Oneflare pops up again when it comes to spammy SEO

This piece by Brendan O’Connor at The Awl notes the boomlet in requests by spammers to unspam the websites they’ve spammily spammed.

To summarize: Some on the scummier side of the SEO business filled up the web’s comment sections with links to their clients in an attempt to game Google. Google changed its policies and made those old links, in some cases, harmful to a site’s prominence in search. So now the spammers (or their successors) are left trying to clean up a mess of their own creation.

As is often the case, one SEO person is undoing the previous work of long-gone SEO people…

“We needed to delete all of the bad links,” he said. “It was a big list—a few thousand, even ten thousand links. We just moved one by one: this is a toxic link, we need to delete it; this is a good, natural link.”

In the comments, Danny Sullivan has a useful corrective to some problems with the article — as he notes, this attempt to clean up the spammy mess has been going on for a while now, thanks to some past Google policy changes — but the real reason I’m linking is this section:

My favorite are the emails from OneFlare.com.au.

“We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links,” Selena Le wrote on October 20th. “These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings.”

“We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links,” Nick Chernih wrote on December 5th. “These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings.”

You don’t say.

“The presence of these links is harmful to our site’s good standing with search engines,” the good people from Oneflare.com.au each wrote. “Unfortunately, retaining them may also be potentially harmful to your own website’s reputation.

Oneflare! Recent readers will know that Oneflare, an Australian startup, is the company that purchased the expired domain name of the Online Journalism Review (OJR.org) and turned it into a spamblog, stealing OJR’s archives and lifting the logos of USC and USC Annenberg in order to make it seem legit. Eventually, after my stories ran, Oneflare apologized, blamed it on a black-hat SEO consultant they’d hired, and donated the domain back to USC. And hey, good on them for that.

But this would indicate Oneflare got deeper into the search-gaming sphere than I knew about. On October 20, the company apparently knew enough about what had been done in its name to go on a link-cleaning spree. But as of November 1, OJR.org hadn’t yet been turned into a spamblog. That only happened sometime later that month. (I noticed it on the 15th, but it may have been up for a few days before then.)

So Oneflare built the OJR spamblog after it had already started sending out “we screwed up, please undo the SEO damage for us” emails to websites.

If you’re curious, this appears to be the Nick Chernih mentioned; his Twitter bio says he’s an “Aspiring SEO-er from Sydney,” and his feed has links related to link-spamming:

The OJR.org saga has a happy ending, with the domain headed back to USC Annenberg

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotOJR.org is going back to its original home.

A quick recap for those who haven’t been following this tale of wayward domain names (one, two, three): The Online Journalism Review was, starting in the late 1990s, one of the earliest and best sites to cover the digital transition of journalism. Based at USC Annenberg, OJR mixed original reporting and smart analysis to be, for a number of years, a key part of our understanding of online journalism.

Earlier this year, USC forgot to renew the domain name OJR.org, which put it on the open market. Because it was an old domain, it had value in Google’s search index, so it was purchased and then put up for auction. An Australian startup named Oneflare purchased it for $19,100 and replaced it with a zombie version of OJR — lifting dozens of its articles, improperly putting USC and USC Annenberg logos on the site, and generally trying to make it seem legit — while also using it as a spamblog to promote Oneflare.

When I started writing about it, Zombie OJR removed the copied archives and the fake logos and, later, took down the whole site. But Google still knocked Oneflare for going outside the boundaries of appropriate search engine optimization.

Fast forward to last night, when I got a call from Marcus Lim, the CEO of Oneflare, saying he wanted to make things right.

“We’re extremely apologetic about what happened,” he told me from Sydney. “We received extremely bad advice.”

Lim said that Oneflare had hired an outside SEO consultant to help them with how their site ranks in Google, and that the strategy of buying and spamming up an established domain was the consultant’s: “This was done without my knowledge.” To Lim, reasonably, OJR.org was just a three-letter domain, not a site whose archives had real value. (“To be honest, we’re Australians: Unless you’re in the journalism industry, we don’t know what OJR was.”)

Lim said Oneflare severed its relationship with the outside consultant and took down Zombie OJR once it understood what was going on. Then it had to figure out what to do with its tainted domain. “You know what we paid for it,” he told me. “We’re not a charity operation — we’re a business. But we decided it would be the right thing for us to do to donate it back.” Oneflare considered putting it back on the market to try to recoup some or all of that $19,100, but decided “if we did, someone else would just do the same thing. We felt the buck needed to stop with us.”

Since my stories ran, Lim said, they’ve been trying to contact someone at USC to arrange a transfer of OJR.org back to California, but haven’t been able to reach anyone. So he was contacting me to see if I wanted it. (I told him I’d be happy to make the connection with USC and enable a transfer back there.) “I sincerely hope that OJR can be restored to its glory days,” Lim said.

I spoke with USC Annenberg spokeswoman Gretchen Parker, who sent over a statement: “If a donation of the OJR.org domain is made to USC Annenberg, we’d be happy to accept it and reclaim the site…USC Annenberg looks forward to restoring the archives of the site and would like, in the future, to revisit plans for the direction of OJR.org.”

That’s worth remembering: The return of the domain name is unlinked to the return of the OJR archives. One doesn’t guarantee the other. Here’s hoping that those old pieces resurface soon.

In any event, I’m glad that those three letters will be back at their proper home, and good on the people at Oneflare for realizing their error and doing what they can to repair the damage.

Renew your domain names, people.

OJR.org: Google’s punishment and the perils of blackhat SEO

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotI hope you’ve been following the saga of OJR.org, the former home of the Online Journalism Review. In brief: When USC allowed the domain name to expire, an Australian company named Oneflare snagged the domain name and proceeded to create a fake version of the “Online Journalism Review” — adding USC and USC Annenberg logos to make it seem legit, stealing dozens or hundreds of archival OJR stories to give it heft, and generally being scummy enough to act as if it was still the legendary site that’s been around since the late 1990s.

After my first story, Oneflare did its best to take down the legally actionable parts of its scheme — removing the logos, deleting the archives — but still carried on as the “Online Journal Review,” featuring links back to the main Oneflare website. This is a common if scuzzy search engine optimization strategy: Use sites with high PageRank sites (those Google considers highly legit) to generate links to your company’s website, passing some of the Google juice earned over 15 years of publishing to the new venture. After my second story, Oneflare removed all the content from OJR.org; it’s currently a blank site.

Thanks to a little birdie, we know now that there have been consequences for Oneflare’s actions.

This thread in Google’s Webmaster Central forums tells the tale of someone named “hubfub” who has recently felt the wrath of Google’s punishment for SEO bad behavior. His post from Sunday (U.S. time, Monday in Australia):

My website received a sitewide manual action for unnatural inbound links back in July. We were able to get this revoked in August by removing about 50% of the links and disavowing the rest.

We recently hired a new SEO agency to work for us and last week they advised us to buy an high PR expired domain and put a “quality blog” on there and use it to make a link to our website. They told us that this was 100% whitehat (obviously it’s not as we are now aware). ["Whitehat" = legitimate search engine optimization; "blackhat" = scammy stuff that Google will punish if it finds out about. —Ed.]

I think this blog triggered our domain for another manual review and we were hit again with another sitewide manual action. I was surprised because other than buying that expired domain, we hadn’t done any other spammy link building since the last manual action was revoked. However after looking into webmaster tools and going to recent links I noticed that there were tons of spammy links that were built 3-6 months ago that were recently being indexed by Google.

My question is, does the the new indexation of the bad links that were built ages ago still get counted when Google is considering whether or not to take manual action? Obviously we’ve taken down the new blog that was built but what else can we do to get the second manual action revoked?

A Google “manual action” means that the search giant detected sketchy SEO behavior and decided to dock the site:

While Google relies on algorithms to evaluate and constantly improve search quality, we’re also willing to take manual action on sites that use spammy techniques, such as demoting them or even removing them from our search results altogether.

So who is the “hubfub” facing this punishment? Well, @hubfub on Twitter is Adam Dong, the CTO of Oneflare. And later on in that thread, Mister Hubfub notes that Oneflare.com.au is the website he’s worried about protecting. Dong also tweeted a plea for help at two of Google’s chief SEO staffers Sunday, too:

(Full disclosure: After I saw that Oneflare’s spammed-up OJR post were still showing up as legitimate news articles in Google News, I contacted someone I know at Google to make sure they knew about it — so it’s entirely possible I triggered the manual review.)

Dong said in that thread that this is the message he got from Google:

Unnatural links to your site

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

In other words: Google saw what they were doing with OJR, caught them, and punished them by demoting them in search results. (One way to see this: search for one flare with a space. At this writing, nine of the top 10 sites in the results are about Oneflare. But none of them are the Oneflare site itself. In fact, the Nieman Lab tag page for Oneflare ranked higher than Oneflare itself. The Oneflare homepage hasn’t been removed entirely from search, though; it’s still the top result for a search on “oneflare” itself.)

Dong’s fellow webmasters, posting in that Google discussion thread, didn’t seem to have much sympathy for his plight. Here’s a sampling:

lol another fraud “whitehat” SEO strikes again…

Feel free to name the Expert who suggested this amazing strategy so we can all point and laugh and try to protect other honest businesses from their flimflam.

For any website it would be borderline suicidal, for one with a recent Manual Action for unnatural links… Just… wow…

I’m suspicious of that claim. He’s been buying links off of warrior forum. “Penguin proof” links. Methinks he probably knows what he did and if he doesn’t, then he should probably quit the IM [Internet marketing] industry and go bag groceries…

The Warrior Forum referenced is this site, which serves as a sort of back-alley hangout for blackhat SEO types. User hubfub has posted there 29 times (sample: “Hi there, I recently purchased a bunch of expired domains and set up new blogs on them”). And on a number of occasions, he appears to have bought backlinks from higher-value websites to send more juice Oneflare’s way. (Click to enlarge.)

oneflare-hubfub-warriorforum

In other words, it’s hard for Oneflare to play the innocent here. Its CTO was already busy buying up fake links in the dark corners of the web more than a year ago. It’s apparently been caught by Google this year for bad dealings and punished — only to get back at it again. They had this coming. (The only area where Oneflare really was unlucky was in picking a website that I happened to care about.)

The SEO damage may be bad enough that Oneflare could be looking to change domains entirely. A few hours ago, user hubfub posted again:

Hi there, I have a question relating to redirecting, for example abc.com to abc.co.uk

abc.com has a ton of crappy links and obviously I do not want to 301 or 302 this to abc.co.uk as i do NOT want the link juice or pagerank to pass.

However we do still have a lot of users that would organically type in abc.com

No idea if this is the plan, but Dong also owns oneflare.net.

If you enjoy irony, you’ll appreciate that Dong wrote a piece last month for the Sydney Morning Herald. The headline? “Five simple tips for a good SEO strategy: What’s the best way to get your web site to the top of internet search lists?” One of his pieces of wisdom: “External links are important for SEO because as far as a search engine is concerned, these are considered an endorsement of your site, increasing your ranking power and making your site more visible.”

I imagine Tip #6 wasn’t “Do enough bad stuff for Google to drop the hammer on you.”

One of my favorite stories from the earlier days of the web is the tale of nigritude ultramarine.

Every so often, SEO types hold a contest to see who can build up the most SEO juice around a particular phrase in a given period of time — to see who can earn the top search result when someone looks up those words. It’s best if that phrase doesn’t already exist anywhere on the web, so a nonsense phrase like nigritude ultramarine works well. In 2004, that magic phrase was announced, and everyone had a couple of months to start gaming search engines.

Lots of competitors tried lots of tricks. A search for “nigritude ultramarine” returned zero results before the contest; it returned more than 200,000 afterward. But, in the end, the winner wasn’t an SEO consultant; it was Anil Dash, the popular blogger, who wrote a single post with that phrase as its title and simply asked his fans to link to it. “I’d rather see a real blog win than any of the fake sites that show up on that search result right now,” he wrote.

While SEO types were polluting the web with links, Dash took the prize with a single post — because he’d built up credibility through writing good content for years, and because he had actual human readers who were willing to support his efforts. I always thought of that win as a triumph for real humanity on the web.

What’s the best way to get ranked high in Google? Write good content. Be good enough that real humans like you.

As Dash told Wired back in 2004 after his victory:

“A lot of people are trying to increase their page rank unethically,” said Dash. “I think if we show them (that) the best thing you can do is to write really good material, then hopefully, they’ll spend their time doing that (instead of) spending time coming up with ways to graffiti other people’s pages.”

OJR’s not alone: An old Poynter website has become a spamblog too

Maybe you saw my two stories this week on the fate of OJR.org, previously the website of the once-essential Online Journalism Review, which was turned into a spamblog by Marcus Lim, CEO of an Australian startup called Oneflare — one that initially fraudulently tried to appear it was still the old OJR, a product of USC Annenberg. (Since those articles, OJR.org has been blanked entirely. Sometimes sunlight really is the best cure!)

Well, kudos to Rhonda Roland Shearer at the website iMediaEthics, who found that another old journalism website, PoynterOnline.org, has met the same fate. Except in this case, it’s been a spamblog for years without anyone noticing, with someone named Evgeniy Varlashov apparently to blame. Check out all the details on her post.

(PoynterOnline.org was an alternate URL for Poynter’s website for much of the 2000s; they consolidated on Poynter.org around 2008.)

Shearer notes that PoynterOnline.org claims to have “won more than 100 awards in the past five years alone.” I’d also note that the language PoynterOnline.org uses to make that claim are straight lifted from Computerworld’s about page. And I’d also note that, unlike OJR.org, PoynterOnline.org is also running Google ads, so there’s likely a small-but-nonzero amount of money being generated off Poynter’s reputation here.

People: Don’t let your domains expire. In this case, unlike OJR’s, the decision was likely made on purpose — Poynter switched from PoynterOnline.org to just Poynter.org a few years ago. But particularly when you have a brand to protect embedded in that URL, it’s totally worth the 10 bucks a year to just keep renewing and autoforwarding. If you’re thinking about giving up a domain, ask yourself the question: Will I be okay with this domain becoming a spamblog in a few weeks? If the answer’s no, pay up.

OJR.org: An opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotIn case you didn’t see my story posted late in the day yesterday, the Online Journalism Review — a 15-year-old chronicler of the evolution of digital journalism — has been turned into a spamblog. All the details are at the original article, but the basics are these: USC Annenberg, which ran OJR, forgot to renew their domain name. It was grabbed by someone named Marcus Lim, CEO of an Australian startup called Oneflare, who proceeded to turn it into a fake version of the Online Journalism Review — pretending to still be part of USC, stealing dozens or hundreds of copyrighted OJR articles, and generally being a jerk. Why? All to promote its products through better search engine optimization.

In the hours since my story went up, there’ve been a few updates.

— I received a statement from USC Annenberg about the snafu:

USC Annenberg is taking steps to regain control of Online Journalism Review, after the domain of OJR.org was allowed to lapse earlier this month. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made into the news outlet over the years — and of all the work so many talented writers and editors have put into it — and hope to continue ownership of it in the future.

— Oneflare, probably rightfully scared of the litigation it would otherwise be asking for, removed the legally dubious material from OJR.org. They removed the OJR archive stories and the USC logos and changed the site name from “Online Journalism Review” to “Online Journal Review,” whatever that means. So the site is now solely a spamblog, rather than a spamblog cloaked in an old journalism website. Progress, maybe?

— We have some evidence for what price OJR.org went for. The domain was put up for auction at NameJet (“The Premier Aftermarket Domain Name Service”) after it was allowed to lapse. This roundup of domain sales from November 6 reveals the price it went for: $19,100.

ojr-domain-sale-screenshot

(Wow.)

OJR.org had also been listed in October on a list of high-value expired domains — high value because it had been registered back in 1997, which gives it better Google juice.

— Perhaps because it’s hard to step away from a $19,100 purchase, OJR.org continues to evolve as a spamblog. It’s actually a rare opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time — normally you only find them after they’ve been doing their dark magic for a while.

Along with the original article promoting Oneflare, Lim (or whoever’s running the backend) has added five new articles to give the illusion of a real site. (Something had to take the place of all those old OJR stories, I imagine.) The stories don’t have spammy links yet, but they are artificially backdated (as far back as 2011) to give the illusion of a long-existing website. (They also look like algorithmically altered versions of existing stories — weird synonyms subbed in where they should be, for instance — but I couldn’t find any original versions with a few quick searches.)

— There’s one other side benefit to building a spamblog on an old news brand like OJR: OJR content is whitelisted into Google News. So, for instance, one of the new spam articles is about the Garmin Forerunner 610. Search for “garmin” on Google News and look what the third result is:

garmin-ojr-screenshot

That means the main work to be done now is Google’s. It needs to remove OJR from Google News, and it needs to eliminate the PageRank advantage that the old site built up for the new one. From there, it’s USC’s move on what to do with those remarkable disappeared archives.

OJR.org: An opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotIn case you didn’t see my story posted late in the day yesterday, the Online Journalism Review — a 15-year-old chronicler of the evolution of digital journalism — has been turned into a spamblog. All the details are at the original article, but the basics are these: USC Annenberg, which ran OJR, forgot to renew their domain name. It was grabbed by someone named Marcus Lim, CEO of an Australian startup called Oneflare, who proceeded to turn it into a fake version of the Online Journalism Review — pretending to still be part of USC, stealing dozens or hundreds of copyrighted OJR articles, and generally being a jerk. Why? All to promote its products through better search engine optimization.

In the hours since my story went up, there’ve been a few updates.

— I received a statement from USC Annenberg about the snafu:

USC Annenberg is taking steps to regain control of Online Journalism Review, after the domain of OJR.org was allowed to lapse earlier this month. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made into the news outlet over the years — and of all the work so many talented writers and editors have put into it — and hope to continue ownership of it in the future.

— Oneflare, probably rightfully scared of the litigation it would otherwise be asking for, removed the legally dubious material from OJR.org. They removed the OJR archive stories and the USC logos and changed the site name from “Online Journalism Review” to “Online Journal Review,” whatever that means. So the site is now solely a spamblog, rather than a spamblog cloaked in an old journalism website. Progress, maybe?

— We have some evidence for what price OJR.org went for. The domain was put up for auction at NameJet (“The Premier Aftermarket Domain Name Service”) after it was allowed to lapse. This roundup of domain sales from November 6 reveals the price it went for: $19,100.

ojr-domain-sale-screenshot

(Wow.)

OJR.org had also been listed in October on a list of high-value expired domains — high value because it had been registered back in 1997, which gives it better Google juice.

— Perhaps because it’s hard to step away from a $19,100 purchase, OJR.org continues to evolve as a spamblog. It’s actually a rare opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time — normally you only find them after they’ve been doing their dark magic for a while.

Along with the original article promoting Oneflare, Lim (or whoever’s running the backend) has added five new articles to give the illusion of a real site. (Something had to take the place of all those old OJR stories, I imagine.) The stories don’t have spammy links yet, but they are artificially backdated (as far back as 2011) to give the illusion of a long-existing website. (They also look like algorithmically altered versions of existing stories — weird synonyms subbed in where they should be, for instance — but I couldn’t find any original versions with a few quick searches.)

— There’s one other side benefit to building a spamblog on an old news brand like OJR: OJR content is whitelisted into Google News. So, for instance, one of the new spam articles is about the Garmin Forerunner 610. Search for “garmin” on Google News and look what the third result is:

garmin-ojr-screenshot

That means the main work to be done now is Google’s. It needs to remove OJR from Google News, and it needs to eliminate the PageRank advantage that the old site built up for the new one. From there, it’s USC’s move on what to do with those remarkable disappeared archives.

OJR: An old web icon ends up repurposed as a spamblog

This is a cautionary tale — about what happened to what was once one of the most important websites about journalism on the Internet, and about what happens when you don’t renew your domains on time.

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotIf you’ve been in the digital news business for a while, it’s likely you have fond memories of OJR, the Online Journalism Review, based at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. Starting way back in 1998, OJR was perhaps the best online chronicler of the changes coming to journalism online; as its mission statement put it back then: “Our purpose is to be useful to journalists and anyone interested in where journalism is going in cyberspace.”

paidContent had the business deals, and Romenesko had the memos and job moves, but OJR was great at analyzing what this new medium meant to our old craft. When I started Nieman Lab back in 2008, OJR in its heyday was one of the models I had in mind.

I say “in its heyday” because, at some point along the way, OJR started to feel a little abandoned. The publishing frequency dropped off; the articles became a bit more tips-and-tricks and a bit less analytical. By the end of 2012, the site was posting only one or two new articles a month and it was unclear where it was headed.

In February, OJR announced it was relaunching and shifting towards more of an audience-submission model:

OJR opens a new chapter today with a fresh look and even more of the content you’ve come to trust. Not only that, but we’re looking to involve the greater journalism community in the discussion. We are now accepting submissions from reporters and media observers who can offer keen insight into the future of news.

After that note, though, there were just 12 more posts over the following four months. And after a June 26 piece on The Texas Tribune — silence.

A near-death experience

I can’t truthfully say I noticed at the time — OJR had fallen off my radar some time ago. But when Mark Coddington tweeted September 17 that the site appeared to have disappeared, I felt more than a little sad.

I checked the domain registry for ojr.org and found that the domain name had expired a few days earlier, on September 11. I emailed someone at USC Annenberg Digital News to alert him about the situation if he didn’t already know — and to say that if USC wasn’t interested in running OJR any more, I’d be interested in helping figure out an afterlife for the site’s archives, which have a lot of really interesting historical material.

“I’d just hate for OJR.org to point to some spam blog or porn site,” I wrote, saying “there are still people who think there’s a big legacy to be kept behind those three letters.”

He wrote back a quick note to say they were working on the situation. For a brief time, the site seemed to come back — but then it disappeared again.

Comic Sans?!

Fast forward to Friday night, when I thought to check in again and see how OJR.org was doing. (Why yes, my life is that interesting, thank you!) The news wasn’t good:

The site was up and even had a new article posted — but for some reason it had screwed around with its previous design, switching out its old masthead font (Vast Shadow) for what looked to be the much mocked Comic Sans. It appeared that OJR was going to drag on as a sad ghost of its past. The new article, which I didn’t bother to read, seemed to be something about a Pinterest tool.

ojr-logos

OJR logos, from 1998 to the present. That last one looks odd, doesn’t it?

Then, for some reason yesterday — in case it wasn’t yet clear that I care about this old website more than I should — I decided to go back for another look. I looked at that new article, which leads off this way:

If you are familiar with Pinterest and got your attention, today One Flare unveiled its very first, one-of-a-kind Australian version: Home Design Ideas — a design inspiration tool powered by 37,000 Australian home servicing businesses.

Oneflare takes advantage of the technology of the worldwide web to introduce to clients the quickest solutions. The link allows signing-up an account to its official homepage — Oneflare Scrapbooks. With over 90,000 users Oneflare Scrapbooks is launching a web-based scrapbook to the largest community of design enthusiasts in Australia.

My first thought, as an editor, was: “Seriously, guys, it’s either One Flare or Oneflare. Can’t be both.” My second was: “I think you’re missing a word in that first clause.” But my third was: “I know we’re past OJR’s heyday, but this seems unusually lame. And a strange topic for OJR to be dealing with.”

So on a whim, I decided to look up the domain registry information again, just to see how that got resolved. And I saw this:

ojr-marcus-lim-registration

Someone named Marcus Lim in Australia appeared to have taken over control of OJR.org. Wait — what was in that goofy new story on OJR?

“We’re truly excited about launching Oneflare Scrapbooks”, says Marcus Lim, CEO and co-founder of Oneflare. It represents the next step in home design and home improvement. It combines inspiration with action, allowing users to plan, design and execute their projects, safe in the knowledge that they can do thorough research on any trade professionals they are considering to hire. Every user has access to an extensive network of Australian local businesses they can hire to complete jobs around the home.”

Indeed, Marcus Lim is listed on Oneflare’s website as the company’s CEO and founder. (“Marcus is constantly enhancing Oneflare’s online strategy and product development” — I’ll say!)

marcus lim bio

Signs of subterfuge

So it appeared that Lim (or someone working for him) had obtained control of OJR.org — presumably just by buying the domain once it had expired, although we don’t know that — and created as close of a facsimile of the old site as he could, with a lot of the old content. Then he’d added one new fresh “article” on November 12 that promoted his product — and hoped that no one would notice.

usc-logoOnce you realize something’s amiss, you can there are plenty of other pieces of evidence something’s wrong with OJR.org. The middle column of the site’s homepage has disappeared; the background has moved from white to gray. All author names have been turned into “admin,” the WordPress default login. Looking under the hood, you find that the USC Annenberg and USC logos at the top of the page have URLs like http://ojr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/usc-logo.png. That /2013/11/ directory structure makes it clear they were uploaded to WordPress just this month, not when the redesign launched in February.

Online Journalism Review — Focusing on the future of digital journalism

The last legitimate version of OJR.org (left) and the current site (right). (The old site’s masthead was served up using webfonts, which is why the version at the Internet Archive displays it incorrectly.)

ascj-logoSome of the old OJR archives are there, but not all of them. This article from October 2011 is the oldest one on the new, fake OJR.org; the real OJR.org had workable archives back to November 2004. (The stuff pre-2004 existed on the old OJR server, but wasn’t in the WordPress install — you had to go hunting for it separately through Google. This 2002 Staci D. Kramer piece on The New York Times’ e-edition — “a viable option for folks who can’t get the Times easily and have Internet access at 128 bps or higher”! — was live until Lim’s switcheroo.)

Interestingly, when I tried to look up OJR.org’s domain information again a couple hours after my first look, Lim’s name had already been scrubbed using WhoisGuard, which allows domain registrants to hide their identities via a service in Panama. (Don’t worry: I got screenshots.) At this writing, you can still see Lim’s registration info for OJR.org here, although that may change with time, as Google’s cache refreshes.

In it for the PageRank

So why would someone do this? I have to think there’s only one big reason: search engine optimization. OJR.org, because it’s been around forever, has a good reputation in Google’s eyes; it has a PageRank of 7 out of 10, which gives anything on OJR.org a leg up in search over pages on lesser sites, all else equal. (And they rarely are equal.) Oneflare’s own website, for instance, only has a PageRank of 4. It’s doubtful OJR.org in its previous state was getting much web traffic through anything other than search.

There’s nothing morally wrong about grabbing onto an expired domain name and using it for different purposes. (Another great media-about-media site from the old days, Inside.com, will soon be reborn as something new, for instance.) It’s up to Google to realize what’s happened and adjust PageRank accordingly.

But Lim’s doing far more than reusing a domain name. He’s clearly wrong to pretend that his version of OJR.org is actually the Online Journalism Review. Putting those USC and USC Annenberg logos on the site is clearly intended to mislead, and almost certainly legally actionable should USC want to send a cease and desist. And Lim certainly does not own the copyright of those hundreds of old articles that he’s copied and reprinted whole.

It’s scummy.

Lessons learned

I called USC Annenberg’s public relations office earlier this afternoon. I was told the key people are traveling and not immediately available; I’ll be sure to update here when I hear back. UPDATE, 9:45 p.m.: I did hear back from USC Annenberg; here’s their statement:

USC Annenberg is taking steps to regain control of Online Journalism Review, after the domain of OJR.org was allowed to lapse earlier this month. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made into the news outlet over the years — and of all the work so many talented writers and editors have put into it — and hope to continue ownership of it in the future.

I hope, if they can’t wrestle back control of OJR.org, they push out notice through their Twitter and Facebook pages (last updated June 14) that OJR.org is no longer under their control and that new content there isn’t to be trusted.

I also tried to call Marcus Lim; I couldn’t get through at the number he left for the domain, but I did reach the Oneflare office. The woman who answered the phone there said Lim and another person who often deals with the press were both unavailable. At her suggestion, I sent them both an email; I’ll be happy to update here if they respond.

UPDATE, 9:45 p.m.: Soon after this post went up, OJR.org underwent a sudden redesign — removing the OJR archive stories and the USC logos and changing the site name from “Online Journalism Review” to “Online Journal Review.” (I guess they’ll review Moleskines now?) Smart moves! Those take care of the obvious legal problems. They also changed the Comic Sans logo — which was just an aesthetic complaint, not a legal one. They still haven’t return my email or acknowledged their actions. And the site is now solely a spamblog, rather than a spamblog cloaked in an old journalism website. Progress, I guess?

So what can we learn from this debacle?

Renew your domain names. Back in the early days of the web, domain names cost a fair chunk of change. Now they’re $20 at the most, under $10 if you shop around. If you control any domains, do me a favor and go see when they expire. If you want them to live, go to your registrar and (a) buy up a few years of renewal and/or (b) set them to autorenew with a credit card. If USC had done this with OJR.org, all of this could have been avoided.

Value your archives. There’s often a good financial reason to value what’s in there; Robert Cottrell was right when he said: “I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?”

But beyond the business case, there’s something like a moral responsibility to keep past work on the web as available as we can. So much of the web I remember from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s is just gone, forever. Brewster Kahle and his essential team at the Internet Archive are basically the only thing keeping our web history alive, and any number of news sites block it from keeping copies of their work. (They just had a fire; give them money.)

If news organizations are going to take their responsibility to inform the public seriously, they can’t be cavalier about letting old stories disappear with every redesign. Breaking old links is a jerk move; erasing years of history is worse. (My offer still stands: I’d be happy to give a good permanent home to the OJR archives, which will have a lot of value to people who study that period in journalism history.)

Don’t be a jerk. That’s Lim’s lesson, hopefully.