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How 'One Weird Trick' Conquered The Internet (slate.com)
294 points by weston on July 31, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 128 comments

I stumbled into some weird data as to how startups may be able to use this kind of technique without exploiting people. Yeah, it sounds hard to believe. But you have to understand that every technique out there can be used for good. Anyhow, turns out that there are some tricks that these type of advertisers use to increase their response. One just needs to carefully read the source of their pages (specially the Javascript), and you will find lots of interesting stuff in it. Just beware. Once you dig into this type of advertising your view on the subject might change dramatically. You can learn more about it here: http://bit.ly/13wOrj2


16 clicks on 2 minutes. This sort of technique works on everybody, including smart hackers. Its mostly about talking about what you want. Some people want to lose weight, others control their diabetes. Apparently, lots of people want to learn of a little known advertising secrets for startups. I should make a Copy as a Service startup. (:

See how many are suckered into clicking: http://bit.ly/13wOrj2+

I grew up in Utah. Living there taught me at least one thing that helps me deal with certain types of more fanatical or difficult people I meet and deal with on a near daily basis:

    Everyone wants to be part of a secret society or have some esoteric knowledge that
    makes them feel set-apart from the norm.
Unfortunately, this is incredibly easy to exploit and I've watched nearly every member of my family get taken in by someone or something promising them unrealistic benefits from some 'secret' or another.


The gospel of Jesus is a poorly kept secret.

I don't think that anyone who clicked that link really believed that they were going to find out "one weird trick," so much as they just really wanted to know what you were really linking to.

Oh, come on. There's such an obvious difference of situations here it's not even worth going into.

Agreed, it was obviously satire.

I considered clicking just to see if it was a rickroll.

I was disappointed it wasn't.

Amazing. People click on stuff that is in comments. Genius.

> 16 clicks on 2 minutes.

How many people usually click on the links in comments? Unless you have something to compare it with, your experiment is not useful.

16 clicks on 2 minutes. This sort of technique works on everybody, including smart hackers.

Assuming facts not in evidence. Are you saying that all HN readers are "smart hackers?" ...or even that there's a greater likelihood of them being one simply by virtue of reading the site?

Some of us just click because we like seeing the punchline :)

I would say nice try, but after seeing your EDIT, I'm shocked that it works that good.

Percentage of those clicks that were bots? Eh?

Also, this context is far removed from any real world scenario. Cracked did a decidedly low brow version of it, everyone clicked through, just because they wanted to see what stunt they would pull.

If you know it's going to be a joke, you might as well see the punchline.

using curiosity against you.

Thank you. Best comment I've seen all year.

The value of "tricked" clicks vs. relevant clicks seems dubious to me.

Agreed. I found the goal of this comment obvious from the second sentence.

I do find that I click links like this, simply out of the curiosity of seeing what exactly I'm being nudged into consuming/buying.

Congratulations. You're smart enough to abuse a position of some minor trust. That's never been done before. The fact your draw a nonsensical conclusion from it just makes the moment that much more special.

HN users have established a certain amount of trust in each other that lets us evaluate links in user's comments differently than links in other places, especially if the comment is upvoted. Your "technique" shows exactly that. If you would write anything like that on a thread NOT about advertising, you would just be downvoted and not get almost any clicks, so I don't agree that the same techniques work on everybody. Screening technique exists exactly for that - to screen people on who the techniques won't work.

I made this! Please see the slides, they are more "up to date" than the respective papers.

Your site practically made me pee myself with laughter. You totally nailed the tone and presentation.

Thank you. I don't remember the last time I laughed this hard. I particularly enjoyed your seminal work on the Kurse of Dimensionality, "stemming from a desire to have access to certain subspaces of (R-Q)^\infty without appearing on reality TV."

Thank you for making that beautiful site.

I saw it long back and had really enjoyed it! Yours is probably the only useful oneweirdx website..

It is my professional dream goal to submit to SIGBOVIK

Well done. I really wondered for 5 seconds if I was on a domain parking site judging from the design and stock photos.

that is brilliant. also, it looks like someone spent a surprising amount of time and trouble on it.

That is one of the funniest websites (and slides! I'm dying here!) I've seen in a long time. many many thanks for the link!

Oh my god, how deep are there fake links?

They're this deep:



>Pyramid schemes are a well-known way of taking bundles of money from suckers. This paper is not about them. Although on first inspection, this paper sounds like it is about pyramid schemes, we promise that it is not.

And a little further down...

>1. Introduction and Related Work

>This is not a pyramid scheme. This is an easy way for you to make money. It is not related to a pyramid scheme because it is a polytope scheme. For a comparison, please see Fig.2

>If you want guaranteed fi nancial freedom and personal fulfillment from algebraic geometry, sign up now to invest in our gift-giving invest- ment scheme.

All laid out in beautifully typeset LaTeX. Brings a tear to my eye.

Found a typo:

"You do not want to be pursuing some Ph.D. when all your friends are pouring crystal all over benjamins in the Cayman islands."

"crystal" should by "Cristal", the much hyped bubbly in hip-hop lyrics.

Incredible; love the coupon at the end "Yes, I want stress-free personal financial freedom via Algebraic Geometry!!!"

The paper is truly awesome and fractally hilarious. Thanks for the link.

How deep? They go all the way down the rabbit hole, through Wonderland, have a tea party, and come back out again, my friend. Here's one of my favorites:


Cat Basis Purrsuit - http://www.oneweirdkerneltrick.com/catbasis.pdf

Abstract Meow miao mew meow mew meow mew mew meow miao meow meow mew meow meow miau mew miao meeeow meow, miau meow miao mew meeeeow mew miao miao miao. Meow miao mew meow mew (MMM), meow miao mew meow mew meow, meow meow miao meow state-of-the-art meow meow.

YES! I want guaranteed, risk free INCOME from Algebraic Geometry!

This, this is lovely

That's amazing.

I would feel a lot better about Slate (and everyone else) if they didn't run those "SPONSORED FROM AROUND THE WEB" pseudo-article links at the bottom of each page with this exact same kind of manipulative ads in them.

Come on Slate. You think better of your audience than this, right?

That's Outbrain: http://www.outbrain.com/engage/

In theory the ads are targeted to the content of the site, but I agree that they're often pretty crummy.

As far as I can tell, that's not Outbrain, Outbrain is the "More from Slate" / "From Around the Web" section.

The "SPONSORED FROM AROUND THE WEB" section appears to be a standard ad panel from Content.ad.

You're right!

I thought "From Around the Web" was what we were talking about, but of course there are multiple similar blocks of paid links.

A couple of years ago I read an NBC article[1] about low-quality, spammy ads on the Web. The article was decidedly negative about them....and yet (at least at the time) the page was full of them: "Billionaire prepares for financial ruin" etc, all the AdBlade/Taboola-type shit. It was pretty ridiculous, given that the tone of the article from the very beginning was positively railing against low-quality ads.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32676456/ns/business-the_big_money...

They are a plague run by publishers to try to boost their own traffic and revenue via arbitrage. I complained to the Slate folks about the image as running under their articles these day. Those are really awful.

Plague? That depends on what you click on. Since I can't get rid of them (even with Adblock), I've trained those ad tracking/interest algorithms to add a "scroll down for boobs" feature to their client websites.

Add in the adblocking Hosts file (and maybe Ghostery) on top of Adblock to really get rid of them.


One weird trick that conquered the internet.

It looks like it worked, cause I clicked and read the article only to find out that it is exactly what I thought in the first place. But still I spent a good 10 minutes on it.

Look at article #3: http://snag.gy/K0uB5.jpg

When we launched Perfect Audience, we wanted to make things easy to use and as open as possible to marketers looking to get into retargeting.

Yes, we were a bit naive.

The sheer multitude of bad actors participating in the ad/marketing world is bewildering. It tooks us a solid month after launch to get processes in place that let us weed out the bozos swiftly without tying up the whole team.

We have many many of these "one trick" people sign up and try to use our tools. We'll keep turning them away and staying vigilant for the next ruse.

> weed out the bozos swiftly without tying up the whole team.

I bet there's a trick to that. You should sell an ebook.

One weird trick that an advertising company found to filter out low quality ads. Click here!

"Marketers hate him"

Keep fighting the good fight.

The article doesn't seem to mention this, but there is another trick in these guys arsenals - fake news articles about their products.

They build entire webpages, along with side-stories and article comments that support their product. They look SO real that once I (and I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, having access to Internet for 15 years) fell for it briefly, and then had to explain it to my wife who stumbled upon them as well. I was truly impressed by amount of work these guys went through not only to write a pretty long science-looking article, but to build a whole (albeit pretty static) webpage and write realistic comment sections. Sadly, this whole effort is done to deceive other people.

Fake product reviews are popular as well. They'll do a top 5 write-up where their product, or the one offering the highest paid commissions is first, followed by 4 real products in that niche that are well respected. For example, let's say teeth whitening. I don't know who tops the charts here, but let's say Crest Whitestrips is a big name. They'll list them as second, and say they're great. Then they bring in their loaded product for number one. "Don't get me wrong, Crest Whitestrips is one of the best products available, but I was completely surprised by XYZ. I have to say, after three weeks with the product, I think it offered similar results at half the price, and I found they better formed to my teeth, allowing for more comfort." Insert sales or referral link here.

> They build entire webpages, along with side-stories and article comments that support their product.

A lot of those websites are created by affiliates, and not by the product owner. The affiliate commission for digital products is pretty high (75%-85% is quite common), and affiliates often create various review sites for the products they're promoting, or use existing sites they own and add reviews written by "users" of the product.

Indeed they do. I recently looked into a similar scam, although the starting point was a hacked email account that sent out links to everyone in the address book to a hacked wordpress install. It was interesting following the rabbit hole. Here is a quick write-up I did on that instance:

This is what the original wordpress instance looked like (just the frontpage, which did not carry malicious content):


- However, the malicious page on this wordpress instance redirects to a site named foxrxs, registered a day ago (as of this writing) http://whois.domaintools.com/foxrxs.com - to "Gergo Czako" in Hungary.

- The foxrxs site is made to look like Fox News, but it basically just tries to sell people "raspberry ultra drops" - a diet supplement:


- Most of the links on foxrxs go to onlineslimdiet:


- This site was also registered yesterday (as of this writing): http://whois.domaintools.com/onlineslimdiet.com - in this case to "Uta Kalb" in Germany. However, what is notable is both domains use exactly the same name servers: ns1.dnscentral.ru ns2.dnsmax.ru So, given the same exact registration date and same name servers, chances are, both are owned by the same entity.

- And, this seems to be a common scam: http://www.complaintsboard.com/bycompany/raspberry-ultra-dro... Basically, an email address is hacked one way or another, which then often links to a compromised wordpress blog. That redirects to a new domain that is made to look like fox news. The fake fox news site appears to endorse this miracle diet supplement, with all links pointing to another site where you can actually order the product. People apparently do receive the product, but I'm guessing the product itself is a scam. Nice way to make money - only $60 for two ounces of snake oil!

> http://i.imgur.com/RHMxj7T.jpg

This is exactly what I had in mind. A web page stylized as a news website with an article that subtly points to some diet pills. If one didn't read the URL he could really fell for that.

Eventually they do one better, and actually produce content cheaply - aka Demand Media.

Flogs and farticle sites are so 2006 though. Now they use markov chain based generators to generate sites based on content scraped off other sites.

More info on this? Hadn't heard of this being done other than through content spinners

This is the same as the 'Nigerian 419' fraud concept. They fill the email with spelling and grammar mistakes and in doing so, they filter out the marginally intelligent, resulting in a pre-filter to attract the most gullible.

The crappy, hand drawn ads, the dire videos, and the bad production have the same effect. The punter needs to be a gullible fool, since a fool and his money are soon parted.

Just like it says in the article. (You did read the article, right?)

Although the article only made that connection with the video (unless I was skim-reading too much), not with the crappy advert drawings (which they assigned other, perhaps equally relevant logic to) or moronic messaging.

It also mentioned the badly drawn ads.

Makes sense, but Occams razor is more than enough to explain the bad grammar and production effects. Any evidence its a conscious decision?

Hmm, I didn't even notice the first ad, because I subconsciously scanned over it as an ad. The second one looked liked content to me, so I saw that one, and even felt an impulse to click and see what kinda game someone built with such a campy art style

Great resource - thanks!

Microsoft Research wrote a paper about the intentional use of bad grammar/spelling in 419 scams. Keeping the ostensible source as the email Nigerian is another tactic along these lines, since anyone even slightly savvy will see that as an immediate red flag after all these years.


I skimmed the actual paper and wasn't very impressed. It uses theoretical models without any actual data to support its claim. The claim the paper actually proves is:

    If there is a technique that successfully weeds out false positives, then such a technique can be used profitably.
Which is a far cry from their supposed claims, that the spammers are using bad grammar and "Nigeria" to weed out false positives. They basically proved a molehill and claimed a mountain.

I heard it different: all that stuff is intended to make the mark feel superior and less likely to suspect that they're being scammed. Makes a lot more sense to me.

That's pretty much the same thing.

I work with a dozen or so people who are involved in this sort of work. I think it is very interesting to see how they rationalize and deal with their moral compass internally.

One of the guys is the most caring, liberal, loving person you'd ever meet; he justifies being involved in this sort of skeezy marketing work as "I can take a small amount from a lot of people and amplify the result to do good with a lot of money."

He genuinely believes this. A lot of the other guys simply try not to see the "punters" (potential customers [1]) as real people, they are disconnected through the impersonal nature of the internet.

[1] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/punter_2

I saw lots of cognitive dissonance when I worked for a company that was something of an advertising firm. Everyone hates pop-ups and spam... but it's probably OK if we do it.

We can turn off the user's pop-up blocker right? What do you mean we can't get around it? How are we supposed to get them to see our side offers if we can't do pop-ups?

And the constant discussions about how to keep our emails from landing in spam folders. Since we weren't running a scam, there had to be a way to get our emails in the inbox right? Even though we don't know the person... bought their address from someone (who bought it from someone)... sent them 3 emails this week already...

I'm glad to not be involved in some of that any more.

Just to show a little balance - there are those of us in advertising who try to do the best we can for our audience, and don't even need morals to make that decision, since doing the right thing gives us better results than trying to trick people.

Gathering data was always a huge problem. The highest traffic site didn't get enough viewes to make any A/B test worthless.

At least in other business likes we could easily track the direction the program was taking and which bits were causing the most problems.

All the end-line employees gated it to various degrees. We just had to hope we could convince the owners we were rigth.

We did our best to deliver what was requested and not blatantly illegal. When one of your top sales people gets a good deal, you'll find you're doing it to make money, not because anyone thinks it will make things better. Without anyone actually able to figure out what might makes a difference you end up with guesses and snake oil.

With no dada or time to expiremet, all they were left with are terrible ideas like pop-ups and spam. Combine that with the sales guys who talk to buddies elsewhere who report that spam "totally works"! and you end up resenting a large chunk of your job.

That's one of the beautiful things about advertising that a lot of us (well, I assume a lot of us - I can't be the only one, right?) did not realize at first. Especially over the long term, being respectful toward the audience leaves you in a better position to market to that audience. The end result is you make more money.

But there will still be people like me who consider any amount of advertising to be an offense, something that is more desirable if it doesn't exist. You can be as nice about it as you want or feel is appropriate, and I appreciate that, but at the end of the day, your interest is antagonistic to mine.

If you find all advertising offensive then I think that's an issue with you, not with advertising. If you want to look at or use something that doesn't belong to you (whether that's getting on a bus, or visiting a website, or watching a TV channel) then the owners should be allowed to show you advertising if they wish. If you prefer not to see it, you can make that choice and avoid it.

Is it more desirable if it doesn't exist? Perhaps - if you really hate it all then fine, that's your opinion, but do you really hate it enough that you would prefer every website that is financed by advertising to either bill you for usage or shut down, every public transport subsidised by advertising gets more expensive, every TV channel price goes up, cinema tickets, everything...

And as to my interest being antagonistic to yours, I disagree. I (personally) want you to buy a laptop or a PC and I want you to, when you next need one of these items, consider my brand. I target audiences very tightly to try and ensure that people who see my adverts are likely to be interested, and do rather a good job of it if I say so myself. If you end up being interested in what I am advertising (as plenty of people who view them do) then great for me, great for you. If you don't, then you can ignore my adverts, I don't buy any that are overly annoying or evasive, so even without adblock installed they won't cause you any problems, you can just ignore them.

End of the day, my goal isn't to trick you into buying something you don't want, it's to make sure the people who do want to buy these things know about them, and to avoid other people as much as possible. Feel free to hate bad adverts - I do. Even feel free to hate all adverts, including mine, if you wish, though I disagree with you on this. But don't go so far as to call them offensive. They just aren't.

Doing right by the user doesn't mean "doing exactly what the user wants". I'm sure there are people who want iPhones and don't want to pay for them, yet I see no ethical lapse or legitimate conflict of interest with the user in Apple's charging > $0 for an iPhone.

I like to imagine an IQ pyramid, with money generally flowing upwards. Although in reality it is probably a combination of IQ and bastard-ness.

Anyway, this is how I think of the poker economy.

> “Research on persuasion shows the more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more that people tend to believe it,”

[1] has some different research which claims that people average the arguments made, rather than summing them up, which most expect. It won't make any difference if you have a whole bunch of low value arguments, but will if there a combination of strong points and weaker ones.

[1] http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/10/the_presentation_mistake_you...

I'm sorry if this is trivial, but “what’s holding you back from the big penis you deserve" has to be one of the greatest phrases ever written.

>Why are the illustrations done by small children using MS Paint?

None of those images look like the were drawn by a small child. The ones in the screen cap vary from "kind of crappy, but obviously done by an adult" to "probably the work of professional illustrator".

Another "weird trick" sites use is to include numbers in headlines. The sidebar of this very Slate article lists headlines for "7 of John Adams' greatest insults" and "'A Different World': 12 Things We Learned". There must some psychological lure that makes readers think "oh, that is such a specific number that it must be a very important and definitive list!" :\

This is basically the entire premise of cracked.com.

Yes, the well-worn "list of n things": http://www.paulgraham.com/nthings.html

Note that it's not numbers per-se, it is a list of things (with the length of the list identified, and often a 'top' list.) This is a well known method to drive hits in blogging.

People consume bullet points easily. Headlines that promise a quick, content dense read frequently perform well.

If you have to watch the video for 15-30 minutes, I think it's not the persuasion aspect but probably loading different sites in an iframe to defraud advertisers: http://www.behind-the-enemy-lines.com/2011/03/uncovering-adv...

The culmination of this article was just as obvious and unsurprising as the very ads it describes.

I like how one of the stories in slate's sidebar is "The Secret Ingredient [...] will blow your mind"

Spoiler: It's Mint in your iced coffee. I'm eager to try it now.

Mint facts! The reason people say to put toothpaste on a bruise or a hickey is that toothpaste is traditionally flavored with mint. It's really the peppermint oil they're after, which is a strong vasodilator.

For this same reason, peppermint oil is, at high doses, an abortificant.

TIL I learned a new word ... it sounds kinda cute..

I'm sure there's a pretencious band name in there somewhere :)

Mint and salt in a cold brew is incredibly good.

Interesting! I tried mint with black tea and wasn't a fan. To me, they were two great tastes that did not go great together. But I love mint with green tea or yerba mate. I'm surprised it mixes with coffee.

One interesting thing I found was mint and coca tea. It's readily available in grocery stores in Peru, and it's an incredible cure for a hangover.

Is it the mint or the cocaine that cures the hangover? :)

Reminds me of this Twitter feed spoiling bait-ish headline tweets: https://twitter.com/MamamiaSpoilers

Scams aside, it would be interesting to use some of these techniques on landing pages for legitimate, valuable SaaS apps.

"One weird trick to improve your SEO/conversions/customer satisfaction/whatver KPI" which links to a page with a crude, long-form, un-pausable video. After that, you could probably at least get them to create a trial account.

Has/would anyone try this?

I'm certain that people have, but (as the article mentions) part of the point of these is to lure a certain kind of unsophisticated consumer while filtering out the others, which is not exactly a strategy you want to pursue for SaaS.

"Scams aside", your scam would work as well as theirs.

It's not a scam because of the way they hook users, it's a scam because the end product doesn't work. If callmeed has a genuine, decent product at the end of it then his version wouldn't be a scam, even if he marketed it the same way as these guys.

It's a scam because it deliberately attempts to undermine the reader's ability to determine if the product being sold is factually able to do what it says. These techniques take advantage of distorting information literacy in order to make a sale, regardless of the effectiveness of the product.

Conquered the internet?

I don't think so. I've never clicked on any of those ads, and I'm sure that millions of other users of Ad Block, etc, have never even seen these ads.

Of interest to me was the author's reluctance to click on links due to malware threats.

Even when I used WinXP, years ago, I never have been infected with any malware, but then, I'm not the average PC user.

What, you don't want free animated smilies?

> You've seen them.

No. AdBlock.

It's truly amazing the amount of mental energy people will apparently spend dwelling on advertising, even worrying that if they accidentally click it their life could be forfeit to a scam, but yet they won't spend the five minutes it would take to simply install Adblock.

I use flashblock instead of adblock. Advertising pays for much of the internet, so I feel it's reasonable to let some of it through. Flashblock kills the worst offenders, and given I also run noscript (which isn't for everyone), the rest of the bad ones are taken care of as well. Simple images are allowed through, and these kinds of ads aren't particularly distracting. In the rare case there is a bad animated .gif, hitting 'esc' stops them cycling.

Adblock just feels like bad faith to me - there is no 'give and take', it's just 'take'.

Advertising wasn't always the norm, and I would personally love to return to the days where people published because they actually had something to say. How many search results these days are from those extremely valuable sites with one person geeking out on everything they know about a topic, versus the sheer number of content farms regurgitating the same simplistic crap just to get page views and ultimately waste your time?

In fact, I'd been waiting until the next DuckDuckGo thread came up to throw out the idea that DDG could further differentiate itself by having an option to only return results from sites without advertisements. I would love such a feature, even using Adblock, because I think the quality of the results would go up immensely.

Advertising pays for a lot of very legitimate content-focused blogs/news organizations as well.

People can't afford to pay for every single blog or bit of news they read and authors can't do anything substantial or meaningful without making it a job(and needing money to do it).

I'm not sure that "can't afford" is the right conclusion. The amount of money a site makes off each person by showing ads is miniscule, so almost anyone could afford to pay at least as much for the content as the adverts make.

I think it's more likely that the mental overhead of choosing whether to pay for something (which is roughly constant, even for small amounts of money) adds enough friction to the process that charging small amounts never works.

> authors can't do anything substantial or meaningful without making it a job(and needing money to do it).

Citation needed, please.

>people published because they actually had something to say

I'd much rather see news alongside ads or behind a paywall than news which was paid for by a group with "something to say."

I used to skip adblock for the same reason. Using Flashblock used to be good enough. I just wanted to avoid animated crud and auto-play audio, and it worked great.

Two years ago (or so) I installed adblock and set it to only block those annoying little social share buttons which started infecting everything. Eventually I had to turn the main rules on. As more sites started to put more and more obnoxious "Take our survey!" and "Hey, why not sign up before you view the site!" pop-ups and JS-hover-ads and such, I couldn't stand it any more.

I make an effort to support the sites I like. I have subscriptions to Ars, Reddit, LWN, and a few other sites. I turn the ad-blocking off on sites that act reasonably (Reddit and LWN are two examples).

It amazes me to use other people's computers (or my own iPad) sometimes. I'll go to a site I see links from now-and-then and realize just how much ridiculous crud is getting filtered out by AdBlock.

I understand your point of view, I still largely feel that way. But things were getting so intrusive I finally gave in. I like that AdBlock has a "good ads" program, I hope it succeeds.

It's good security practice to simply have addons disabled by default anyway. I like to keep them all click-to-play on firefox. Helps performance, too.

Adblock has a safelist for non-annoying ads. They understand this problem and they have it enabled by default. I keep it on.

How this stay-at-home mom used one weird trick to conquer the internet! Click here!

(And yes, that's how I parsed the link title at first glance.)

Once again I give thanks for AdBlock.

Well... I excepted the article to go deeper. Investigate who actually pays these ads,,where does the money go, why are they allowed to basically lie in the ads.

Instead the author just clicked on the ads and watched the videos. Well, I can do that too.

What actually happens when you hand over your credit card details? Do you get an eBook or something? The article doesn't actually say.

The last paragraph hints at it. It appears two were pills and one was a pamphlet, the cinnamon for diabetes one isn't clear probably a pamphlet or ebook.

Reminds me a lot of the X10 ads that used to be everywhere in late-90s/early 2000s.

It was more recent than that, and there was a great deal of overlap with Netflix's popunder ads (which still persist to this day).

X10 came online in '96, and their most aggressive campaigns peaked around 2001. They filed for chapter 11 in 2003:


I don't know if they emerged or if the remains were bought, but the "current" X10 never got anywhere near as aggressive as their pre-chapter 11 self.

I once worked for a company that operated along these lines. It wasn't quite as bad as those mentioned in the article due to the fact that the industry in question had several government agencies watching almost everything they do but it was an interesting learning experience.

There's likely two reasons why so many follow the same pattern. It's possible that many did enough A/B testing to determine the best direction that provided the best results. More likely one person came up with the pattern, the rest decided that it seemed a successive effort, and they all copied that one person's pattern.

I can't tell you how many times I created a landing page and/or email that was built in one specific way that originated with one guy that the rest perceived as the most successive guy in their type of marketing. If he said it, then it was gold. It was a tad disheartening as there was no real design involved. "Copy is king!" was the mantra and a nice design was not necessary. Even a decent design that made the copy easier to read was not considered worth the time. This was typically the type of landing page that uses the funnel method of long, sensational text with call-to-actions sprinkled down the page leading to a short order form at the bottom.

This insistence of copying everybody else because of perceived success, no data to support that perception of course, made for interesting conversations. "We're doing it this way." "Why?" "Because that's how they did it." "Why should we do it because they did?" "If they're doing it then it must work."

Although it was always fun to introduce a new kink to the marketing pattern and watch everybody else copy you. Especially when we hadn't yet decided if the new method even worked or not.

My favorite story that shows how locked into a pattern they would be until something shattered their illusions involved one sales email. For the longest time it was the rule to use as few images as possible in emails. The reasoning being because modern email clients do not automatically download images so you don't want things hidden from the potential customer before they interact with the email. I fought that quite a bit using legit companies like Apple and NewEgg as examples in that they successfully sell stuff and use images quite frequently through their emails. No dice. So one day I design a new email template that did use images heavily, our products were displayed in a grid that looked like stickers placed on the email. That meant that the copy listing details and pricing of the products were in the images, which was a no-no. I didn't tell anyone I did this knowing that all of them had their email clients downloading images automatically that came from us. The email was approved and sent out. A few weeks later I asked how that email did, "Best money-making email we've ever sent out!"

I then confessed to what I had done to their totally shocked confusion. After that I was able to actually design stuff that looked nice instead of the scammy look they insisted upon. And of course most of those newer designs, not all mind you, made more money. Interesting that I didn't see many other companies copying the new pattern. I guess it broke the mold enough to not be perceived as successful.

Anyway, even with the occasional moral problems, it was a good learning experience. Almost everything I know about SEO, ads, email, marketing, analytics, customer relations, and much more came from this company. Kind of gives me a somewhat unique perspective at my new job at a more traditional agency.

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