Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spoofing Your Way to the Next Big Thing

I randomly encountered this quote from Markus Frind, creator and owner of, a free dating site:

I knew the day adsense came out that i would be able to make a lot of money, suddenly here was this revenue stream i could actually build a business on. My site at that point only had a few hundred visitors a day and it was only a few months old. But my growth was steady and I could plot on a graph exactly how much traffic i’d have in 4 or 5 months in the future. This was the same time where i started doing mass anti competitive intelligence, i blocked anyone with the alexa toolbar from signing up and anyone using comscore. I figured if i was to have any chance i would need to stay completely under the radar, if no one knows you exist then no one is going to counter you or clone it.

[full interview at Andrew Johnson’s Web Publishing Blog]

The interesting part is Markus’ “anti competitive intelligence” strategy of blocking access to Alexa, comScore, and presumably other sample-based Internet measurement companies. (Alexa has a toolbar and comScore has some other kind of client-side software, both of which track a user’s Web surfing. That data is sent up to the respective Alexa or comScore mothership where it is aggregated into reports about various sites’ relative popularity.)

Because its reports are free, Alexa has become something of an industry standard. So when a site like MySpace, Digg, TagWorld, or YouTube breaks out of the pack, Alexa graphs are often Exhibit A.

Now, if Markus can easily detect and block users instrumented by these companies, it’s worth asking who is doing the opposite? For example, if a site can detect Alexa, perhaps it could provide those users special incentives to return. Or, inevitably, one can find Alexa-specfic traffic-exchange programs as well as less savory ways of gaming the system.

So let’s say someone builds a new site in a hot area, then manipulates Alexa into reporting the site has explosive growth. Now drop that Alexa graph into the hands of a few hungry bloggers, striving to make the A List by discovering the next big thing. The blogosphere echo chamber kicks in, and before anybody bothers to cross-check the numbers, the buzz in the blogosphere has driven the site’s traffic up for real.

The site’s quality would need to be decent to make this tactic work. But given that, could it work for a site that has no compunction about spoofing the numbers? Or should I say, has it already worked?

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