The friendly-looking girl online tells you she loves a dress because the fabric is so soft. But it's difficult for her to say that, since she doesn't have any hands.
The fastest-growing new social networking website, Pinterest – which works like a virtual scrapbook filled with pretty pictures of outfits, recipes, and other things users like – has a creeping problem of fake users spamming the site to make money off its advertising potential.
The accounts are operated through "bots" typically used on the Web to send spam. Pinterest is a natural e-commerce and marketing platform since posts often include links to other websites where items can be purchased. But fake accounts, formatted to crowd out other content and drive links to advertised products, is posing a problem for the site.
Recently, tech blog The Daily Dot uncovered one Pinterest spammer who created multiple fake accounts to manipulate the algorithm that tracks a post's popularity. The more users "re-pin" an item, the more prominently it appears on the site, rising to the top of the "Popular" tab. The trick? Each post has an Amazon.com button; if real users notice the posts and click through to buy, the spammer who designed the fake account with the button gets a referral fee from Amazon. Amazon's Affiliate program has been in place for a while, but social media marketing is allowing some people to game the system.
The self-described "Pinterest spammer" claimed in an interview with The Daily Dot that he makes $1,000 a day from the affiliate links.
Daily Dot and Total Pinterest blogger Matt Collins discovered a pattern of fake-looking Pinterest accounts (with names like Adela Gawlas, Josefa Galea, Dinorah Ohotto, Clemencia Yeldon) re-pinning the same items over and over until they appeared on the site's "Popular" tab.
The content in the Popular tab is partly generated by the number of repins an item gets, and though "Steve" stops short of admitting he's using a "bot" program to automate the process he does say he's not manually posting any more, and his "process" uses "almost 10 GB of bandwidth a day doing what I'm doing."
"I have no guilt. I'm not trying to scam anyone, or upload viruses to their computer or anything like that. I simply show products to the Pinterest community. I realize that I'm spamming the crap out of the site, but its nothing personal, just business," he said in the interview.
In a strange twist, the same individual later denied that he was behind the spam accounts, calling his "admission" an elaborate prank.
Spam is one of the biggest growing pains for Pinterest as it seeks to join the ranks of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. The most influential social media platforms are a major draw for advertisers as well, and Pinterest could eventually draw significant revenue from partnerships with companies.
Kotex recently capitalized on this, building its first Pinterest campaign that involved sending care packages to customers in hopes they would share their experience with other users.
The draw for marketers is clear: the items users "pin" on their "boards" are most often accompanied with fetching photographs that make the site look like one big consumer-built catalogue. But much of this marketing clout is based on the trust factor of real people communicating on the site.
"They're commercial networks, and we're using them for business and for advertising, but they're also trust networks," said Queen's University professor and social media expert Sidneyeve Matrix.
Pinterest has been working against the spammer, and appears to have made changes to is Popularity algorithm to strip out many of his promoted items.
"As a growing service, Pinterest is not immune to challenges faced by sites across the Web, including spam. However, it is a tremendous priority for us to quickly address them. Our engineers are actively working to manage issues as they arise and are revisiting the nature of public feeds on the site to make it harder for fake or harmful content to get into them," a Pinterest official said in an e-mail.
These mini-marketers' spurious tactics are an issue across the social Web. YouTube, the video sharing service owned by Google Inc., has been beset by "reply girls" who post replies to popular videos in a bid to collect advertising revenue from YouTube. These people post numerous reply videos, often light on content but blanketing the most popular parts of the site in order to draw traffic.
Montreal resident Alejandra Gaitan found she was able to earn millions of video views – and convert that into cash from Google Adsense – by filming amateur Web cam replies wearing a low-cut shirt. The thumbnail photos of each video prominently feature her décolletage to bring in more traffic. Social media participants often resent those who appear to be manipulating these "trust networks," as Prof. Matrix calls them. Ms. Gaitan has received a number of negative responses, including hacking her YouTube account, making complaints against her under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and suggesting that she be deported (she speaks with an accent but says she is a Canadian citizen).
Still YouTube has also been fighting to address the problem. A recent change to the site's algorithm has made it harder for Ms. Gaitan to secure prominent placement for her videos. She insists that what she is doing is legitimate advertising, not spam.
"If it was just spam, I wouldn't get subscribers," Ms. Gaitan said. "I have to be doing something good for people to subscribe to me."
THE PROBLEM FOR AMAZON
Social media spamming also presents a problem for established e-commerce sites. The Pinterest spammer has one crucial cog in his scam: he is abusing the Amazon Affiliate program, described succinctly by Amazon:
"When website owners and bloggers who are Associates create links and customers click through those links and buy products from Amazon.ca, they earn referral fees."
Many of the fake Pinterest accounts Daily Dot discovered use an Amazon Affiliate Associate account named final-fantas07.
Amazon's affiliate program has terms of service, and artificially increasing search ranks is one way to violate those rules, so this spammer could very well be defrauding the e-tailing giant.
The Associates Program Operating Agreement's section on advertising fees specifies that the program will not pay fees to people who drive shoppers to Amazon using "a link … that is generated or displayed on a Search Engine in response to a general Internet search query or keyword".
While Pinterest is not a search engine, and there is no specific reference to social networking referrals, Amazon has described a "search engine" quite broadly, to include not just Google, Yahoo and Bing, but also "any other … portal, sponsored advertising service, or other search or referral service, or any site that participates in any of their respective networks."
Pinterest might object to being called a mere referral service, but while the site is broader than simple product lust – the Obama campaign now has a board – a large part of the network revolves around just this type of referral shopping.
Amazon's requirements also ban the use of "a robot or software program" to "artificially generate clicks or impressions".
At the end of the day the spammer doesn't make any money unless real people buy the products he promotes, just like Ms. Gaitan's videos there must be something people like about it.