Meet the Rehashed, Remixed, Warmed-Over Web

By Robert X. Cringely

San Francisco - Stop me if you've read this one before. Actually, stop me if you've read anything at all original on the Web over the last year. Odds are whatever you did read was copied or repeated from someone else, who took it from someone else, who took it...and so on and so on.

Is it just me being especially cranky, or has the repetition problem gotten much worse lately?

This is how 99.7 percent of online "news" now seems to operate: A story is published by a legit or semi-legit news source, and everyone else leaps upon it like a pack of snarling hyenas, trying to tear off the biggest hunk of traffic before the next hyena gets there. Maybe they add some commentary or insight (or—ahem—a healthy helping of snark), but the overwhelming majority just repeat the same details, endlessly, in a 400-word SEO-enhanced snippet.

Quality writing and reporting? Feh. It's all about slapping something Google-friendly up on the Web as cheaply and quickly as possible. This used to be true only of bot-driven Web-scraping splogs and bottom-feeder bloggers. Now everybody—even large, legitimate sites from major publishers—is under pressure to do it.

The backlash finally hit this year. In June, the Associated Press threatened to bring the hammer down on any sites that copied its content without paying for it. In fact, if you want to quote up to 25 words from one AP story, it will cost about the same as a large pepperoni pizza: $12.50. Want to use 100 words? That's two pizzas and a side order of garlic toast.

That scheme earned a big Bronx cheer from bloggers, as well as a "good luck with enforcing that one, dudes." It's the same thinking that's driving News Corp. and other media companies to erect pay walls in front of their content and to shut out Google. And as more publications go belly up or teeter on the brink, you can see why they'd want to.

But copying a site's articles can actually be good for the original site, argues Derek Ball, CEO of Tynt Multimedia, whose Tynt Insight service is used by Web publishers like Sports Illustrated and Esquire to track every piece of copy that's lifted and used on another Web site.

Tynt doesn't want to be the copyright police, says Ball. Quite the contrary—it wants to encourage copying. Because copying inevitably leads to traffic, and traffic is what every publisher desperately wants.

Copy material from a site that uses Tynt Insight, and it will automatically place a link and any promo text the publisher wants to add to it along with the quoted material. For example, take the following snippet I copied from an story about the Dallas Cowboys ruining the New Orleans Saints' perfect record:

Romo got the snap, looked over the coverage, saw Austin get inside McKenzie on a quick slant toward the post, and zzzzzip, he threw the ball to Austin in full stride eight yards past the line of scrimmage, just enough for the first down...and more. Austin ran for 24 more yards.

"In that situation," Austin said later, "I can hear myself think, but that's all I can hear. You've just got to trust the route you run and the throw. Tony put the ball right where it needed to be."

Read more:

Get a free NFL Team Jacket and Tee with SI Subscription.

That "Read more" bit and everything that followed it was generated by Tynt's system.

So far Tynt has tracked nearly 20 billion words and 20 million photos that have been copied and published elsewhere or inserted into e-mails, leading to an additional "tens of millions of new page views per month" for those sites, Ball says.

Even better for Web publishers, Tynt lets them see not only which stories get copied the most, but which parts of each story are most popular. (Invariably, it's a juicy quote.) Savvy publishers can then tailor their content to be more "quotable"—and thus, a better read. You don't have to be a big publisher to use it—any blogger can sign up and use the tools. And did I mention this service is entirely free?

Tynt is in beta now, but Ball says he's hoping he can build a profitable business around aggregating the data that comes with this knowledge and selling it to publishers—similar, in a way, to how BigChampagne tracks music and video file swapping data and sells it to music and movie companies.

The Big Caveat, of course: This works only if people who "borrow" your stuff link back to you. Though Tynt's technology auto places that link into your e-mails, blog posts, and so on, it's easy enough to delete. Once the link is gone, so is any benefit the publisher might receive from someone copying their content.

Worse, though, are the thousands of sites that rehash content without ever directly quoting from it. They're still getting a free ride—and appalling amounts of traffic for doing next to nothing. My sincere hope for the new decade: That these worthless copycat sites begin to wither and die as readers discover they're truly not worth anyone's time.

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