sides. Maybe in Posterous's case, a user could argue that providing the rights to use their content was consideration enough, and maybe a court would agree. This is where you start needing a real lawyer.

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Very few "free" services are really free. The ones I use are Twitter and Hacker News (I've tried Posterous, but it wasn't for me). But even in such cases when there is no advertising at first, I don't typically assume the service is really free. For example in the case of Twitter, I assume that me using it adds to the value of the company, and enables them to sell their company for a high price eventually, or to charge a lot of money for advertising. I expect that something like advertising might eventually arise on Twitter, at which point I might quit. But until then, at least it was advertising for Twitter that I used it. Also, why should I worry abut how a company makes money - if they choose to offer something for free, it is their problem.

HN might be more of a hobby project, for the enjoyment of pg. Or it really helps YC to select candidates. If HN started showing ads, I wouldn't blame them. But maybe I would take my comments elsewhere. In fact I wonder at times how much my comments would have been worth in terms of SEO, had I put them in blog comments with a link to my web site, instead of commenting on HN. I probably made thousands of comments on HN by now. I kind of pay by contributing.

Just saying - just because no money transactions are involved, doesn't imply both sides have an advantage. Most "free" services simply want to build a user base and eventually get them to pay or monetize them in some other way. Therefore I don't feel like a freeloader just because I use a free web site.

I am not sure if there can be truly one sided contracts. At least in my country, contracts can "outrageous", for example, you can't have a contract forcing somebody to work their whole live for you in exchange for 1$. But in most cases, a mutual benefit is probably there.

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> IANAL etc., but this is elementary contract law.

It's perfectly legal to have a contract where no money changes hands at all.

The important part is that there is some kind of agreement between two parties (or more) that is defined in a formal way.

Money definitely need not change hands.

A 'one way contract' gives consideration to only one party, and in the case of posterous that is definitely not the case, after all, the user gets one thing, posterous gets another, both parties benefit, there is an agreement in place that governs the transaction which both parties have consented to. (You use webservices without reading the terms of service, which should be prominently displayed at your own peril).

edit: for reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contract

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A contract fundamentally requires consideration in both directions, as well as the agreement element. This need not be money. Obviously it can also be something else of value, or the only contract possible would be a direct swap of funds, which isn't very useful.

This is the case in every jurisdiction in the modern world. I don't care what Wikipedia says: if it disagrees with this, literally ten seconds with any qualified lawyer will tell you that it is wrong.

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Value does not need to be something material. In the case of posterous the user gets a space to host their content, the posterous people get the 'eyeballs'.

So, consideration in both directions is present, the terms of service seal the conditions under which the agreement operates.

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I suspect you would have a hard time arguing that an unknown number of hypothetical page viewings by third parties represented significant consideration for the service, unless they were clearly able to monetize those viewings... which kind of brings us back to where we came in.

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Incorrect. Free services have terms and conditions just like paid services. If they change your content on the fly that's part of the agreement and it should be disclosed. Whether you pay or not is immaterial, if you paid they could do it just the same.

There is no 'legally speaking' here, this is not a lawsuit, it's just against the expectations that you create in the heads of your users, and that is always bad for your business.

That's why you disclose stuff, to make sure everybody is on the same page.

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I'm sorry, but how was my post incorrect?

(a) Terms and conditions aren't worth anything unless they are legally enforceable.

(b) The terms and conditions for just about every blogging or social networking site claim a far-reaching right to use and modify any submitted material, and I've just confirmed that this includes the terms for Posterous.

(c) Whether it is bad PR for them to pull something like this is a different question.

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This is not a lawsuit, and to pretend it is is not really correct. It's simply one side not informing the other fully of the status quo, which is not 'actionable' in any other way than by simply quitting the service, which probably quite a few people will do.

A business operates on trust, this breaks that trust.

It's not just PR, it's a fundamental breach of the silent agreement between users and a service.

What your terms and conditions write in legalese and what you intend to do in plain English can be two different things but that isn't a long term strategy.

Nobody is going to sue posterous over this, mostly because there isn't any real damage to the end users, and yet they should have known much better than to even try and get away with this.

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> Nobody is going to sue posterous over this, mostly because there isn't any real damage to the end users, and yet they should have known much better than to even try and get away with this.

You are curiously pragmatic about this one moment, but then curiously hostile the next!

Sure, it is unlikely that anyone is going to sue Posterous over this. I was merely addressing the original question to which I replied, which asked whether someone running a free service was entitled to do what they want with it. I never wrote anything about this being a lawsuit.

By the same token, given that apparently this has been going on for months and it's only just been noticed, I'm betting that the impact on Posterous from all the righteous indignation on display in this HN discussion is also going to be negligible, so the guys running the free service are still entitled to do what they want (and accept the consequences, if there are any).

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I'm pragmatic about the consequences, if they feel this is the way forward, more power to them. But I'm hostile to the way it was done and to the 'apology' above, that's simply not how you go about things like this.

You brought the 'legal angle' in to it, I don't think that that has any place here at all, whether it is legally enforceable or not is not a factor at all.

If they want to do it, sure, they can but if they do it without alerting their users, in fact are going out of their way to make sure the users do not notice that's simply sneaky and counterproductive once it is - inevitably - discovered.

The fact that they did not seem to have any plans at all to disclose it belies their statement that this is 'just an experiment', as does the period it has apparently been live.

If someone feels they should apologize for this they should at least make it real, not just say we won't do it again, they should hit the 'undo' button to show they mean it.

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The legal angle most certainly has something to do with it. Many of the comments on this thread seem to imply that there should be something legal barring Posterous from doing such a thing. Silhouette has been trying to point out, and quite deftly I should say, that what they’re doing is probably pretty much entirely legal for various reasons.

Reasonable people can obviously disagree about whether there’s anything sneaky about what they did. I don’t think there is. What do you want them to do, send a mass email out to all their users—95% of whom could care less about this change? That’s just going to confuse a ton of their audience, and it would be completely counter-productive. I’m of the opinion that businesses aren’t obligated to be endlessly transparent to their users. Should Posterous send out a mass email to all users when they change the soup of the day in their employee cafeteria as well?

Caveat emptor. This is why I don’t store my data on free services which may decide to make changes like this. But even if I were, this change is completely harmless.

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Sure it's legal, that's not what this is all about.

You shouldn't do it.

It's perfectly legal for me to wipe the histories of all my users from ww.com, it was equally legal for Yahoo! to wipe geocities.

But that doesn't make it right.

Sending a mass email to all the users when they change the cafetaria menu is a clear attempt at drawing this into the ridiculous, as contrasted by simply updating their terms of service and a two line blog post as to why they updated the terms of service.

I don't know what kind of email policies posterous has, maybe they have a mailing list, maybe not but that isn't really relevant.

It's common courtesy to keep your users informed and it helps to keep your users and your company aware of what the status quo is.

To wipe stuff like this under the carpet makes your company look untrustworthy.

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You’re absolutely right, that’s all it is—a courtesy. They are being uncourteous at worse; but being uncourteous does not equate, in my mind, to being ‘not right’ in a moral sense. Again, it is entirely their prerogative to make this change, therefore there is simply no way it can be ’not right’. This has already been drawn in to the absurd, because a mountain is being made of a molehill. It’s just not a big deal. I don’t think this makes them untrustworthy at all. In fact, I would be more inclined to trust them now, because if they’re making money off affiliate links, there’s a far less likely chance the service vanishes into thin air six months from now when they burn through all of their venture funding without having made a penny. I think you’re being overly idealistic about a practical business decision they made.

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I run several major websites, and if I would pull this kind of stunt I'm pretty sure it would hurt my business tremendously, either in the shorter or in the longer term.

So it's not overly idealistic, it's born from experience that you do this kind of thing at your peril.

I used to think those were 'my sites', over the past decade I have come to the conclusion that my fortune is that I hold stock in a company that owns a bunch of domain names and operates some servers that other people are good enough to stock with interesting content free of charge.

The second I start to pretend - even to myself - the content is mine to do with as I please I might as well shut it down.

The community of users owns the site, not the people nominally in charge of the data center and the domains, they're just along for the ride, as stewards, as guides and occasionally as enforcement.

If you don't believe that with all your heart do not get in to hosted content because you will eventually have a very rude awakening.

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Please understand that throughout this thread, you have been projecting your own personal preferences onto everyone else. You write in absolutes and state things as if they were facts, but it seems clear from posts like the one I'm replying to here that you don't actually know any of these things for sure. You are making assumptions about things that would happen under certain circumstances, mixing in some of your personal ethics and business strategy, and then claiming that the entire world should behave as you wish, because otherwise Bad Stuff will happen.

You might be right, but you haven't provided the slightest objective reasoning or empirical evidence to support your position anywhere in this entire thread that I can see. Even when you accused me directly of being incorrect, and I asked you to explain why with specific points you could debate, you still only repeated your objection to something I never actually wrote. What are you trying to prove here?

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Hear, hear! Thank you, Silhouette, for putting that so well.

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The answer to your first question is unequivocally yes (within the confines of the law, of course). Unfortunately for you, and fortunately for the rest of us, you don't get to dictate the terms under which people offer free services.

I don't find Posterous's business practices shady at all—they found a way to offer a free service to people while at the same time making some money off it in a way that users don't even need to be aware of. I think that is the definition of creating value—it's a mutually beneficial relationship. I don’t like how you’re trying to imply they're somehow immoral just because you don’t like what they’re doing.

If you don't like the way they do it, don't use it. Your content is being hosted at their pleasure. It’s like living rent-free at your aunt’s house and then getting ticked off when she sublets the basement to help cover the rent. You have no right to be upset over that—it’s her house.

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Even a free service has some "terms", as you said. Neglecting certain aspects of the service (hidden costs) in the terms is fraud in my opinion. Now in this case it probably isn't illegal, but I just don't understand your logic in general. How does offering anything for free justify anything?

Picking up on your renting example: if aunty offers me to let me live there for free indefinitely, and I move my stuff there at considerable costs, I think I would be pissed off. Not that I personally would like the arrangement to begin with, but still.

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Just being blunt, but if you got pissed off at your aunt like that, I would call you an ungrateful spoiled brat. Doesn’t matter how much you paid to move your stuff in. I don’t actually think you’re a spoiled brat, because it’s just an analogy and expecting something from Posterous as you do is at a much lower level of entitlement than expecting something from someone letting you live with them rent-free. I see your point of view regarding Posterous and I can respect it although I disagree.

IANAL, but I think the only reason that a website offers terms of service (beyond any minimum legal requirements they must live up to whether they like it or not) is to give the appearance that they’re nice guys that care about their users. That makes users feel good; it’s a PR decision. But the business doesn’t have any obligation to make its users feel all fuzzy inside about the service. It’s just that it’s usually in the best interests of the business to do so, to the most reasonable degree possible.

And it’s good that business don’t have this obligation, because users can be stingy and irrational. Like, for example, when they get unjustifiably angry when the business finds a completely harmless way to support the free service.

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Personally I probably wouldn't move in with the aunt to begin with. But suppose I would, I think in most of such cases there is some mutual benefit. Perhaps in exchange for moving in, you are expected to have tea with the lonely aunt at least twice a week, and to tend to her garden (without that having been agreed upon beforehand). In any case, it is just not nice to promise something, make other people invest in your promise, and then suddenly throw out your promise. Whether it is good style by the other party to accept something for free doesn't even enter the equation at this point.

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When did Posterous promise that they would never add affiliate links to your blog posts? Or that they would tell you about it if they did?

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They promise to be a clean blog engine. Also there are some common assumptions with human interactions. However, further discussion is futile. If there are people who don't mind, I don't blame them for using Posterous.

Apparently this is a matter of taste.

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From the Posterous Terms of Service:

"You shall retain all of your ownership rights in your User Submissions; however, by submitting material to Posterous you grant Posterous the irrevocable, fully transferable rights to use, reproduce, distribute, modify, transmit, prepare derivative works of, display and produce the material in connection with Posterous and Posterous's business, but solely in accordance with these Terms of Use and our Privacy Policy." (emphasis mine)

I don't know, legally, whether they are allowed to do whatever they want. But it doesn't appear that they broke their terms of service, what more do you want?

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I don't think what they are doing is illegal (IANAL, though). But nobody reads TOS, and even if I read something like the above, I would maybe assume they just need that to be able to publish the blog posts at all. It's difficult to get such formulations right - what does "in connection with Posterous and Posterous's business" mean, for example? Does it mean they may do whatever they want to do, as long as they earn money with it? Ie wrap your blog posts into a book and sell it? Print T-Shirts with the drawings you posted?

There is always a certain amount of goodwill in interpreting contracts and TOS. If it turns out that a company is bending the wording to their advantage, it is a natural reaction to leave and avoid the company in the future.

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"... So whenever I use a free service, they are basically entitled to do whatever they want? What kind of logic is that? ..."

Share cropper mentality.

As much as I agree to with your sentiment by not owning the server you post on this is what happens. Eben Moglin has delivered a great speech on the lack of "Freedom in the Cloud" ~ http://www.meetup.com/ny-tech/messages/boards/thread/8486342... The stand out quote:

"servers have gained freedom & you have not. welcome to the cloud!" - eben moglin ~ http://twitter.com/noneck/status/8700276388

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I don't own my root server either (it is rented), but I have my own ad-free Wordpress installation running on it. So I don't think the cloud has to imply sharecropping. With a good open source blog engine that everybody could set up at the push of a button (without any knowledge about computer administration), such problems could be avoided to some extend?

Atm one could use Google App Engine for that, except I don't like being tied to their specific API.

Not saying everything should be/could be free. But the cloud could make it easier for people to have their own server (rented for a small fee), and run all sorts of stuff on top of it.

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> So whenever I use a free service, they are basically entitled to do whatever they want? What kind of logic is that?

Pretty fucking much!

You've got it the wrong way around asshole. If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be USING a free service!

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> asshole

Sorry ?

If you can't express your disagreement without resorting to name calling I guess you feel you've lost the argument ?

And no, you're completely wrong. Running a free service does not give you the right to run roughshod over your users, the users of free services have rights just like those of paid services and you are normally required to spell those out in your terms of service, preferably in language that your users will actually understand.

In fact, the people at posterous seem to have at least come to the conclusion that that is the way things ought to be and we can consider this experiment a one-off.

Transparency is not just because you want to be nice, it is because you want to keep yourself and your users on the same page, so that people don't feel taken advantage of.

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I really don't like the downvotes just because you express an unpopular opinion, instead let me try to show you what is not good here.

A free service does not mean there is no understanding between the parties, it simply means the price is '0'. Even if you paid or got paid, there would still be an unwritten set of expectations underlying your usage of the service, and these should be clearly expressed in the terms of service (not the corporate blog).

If the service goes out of its way to make it seem as though your content is still intact, but in fact changes it underwater then that is 'sneaky'. If the service profits from that they're not 'clever', 'smart' or merely trying to make ends meet, they've changed the terms of the unwritten agreement, after the fact.

That is what is wrong here, not that they decided to charge you.

By your logic google can turn around next month and suddenly charge you for your gmail account, after all, you don't really have any say on the matter. Or they might decide to decrease the size of your mailbox to 10 MB. But that breaks the unwritten contract, just like this does.

Sure, your 'service' continues uninterrupted, but the fact is that they added something that changed users content without 'informed consent' on the part of those users, and they did everything they could to cover their tracks. The latter is advertised as being 'unobtrusive', I read it as 'we tried very hard to make sure we got away with it'.

It's double speak to present it as a way to make it transparent to the user, after all, changing the links inline and visibly would have been more transparant, not less.

Any change to the content, especially one that you profit from should be made explicit, it's part of the 'terms' of the agreement between the users and the owners of the service.

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> By your logic google can turn around next month and suddenly charge you for your gmail account, after all, you don't really have any say on the matter. Or they might decide to decrease the size of your mailbox to 10 MB.

Yes, they can. At least, they can impose a charge and immediately discontinue providing the service to you if you don't wish to pay that charge.

Pretending otherwise just perpetuates the entitlement culture I mentioned earlier, and results in lots of upset people who somehow thought a free service owed them something. At it happens, Google is probably a relatively safe bet for the foreseeable future, but certainly other services have just folded overnight or dramatically changed their terms, and people have lost whatever data/content they had stored there.

If you have valuable data that you want to keep safely or present reliably, host it yourself, or get a company with a transparent business model and enforceable terms to host it for you.

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Unfortunately I think people have a tendency here to downvote comments they disagree with rather than weighing them on their merits. Although I concede that perhaps it had something to do with the Nazi stripper comment ;)

I completely and unequivocally disagree with almost everything you said, though. I’m not entirely sure whether you’re speaking legally or on the level of what you think the company ‘should’ be doing from a moral perspective, but I think you’re speaking from a moral perspective.

But you’re attempting to say that the price does not matter, and here you can’t ignore the legal aspect, because price most certainly does matter in that respect. If you are paying for the service and there is therefore an actual honest-to-goodness contract between you and the business, then they do have a responsibility to continue to provide the service as stipulated in the contract. However, even then, it’s common for businesses to stop providing a service; if, for example, they refund your money. IANAL, but I imagine the Uniform Commercial Code provides for this sort of eventuality. Look at Lala shutting down: Apple decided to entirely remove the service off the face of the earth, leaving users entirely out in the cold. And they didn’t even refund anyone’s money—they just gave out iTunes gift certificates. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with this: they are making calculated decisions and they need to be free to make these decisions. Users must have an implied underlying understanding that the business may make changes like this.

But in the case of Posterous no monetary consideration is even changing hands and so the obligation is necessarily far more nebulous if there is one at all.

‘Sure,’ you’ll say again, ‘but I’m not talking legally, I’m speaking morally.’ OK—I’ll say again that I don’t think a business has any obligation to live up to whichever crazy expectation you happen to have dreamed up concerning their free service. Whatever your particular understanding of the service you are getting happens to be is completely orthogonal to what the business is going to decide to provide. If there’s one crazy guy in Butte, Montana who thinks Posterous is a dating site, and then Posterous decides to remove avatar images from the site, the guy in Montana just can’t complain that Posterous has ruined his ability to use the site as a way to look at pictures of potential dates. It’s their product, it’s their right to make any change they want.

Businesses, and especially web startups, need to be free to stay agile and change direction on a dime. They need to iterate to find a business model that works. Just because they were doing one thing in the past, people have no right to think the business is therefore forever after obligated to continuing doing so in the future.

I do think that it is absolutely within Google’s rights, if it so chose, to start charging money for Gmail tomorrow. It may break an unwritten contract, but that doesn’t mean they can’t nor shouldn’t do it if they decide that it’s in their best interest to do so. You may say from a practical standpoint that they’d lose 95% of their users if they did such a thing. But they are completely free to decide to make a change that drives off 95% of their users. I assume they would have calculated that the money they will make from the 5% of remaining users is worth it. Gmail is a bad example, though, because obviously Google is giving away the service for free because it brings in tons of eyeballs on their ads. If ad revenue in Gmail fell precipitously with no hope of coming back, do you think Google wouldn’t really start charging for it or cancel it altogether?

It’s ironic that you talk about ‘unwritten terms’ between the business and user, because someone already posted the Posterous terms of service, and it explicitly says that they might do this. So there are no ‘unwritten terms’—there are written ones and they explicitly allow for this, so it’s moot.

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You're right about the moral angle.

If you position your service as one thing, change it after the fact to become another you are shooting yourself in the foot, even if you are 'completely free to do so', not communicating with your users about such course changes is simply dumb. It costs nothing and will help you tremendously in the long run.

If you pretend that you did 'an experiment' whereas to everybody but the most deluded it is clear that you were simply trying to get away with it you again shoot yourself in the foot, this time you are coming across as dishonest.

Those are not long term strategies, even if you are legally speaking in the right to do so. If you liberally interpret your terms of service, instead of taking them as indicating the spirit in which a service operates than you are again playing fast and loose with your users.

If you want to be in the hosted content business in the longer term that is not a good course to be on.

As for the money changing hands bit, we've beaten that to death I think, here where I'm from (NL) no money needs to change hands for a contract to be in place, though it definitely helps if it does, especially since you can't really claim any damage if there was no monetary factor to begin with.

The way I've done course changes like that is to simply alert the community, either through newsletters or postings on the homepage, changes to the terms of service that spell out what the deal is in plain language that we do not try to interpret in some sleazy legal way that no ordinary user would ever think of.

It has served me well. I can't imagine doing it in another way would have served me as well, and I have some empirical data to back that up.

You build up your reputation slowly, it takes only one or two cock-ups like this to lose that reputation for good.

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I wasn't going to say anything further on this thread, but I just checked out your site:

http://img526.imageshack.us/img526/6032/wwcom.png

I'm sorry dude, but Posterous found a way to finance their site without plastering their homepage with ads for 'AdultFriendFinder'. The fact that I don't have women's crotches shoved in my face when I go to a Posterous blog means they're one step ahead of you.

The fact that you couldn't pull off what Posterous did without the sky falling on your business doesn't mean that it will for other businesses. When you've got $5 million worth of other people's money on the line and you need to find a working business model, I think you'd find your priorities shift pretty quick and you'd get down to brass tacks. Your particular experience does not generalize universally.

If a business is so pussy-whipped they're afraid to cover their bottom line with a completely unobtrusive way to make some scratch, without asking their customers for it directly or pimping out their site with dirty ads, I think that's a pretty sweet way to go. I'd rather be running the business that provides incredible value to its users for free but doesn’t have to ask them whether it can please go to the potty.

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Hilarious.

I've been 100% up front about having advertising on that site as a means of making it profitable, the interesting bit here is that I enabled those ads specifically in order to produce some data, the 9 years between 2001 and the posting listed below it has been ad free.

See this thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1108677

It has been a lot of work and it will be a lot more work still before it is finished.

You're pretty quick to judge here just because of adult friend finder, ww.com has always had an adult component which we've tried very hard to eradicate, but since that seems to be impossible it is an excellent place to see how much money you can make with that kind of advertising.

Or would you rather have I tested that on reocities.com or so?

Posterous is doing fine without resorting to silly tricks, and they've done just that. It's a pity because they are one of the best sites in that segment today and they stand to lose a lot if they do stuff like this and not learn their lessons from it.

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I'm not saying I disagree, but I think there is a fundamental difference between monetizing functionality in a piece of software, and monetizing user-generated content.

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Hosting and displaying user-generated content isn't a part of the Posterous software functionality?

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I don't think there's anything wrong with this, but why would Amazon, Walmart and others not make this type of linking against their terms of service?

It goes against the spirit of affiliate programs, which is an exchange of actual promotion in exchange for commission. The stores aren't gaining anything by allowing it since those links were already published. And it hurts other affiliates, not only by directly taking their commissions (because the most recent affiliate click before purchase counts), but also because it increases the total amount that the stores are paying out.

If this catches on, it will force merchants to lower their commission rates, causing them to lose publishers. I think that most merchants will end up forbidding the practice, just as many have forbid bidding against them in PPC campaigns.

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Also there is no guarantee that in a blog post that people will adhere to the conditions that affiliates impose when they aren't aware they are part of an affiliate program. For instance Amazon requires that the product be described accurately and that it doesn't seem to be endorsed by a third party. Other sites probably have other requirements, though of course I have no idea what Amazon's arrangement with Viglink is.

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I too don't actually see it via copying like the article mentions... however a quick View Source on this and another Posterous blog does reveal some javascript to call these guys:

http://www.viglink.com/

Pretty neat, I think! Assuming they're not overwriting existing affiliate URLs, then this seems like a reasonable game to play.

In my mind, Posterous is providing free hosting / platform for the blog, so they have at least some claim to having helped make the affiliate sale.

This isn't going nearly as far in bending the rules on affiliate programs as Browsarity (another YC company):

http://www.browsarity.com/about.php

(And good for Browsarity -- but I'm still surprised that various affiliate programs haven't disconnected them yet because of their much more tenuous connection to the underlying transaction.) [EDIT: clarifed this last sentence]

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Scary how many people thing that kind of thing is OK. Isn't it at the very least very sneaky?

"They need to make money somehow" is not an excuse for being sneaky.

The only thing in their favor is that customers should probably expect a catch since the service is "free".

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Thank you for the heads-up. Just added *.viglink.com to the AdBlock list.

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Ditto.

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It is on days like that, that I am happy that my blog and company sites are hosted on normal web hosting. I can run whatever blog or CMS I like, whatever versions I like, whatever ads I like (none), whatever affiliates I like (none), and never worry that an otherwise slick platform starts rewriting my links, adding ads, or whatever.

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As a Posterous user, I'm happy that they did this. It has essentially no effect on the end user, potentially makes them money (to support their excellent, free service), and doesn't kill existing affiliate links.

Keep up the good work, guys.

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  It has essentially no effect on the end user
Sure it does. Users get inconsistent and bizarre behavior when trying to copy and paste links. It would be tremendously confusing to try to copy and paste a link only to find out that what ended up on the clipboard was a completely foreign link that's totally different from what was displayed in the status bar.

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First, personally, I think the use of "oversight" as the reason is oversimplifying. You need more than one "oversight" for this to happen the way it has evolved until caught red handed. And the collective of them looks "weird".

Second, I sincerely agree that I would love to see Posterous earn a profit for such a great service. But "free is free", not "free if I exploit the links on your blog unaware to you". The blog content is the property of the blog owner (except if the owner explicitly makes it public property). I do not think it wise for Posterous to earn income from the blog content without the blog owner's explicit permission.

Third, the response from Posterous does not make it clear the plan to rectify the issue - it is just an apology. The apropriate response, I think, VigLink should be disabled immediately for all blogs. Then each blog owner can be given the option to either opt in (and hopefully gets a cut) or take their content elsewhere.

Just some observations.

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while it would have been nice to get a heads up, this doesn't bother me in the least. props to posterous for having a revenue model that doesn't interfere with the user experience whatsoever

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Absolutely. What's wrong with a business having a revenue model? Better this than advertising or a crippled free version.

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The problem for me is that visitors to my site may think that I'm the one who is using this affiliate code, and that I'm looking to make a buck off my links.

Is that a problem? Depends; some readers are put off by this sort of thing. Witness the comments on HN when someone discovers an affiliate link in a article posted here.

You can dismiss this as a fairly benign way to increase revenue, but I'd prefer no one alter my content, benign or not, without telling me right up front.

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Well, apparently these are fairly hard to discover if they can do it sitewide for millions of people and not have it seen for four months. This suggests an obvious opportunity for folks who want to promote their affiliate links on HN: clean links in HTML, dynamically retarget to affiliate link via Javascript. Nobody will see it. (Particularly for merchants who 301 their affiliate links to the standard pages -- you'd have to be watching your HTTP headers very carefully to see that.)

Seriously, the possibilities for abuse of this are endless. Which is why the Powers That Be are going to come down on it like a ton of bricks.

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I'm amused at the thought of the common practice of linking to Amazon and explicitly disclaiming in the text that you aren't getting kickbacks you just really like the book and then the readership finding some semi-obscured javascript that adds affiliate links.

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What's wrong with a business having a revenue model?

It does not follow that because someone thinks a business has chosen a bad revenue model, that person thinks that any business having a revenue model is bad. Please don't write dross such as this.

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As of March 4, 2010 posterous has no way in their interface to delete your account.

If you want it deleted you should mail vince@posterous.com or help@posterous.com and ask for it to be deleted. I've just done so.

Citation: http://inbtwnrthedoors.posterous.com/3604263

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One more thing they should mention in their terms of service.

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I didn't bother to delete my account emailing (didn't even now about that). I just deleted my content (two post), name and avatar. I did this sometime ago. Because of this incident I would certainly do the same now if I was still a Posterous user.

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Update: Just got my account removed.

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To confirm for yourself:

1. Go to this post (the result of a Google search for Posterous and Amazon) - http://adeb.posterous.com/ubuntu-one-music-store-vs-amazon

2. Fire up a browser extension/add-on to monitor HTTP requests like HTTP Fox or HTTP Watch.

3. Click the link "here" at the end of the line: 1 install the rpm/deb from here

You can clearly see a request to:

http://api.viglink.com/api/click?key=8eb8c964d427e97a1567cec....

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I was wondering why I wasn't seeing this for myself when I looked at the no-script settings.

The code for this is coming from viglink.com. If you disallow or block such scripts you do not see the added affiliate info.

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If it bothers you, you can add rel="norewrite" to your links (editing as HTML), and it won't rewrite them.

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What happens if the user is already trying to monetize their posterous content using affiliate links? Does Posterous steal the affiliate credit, in that case?

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Viglink does not strip existing affiliate codes.

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Okay. Could you clarify more what happens if there are existing affiliate codes? Does Posterous only get an affiliate fee if there is no existing affiliate code?

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That's pretty much the deal. Only URLs that don't yet include affiliate info gets re-written.

There are a couple of companies in this space, viglink, skimlinks, etc. They all operate on the basis that they sign up to every affiliate scheme and they become the single publisher with which the merchants have a relationship (or more likely, the merchants use a marketplace that puts all merchants together so that they can be found).

For any affiliate program that viglink/skimlinks is signed up to, should someone click through from your site a 45 to 60 day cookie is usually set by the affiliate provider to show who the last publisher is that made the referral. Should a subsequent purchase be made viglink/skimlinks is credited with the sale and receives the 3.5% > 15% affiliate payment.

Catches (there are some)...

1) The cookie. Only the last web site to set a cookie gets the affiliate reward. In this case it means other sites actually providing value and setting affiliate click-thrus are going to get their cookie hijacked by posterous using viglink. So this hurts niche sites that really rely on the affiliate schemes.

2) The fee. Viglink and SkimLinks both deduct a 25% fee for this service. That's pretty damn high. They are VERY profitable.

The benefits...

1) As a publisher you get 75% of the money that is currently left on the table.

2) You didn't have to sign up to every damn affiliate scheme... actually you'd be declined anyway as whilst a merchant will deal with the big boys they tend to only like smaller guys who stay in their knowledge domain (if you don't run an insurance content site, you don't get the insurance affiliate scheme).

Basically viglink and skimlinks are simplifying the whole affiliate thing by doing for the publishers exactly what the merchants already had in places like Commission Junction... which is to provide a one-stop-shop.

So... merchants get found via CJ, AffiliateWindow, etc... and publishers get signed up to all merchants via Viglink, SkimLinks, etc.

What has ultimately happened is that now there are 2 intermediaries between the publisher and the merchant, both of whom take a slice.

I don't blame posterous for doing this, it is just money left on the table. But the cookie hijack will hurt smaller sites for whom the affiliate scheme revenue is a bloodline.

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It's just occurred to me... Posterous could make themselves THE publishing platform by simply sharing the revenue again.

All they need do is to act like another viglink or skimlinks and to record the clicks made per publisher using their platform. Then offer the publisher 50% of the revenue.

This is then an incentive to use Posterous beyond all of the ease of use. Anything you posted that included a potentially monetisable link would earn you revenue.

Now, this isn't as lucrative as just doing it yourself. But to all of the creative people making cool content who are lost when it comes to affiliate schemes this would be a killer feature.

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This would turn 90% of Posterous content into affiliate spam.

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I don't think so. Those who do spam wouldn't be up for giving viglink 25% and then settling for only half of the remaining 75%.

Spammers aren't entirely stupid, they'd go register direct and do what they usually do (set up little spam bait sites) as that would be way more profitable.

This would help small publishers more than it would assist spammers.

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I've met the CTO from Skimlinks and he ran me through just how incredibly hard it is to build and, more importantly, maintain an affiliate marketing aggregation program. If Posterous decided to build their own they would certainly sacrifice product-development.

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It's not money left on the table. It's an automated way to take a slice of money that was set aside for a non-automated sales process.

I only recently found out about these services, and my first thought was "cool!" But now, it occurs to me that they're built on very shakey ground. They only work if they're not popular. If they start becoming widespread, then the affiliate programs will have to lower (perhaps drastically) the commissions offered to compensate for the fact that suddenly every link is an affiliate link.

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Huh, didn't livejournal try the same trick a month or two ago?

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100304/1741458425.shtml

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According to that article LiveJournal was (is?) overwriting existing affiliate links with their own. According to their co-founder, Posterous is only affiliating links that aren't already affiliated (ref: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1309604).

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Well, from what I remember in followup coverage, lj claimed that overwriting existing affiliate links was a bug, and they were also just trying to affiliate links that aren't already affiliated.

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Looks like my /etc/hosts file just got one line longer. :)

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/etc/hosts is for your systems, use AdBlock for the junk ;-)

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This would really annoy me if I had a posterous blog. In my writing I always intentionally make sure links don't contain any affiliate tags to make a point that I'm not writing about some product with the intention to make money but strictly out of interest or because the product is awesome.

If that tag is added for me I lose that advantage in credibility AND I don't earn the money either, but somebody else does with my content and apparently without my knowledge.

That is annoying.

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Well, I'm not as torn as the author. They are altering the original content of the author, even if the result is the same.

Imagine that someone's religion believes that you go to hell if you use affiliate links... posterous would have condemned them! (dramatizing works)

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That's a bit silly, their whole draw is in the fact that they change your content. If you have a youtube link, they turn that into a youtube embed. If you have http://..., they change that into an anchor. There are dozens of examples of content that you can put in an email and they will transform into something more useful, and this is generally regarded as being quite valuable.

If you have a problem with posterous manipulating your content, you should probably be hosting your own content.

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I agree here, Posterous is free and a dam great service. If you want full control code your own blog or go the wordpress custom install way. They need to monetize somehow.

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They could be more transparent about their usage of this, since it isn't indicated anywhere on their admin pages, especially for people who may have been using their own affiliate links which are being overwritten.

Having a paid version which would disable this would be another nice option for them to provide.

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Imagine that my religion believes I'll go to hell if I read silly comments — you would have condemned me!

This game can turn into an infinite recursion.

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I just rofl'd. But well, I'm still with Posterous. Not changing anyone's affiliate links seems pretty far and making use of the free money on their table is also reasonable.

The idea is actually pretty good. I'd definitely love a blog-engine plugin that would make sure I don't forget my affiliate ID whenever I'm linking something.

(just found something to look into)

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If you're gonna get all bent out of shape about your "original content" staying "original", host the blog yourself...

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If you have ad blockers installed, you'll probably not see this. I can't see this on FF3.5+ with AdBlock plus

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I couldn't repeat the link copying trick mentioned in the article. When I right clicked on the link and copied it there was just google.com, no affiliate link.

I can see the viglink JavaScript in the source code for the page, though. Yet the dynamic DOM inspector shows that the link href has not been changed, nor is there an onclick handler added. Perhaps it does not work on Safari, or only works for specific users?

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(it works for me)

I've checked Chrome Developer Tools. It does its magic via click event, installing vl_mC function as a listener.

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I get the affiliate link when copying in Google Chrome on XP.

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Ah, so it may only work on specific browsers. Safari seems immune.

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The copy link trick only works on certain browsers. I'm using Safari, and copy link copies the actual link, not the affiliate link. Clicking it, however, takes me through the affiliate link.

Seems to me like some browsers take the URL that gets opened through the click event when you copy the link, but Safari does not.

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From drivingmenuts comment:

Copied the link and pasted into the address bar in Safari - no change. However if I right-click, and choose Open Link in New Window, it briefly flashes over to VigLink.

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I would guess because a google.com link is not a link to a product, hence, there's no affiliate code for it in viglink databases? Try an amazon link perhaps?

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The author of the post specifically says that he can copy the google link and see an affiliate link.

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I also got the mangled link, Chrome on Ubuntu 9.10... right click > Copy Link Address.

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I got the mangled link. Opera 10.52 on Windows XP.

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It didn't work for me in Opera 10.10 on Mac OS X.

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No affiliate link for me on Safari on Win XP.

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Is there a good browser extension that removes all affiliate links? I use Amazon a lot, and I don't feel that Amazon should be paying someone to refer me there, as I already buy everything from Amazon anyway.

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This isn't anything that uncommon. It doesn't strip off a existing affiliate link either (last i checked) so I dont really get the outrage. The firefox reference quoted earlier seems pretty similar.

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I for one have no problems with this. I mean these guys host my stuff for free, right?

Well, people probably don't know that wordpress.com and a bunch of services that host your content for free also use services very similar to this.

Everyone's getting angry at something that has been happening on sites for the past 2-3 years already.

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There is nothing wrong with adding affiliate links if there is no affiliate link there currently. It is only when it goes horribly wrong (livejournal) that it is a bad thing. Why should they not get paid for a free blogging service. Don't promote free models if you think this is a bad idea.

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There is nothing wrong as long as it is done in a transparent way. Without that transparency, authors are potentially subjecting their readers to click-tracking without being able to give appropriate disclosures.

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I don't understand how far they need to go to show that they do this without being obnoxious. If they show the affiliate link instead it may confuse users (even in the status bar).

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At least show the authors, so that they can decide how much to disclose to their readers.

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You can't click links with the track/scroll ball (which normally opens links in new windows) with Viglink.

This is the only thing that bothers me.

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Hmm..that's not very good, is it? I for one almost always open links this way...

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Let me ask you guys something: would you be upset if HN did this?

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Not at all upset. It would give me a 30-minute project to circumvent it.

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How could you possibly circumvent it? Hacking the HN servers?

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No, my own browser.

On the wire, it's just headers followed by \n\n followed by body the size of Content-length :-)

HTTP is a child's play.

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Sure, why not?

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If anyone intends to change his blogging service I recommend http://my.opera.com/. Although they don't have automatic blog import, so if you have lots of stuff you might want to back it up first and you will have to transfer all your post manually.

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If this becomes big enough of a revenue model for enough companies, the big affiliate payors will change their TOS and refuse to pay third-party hosters. They're trying to pay the people who promote their content directly.

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If this works, doesn't overwrite existing affiliate links and doesn't end up in a bad experience for users then I'm all for it. Posterous has to make money somehow, this is better than banner ads if you ask me.

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The OP says that using right-click to copy a link to google.com gives instead a link like:

http: // api.viglink.com/api/click?key=8eb8c964d...

But I am not experiencing that with a right-click in either Safari/Mac OR FF/Mac. He mentions Safari not being a problem. I find that FF/Mac isn't either.

EDIT: Any chance that they have disarmed this after getting all the bad press (at least on HN)?

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Looking at the code, the hooks are DOM listeners that intercept the click to do the redirect. They don't modify the anchor tag, so there's no reason anyone should see them on mouseover or right-click-copy.

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I'm not sure if I'm missing something, or doing something wrong, but following the author's directions, none of my links are mangled whatsoever - copying the google.com link simply pasted google.com.

I do have Javascript enabled as stated.

I tried with each link in the article, and not a single one of them is redirecting via Viglink.

(edit) Using Firefox 3.5 on Linux

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It probably only picks up links where it can insert an affiliate code like Amazon. Linking to just google.com probably does not trigger the systen.

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adBock?

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Didn't LiveJournal do this recently?

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Yeah, I don't know how I feel about this either. Especially when they don't tell you.

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We have a blog on Posterous and we have no issues with these guys doing this--totally support them making money while giving us a great place to post content.

I don't honestly see what the big deal is. You can barely tell anything is happening.

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I posted about this a while ago: http://lm741.posterous.com/16766453

Two easy ways to get around it: url shorteners and redirect services.

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Update: After several hours after posting this I couldn't repeat "copy link" trick. Neither in Chrome, nor in Internet Explorer. And middle click now works as intended in Chrome. It seems Posterous and/or VigLink changed some of their algorithms. They didn't get rid of affiliate magic (VigLink javascript is still there). But thanks for fixing bugs - the most annoying for me was non-working middle-click in Chrome.

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Did anyone else here read this and immediately install VigLink on a site?

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Yes!

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There are two issues here:

a. The links.

b. The disclosure.

Item a is very well debated. What about b? Why aren't users notified of it? If it is a recent change, why wasn't it announced? Etc.

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They should have posted something on their Official Blog. However, there are a lot of things they should have done before releasing this...

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You should be informed of this when signing up for a blog.

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There can be only one explanation. Posterous was hacked!

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Weird. I posted a simple link, http://www.apple.com/wwdc on our blog (http://gpapps.com), and I get this crazy sequence of forwards:

http://clk.tradedoubler.com/click?p=2554&a=1503186&g...

http://registration.euro.apple.com/cgi-bin/trade-cookie.cgi?...

http://developer.apple.com/wwdc/?aosid=p204&siteid=15031...

All I want is my readers to go to the simple http://apple.com/wwdc link and not all that junk. Posterous was awesome before this.

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Not sure what's going on there. That site isn't even a Posterous website so I don't understand why you think those redirects are related to Posterous

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Your blog http://gpapps.com/ is not hosted on Posterous.

This is unrelated to the discussion at hand.

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I post on our blog via postereous. Meaning, I email my blog post to posterous and posterous posts on my wordpress account. My original link in my post was http://www.apple.com/wwdc, but it does this crazy URL forwarding that viglink added in. It clearly affects users.

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Even if you are somehow using Posterous to post to WordPress (I'm not familiar with Posterous' features), they're not the ones doing your redirect.

It actually looks like WordPress is doing the same link affiliation as Posterous. They're using Skimlinks, not VigLink, but the result is the same. (Open a javascript console while on your blog and take a look at the skimlinks function.) FYI, Skimlinks is based in the UK. That probably explains why the original apple.com link bounces through euro.apple.com.

As easy as it is to miss, I bet there are a lot of sites doing this now.

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Thanks, that's helpful. I didn't know wordpress does affiliate links too.

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