The Eden Fantasys Debacle (Or: How NOT To Win Friends And Influence People By Stealing Their Linkage)

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It’s bad enough when you have to battle the forces of evil.

It’s far worse when those who claim to be on the good side resort to evil tactics.

If you haven’t been round the sex+ circuit, there is a major brohaha now ongoing online regarding the tactics of EdenFantasys.com; a universally known sex toy retailer and owners of the sex-positive online site Sexis Magazine. The principal fuse was lit by blogger Maymaym from Maybe Maimed, But Never Harmed, who today posted at his blog a detailed and scathing article calling out EF for some highly questionable tactics of Internet protocol.

Due to length, I will simply refernce you to his full article over there; I strongly encourage anyone who is even remotely in the progressive side to go there and read it. I will simply here give you a quick review.

It seems that EdenFantasys.com, through both their retail website and through Sexis, is deliberately hoarding links that they use from other sources.  Rather that do the proper thing of giving outside sources their full credit through linkbacks to their original source articles or websites, EF decided to create an innovative algorithm and Javascript program that basically “internalizes” and redirects the link exclusively through their own sites, without giving the originators their desired credit and search engine recognition. The trick is to use the Javascript program and some crafty PHP code trickeration to deflect and redefine internal links within their articles away from their original sources, and instead have those links go instead to sections totally within EF’s sites, artificially inflating their rankings among seacch engines such as Google, Yahoo! or others at the expense of the original authors. In his article, Maymaym describes briefly the dirty deeds (he gives a more detailed and technogeeky explanation of the coding further down):

Internet sex toy retailer Web Merchants, Inc., which bills itself as the “sex shop you can trust” and does business under the name EdenFantasys, has implemented technology on their websites that actively interferes with contributors’ content, intercepts outgoing links, and alters republished content so that links in the original work are redirected to themselves. Using techniques widely acknowledged as unethical by Internet professionals and that are arguably in violation of major search engines’ policies, EdenFantasys’s publishing platform has effectively outsourced the task of “link farming” (a questionable Search Engine Marketing [SEM] technique) to sites with which they have “an ongoing relationship,” such as AlterNet.org, other large news hubs, and individual bloggers’ blogs.

Articles published on EdenFantasys websites, such as the “community” website SexIs Magazine, contain HTML crafted to look like links, but aren’t. When visited by a typical human user, a program written in JavaScript and included as part of the web pages is automatically downloaded and intercepts clicks on these “link-like” elements, fetching their intended destination from the server and redirecting users there. Due to the careful and deliberate implementation, the browser’s status bar is made to appear as though the link is legitimate, and that a destination is provided as expected.

For non-human visitors, including automated search engine indexing programs such as Googlebot, the “link” remains non-functional, making the article a search engine’s dead-end or “orphan” page whose only functional links are those whose destination is EdenFantasys’s own web presence. This makes EdenFantasys’ website(s) a self-referential black hole that provides no reciprocity for contributors who author content, nor for any website ostensibly “linked” to from article content. At the same time, EdenFantasys editors actively solicit inbound links from individuals and organizations through “link exchanges” and incentive programs such as “awards” and “free” sex toys, as well as syndicating SexIs Magazine content such that the content is programmatically altered in order to create multiple (real) inbound links to EdenFantasys’s websites after republication on their partner’s media channels.

But that’s not all they’re doing….Maymaym also reveals how EF is using the tactic of “link farming” to effectively turn their links into instant mass spamming without the outside sources’ approval.

In addition to creating a self-referential black hole with no gracefully degrading outgoing links, EdenFantasys also actively performs link-stuffing through its syndicated content “relationships,” underhandedly creating an outsourced and distributed link-farm, just like a spammer. The difference is that this spammer (Web Merchants, Inc. aka EdenFantasys) is cleverly crowd-sourcing high-value, high-quality content from its own “community.”

Articles published at SexIs Magazine are syndicated in full to other large hub sites, such as AlterNet.org. Continuing with the above example post by Lorna D. Keach, Anti-Porn Activists Now Targeting Female Porn Addicts, we can see that this content was republished on AlterNet.org shortly after original publication through EdenFantasys’ website on May 3rd at http://www.alternet.org/story/146774/christian_anti-porn_activists_now_targeting_female_. However, a closer look at the HTML code of the republication shows that each and every link contained within the article points to the same destination: the same article published on SexIs Magazine, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5:

Naturally, these syndicated links provided to third-party sites by EdenFantasys are real and function as expected to both human visitors and to search engines indexing the content. The result is “natural,” high-value links to the EdenFantasys website from these third-party sites; EdenFantasys doesn’t merely scrounge pagerank from harvesting the sheer number of incoming links, but as each link’s anchor text is different, they are setting themselves up to match more keywords in search engine results, keywords that the original author likely did not intend to direct to them. Offering search engines the implication that EdenFantasys.com contains the content described in the anchor text, when in fact EdenFantasys merely acts as an intermediary to the information, is very shady, to say the least.

In addition to syndication, EdenFantasys employs human editors to do community outreach. These editors follow up with publishers, including individual bloggers (such as myself), and request that any references to published material provide attribution and a link back to us, to use the words of Judy Cole, Editor of SexIs Magazine in an email she sent to me (see below), and presumably many others. EdenFantasys has also been known to request “link exchanges,” and offer incentive programs that encouraged bloggers to add the EdenFantasys website to their blogroll or sidebar in order to help raise both parties search engine ranking, when in fact EdenFantasys is not actually providing reciprocity.

More information about EdenFantasys’s unethical practices, which are not limited to technical subterfuge, can be obtained via AAGBlog.com.

Indeed, it was that particular article that began the entire controversy with Maymaym, when one of the Sexis editors decided to raise hell with him and his other site KinkOnTap.com, for (surprise!!!) not properly crediting Sexis for the original link to that AlterNet article, which did originally appear in Sexis one week earlier. I will simply repost Maymaym’s reenactment of the subsequent exchange of unpleasentries that followed: (I have redacted the email addresses included in the enclosed emails out of respect for privacy, they do appear in the original posts at Maymaym’s and AAG’s blogs.)

On a personal note, I am angered that I would be contacted by the Editor of SexIs Magazine, and asked to properly “attribute” and provide a link to them when it is precisely that reciprocity which SexIs Magazine would clearly deny me (and everyone else) in return. It was this request originally received over email from Judy Cole, that sparked my investigation outlined above and enabled me to uncover this hypocrisy. The email I received from Judy Cole is republished, in full, here:

From: Judy Cole [email address redacted by me -- AK]
Subject: Repost mis-attributed
Date: May 17, 2010 2:42:00 PM PDT
To: [email addy redacted]
Cc: Laurel [email addy redacted]

Hello Emma and maymay,

I am the Editor of the online adult magazine SexIs (http://www.edenfantasys.com/sexis/). You recently picked up and re-posted a story of ours by Lorna Keach that Alternet had already picked up:

http://kinkontap.com/?s=alternet

We were hoping that you might provide attribution and a link back to us, citing us as the original source (as is done on Alternet, with whom we have an ongoing relationship), should you pick up something of ours to re-post in the future.

If you would be interested in having us send you updates on stories that might be of interest, I would be happy to arrange for a member of our editorial staff to do so. (Like your site, by the way. TBK is one of our regular contributors.)

Thanks and Best Regards,

Judy Cole
Editor, SexIs

Judy’s email probably intended to reference the new Kink On Tap briefs that my co-host Emma and I publish, not a search result page on the Kink On Tap website. Specifically, she was talking about this brief: http://KinkOnTap.com/?p=676. I said as much in my reply to Judy:

Hi Judy,

The URL in your email doesn’t actually link to a post. We pick up many stories from AlterNet, as well as a number from SexIs, because we follow both those sources, among others. So, did you mean this following entry?

http://KinkOnTap.com/?p=676

If so, you should know that we write briefs as we find them and provide links to where we found them. We purposefully do not republish or re-post significant portions of stories and we limit our briefs to short summaries in deference to the source. In regards to the brief in question, we do provide attribution to Lorna Keach, and our publication process provides links automatically to, again, the source where we found the article. :) As I’m sure you understand, this is the nature of the Internet. Its distribution capability is remarkable, isn’t it?

Also, while we’d absolutely be thrilled to have you send us updates on stories that might be of interest, we would prefer that you do so in the same way the rest of our community does: by contributing to the community links feed. You can find detailed instructions for the many ways you can do that on our wiki:

http://wiki.kinkontap.com/wiki/Community_links_feed

Congratulations on the continued success of SexIs.

Cheers,
-maymay

At the time when I wrote the email replying to Judy, I was perturbed but could not put my finger on why. Her email upset me because she seemed to be suggesting that our briefs are wholesale “re-posts,” when in fact Emma and I have thoroughly discussed attribution policies and, as mentioned in my reply, settled on a number of practices including a length limit, automated back linking (yes, with real links, go see some Kink On Tap briefs for yourself), and clearly demarcating quotes from the source article in our editorializing to ensure we play fair. Clearly, my somewhat snarky reply betrays my annoyance.

In any event, this exchange prompted me to take a closer look at the Kink On Tap brief I wrote, at the original article, and at the cross-post on AlterNet.org. I never would have imagined that EdenFantasys’s technical subterfuge would be as pervasive as it has proven to be. It’s so deeply embedded in the EdenFantasys publishing platform that I’m willing to give Judy the benefit of the doubt regarding this hypocrisy because she doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a search query and a permalink (something any laymen blogger would grok). This is apparent from her reply to my response:

From: Judy Cole [email addy redacted]
Subject: Re: Repost mis-attributed
Date: May 18, 2010 4:57:59 AM PDT
[…redundant email headers clipped…]

Funny, the URL in my email opens the same link as the one you sent me when I click on it.

Maybe if you pick up one of our stories in future, you could just say something like “so and so wrote for SexIs.” ?

As it stands, it looks as if Lorna wrote the piece for Alternet. Thanks.

Judy

That is the end of our email exchange, and will be for good, unless and until EdenFantasys changes its ways. I will from this point forward endeavor never to publish links to any web property that I know to be owned by Web Merchants, Inc., including EdenFantasys.com. I will also do my best to avoid citing any and all SexIs Magazine articles from here on out, and I encourage everyone who has an interest in seeing honesty on the Internet to follow my lead here.

So..why didn’t Ms. Cole call out AlterNet for not properly crediting Sexis??  Probably because AlterNet was already deeply intertwined with the link farming scam, while KinkOnTap wasn’t, and EF/Sexis was looking to include the latter’s links for their thievery??

Maymaym, to say the least, is pretty disgusted with EF’s behavior, and has resolved to nail them to the wall.

As some of my friends are currently contributors to SexIs Magazine, I would like all of you to know that I sincerely hope you immediately sever all ties with any and all Web Merchants, Inc. properties, suppliers, and business partners, especially because you are friends and I think your work is too important to be sullied by such a disreputable company. Similarly, I hope you encourage your friends to do the same. I understand that the economy is rough and that some of you may have business contracts bearing legal penalties for breaking them, but I urge you to nevertheless consider looking at this as a cost-benefit analysis: the sooner you break up with EdenFantasys, the happier everyone on the Internet, including you, will be (and besides, you can loose just as much of your reputation, money, and pagerank while being happy as you can being sad).

Now, such chicanery is hardly restricted to sex sites; Violet Blue (the sex columnist) has recently posted how similar tactics from the San Francisco Chronicle ultimately cost her her weekly Chronic/SFGate column, “Open Source Sex”. And, the former antipornography site NoPornNorthhampton.com was also notorious for their user of internalized links stolen from outside sources. The degree to which EdenFantasys.com has exploited such actions for their own benefit, though, has basically stunned many in the sex-positive community.  And combined with other issues that have haunted EF of late (see Always Aroused Girl and Ephphora, who have had their own run-ins with EF recently), it doesn’t put the community in good light.

This is especially true of Sexis, which boasts of having such esteemed contributors as Rachel Kramer Bussel, Nina Hartley, and Sinclair Sexmith (of the Sugarbutch Chronicles)…I wonder if they know that their contributions to that blog are being distorted to EF’s financial advantage.

Anyways…just go over to Maymaym’s blog and read the whole story. (Or, go over to AAG;s blog, where she has reprinted the entirity of the post.

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  • http://aagblog.com aagblog

    Thanks so much for writing about this.

    I love my new name, by the way. :)

    –aag, aka AlwaysArousedGirl

    • Anthony Kennerson

      Thank you, AAG, for the props, and for outing these fools.

      And….so sorry about butchering your name….I have fixed that.

      Anthony

  • http://aagblog.com aagblog

    You fixed it? Aww man! I wanted to be ALMOST Aroused Girl!

    Maybe tomorrow I'll be Aggravated Aroused Girl! This possibilities are endless!

  • http://heyepiphora.com Epiphora

    This post is a great addition to the discussion over this. I especially appreciate your description of what, exactly, EF is doing — very well described!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Anthony_K Anthony Kennerson

      Thanks, Epiphora….so sorry to read up on what they did to you.

      Anthony