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Bogus Sites & Startups: From Web Astroturf To Turf-toe

February 9, 2005

We have noticed an increasing amount of professional quality Web Astroturf. If you are not familiar with this term it refers to fake grassroots (fake grass = Astroturf) sites and online chatter developed by professional marketers to benefit companies that covet Web buzz. This is another concept that seems to have been spawned by people who read Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point and believe that getting in front of the right people on the Net is what it takes to kick-start a trend.
Take a McDonald’s super bowl ad called Lincolnfry about a french-fry that resembles Abe Lincoln. The commercial drove traffic to a ‘humorous’ Web site, which in turn linked to a blog operated by Lincolnfry. It’s a fake blog built on standard Typepad templates and includes fake blog commentary.
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There was a minor backlash from bloggers against McDonald’s corporate foolery – the a:c hereby coins the term “Turf-toe” to describe Astroturf campaign backlash, so please give us all due credit if you adopt it. At any rate, search engine optimization companies and others have been able to show very good results with Astroturf campaigns even though they have to a lot of convincing to do to help their clients overcome fear of turf-toe. One Web Astroturf pure-play is BzzAgent, which has received huge ink recently in the NY Times and elsewhere. BzzAgent claims to have 20,000 freelance spinners who are adopted by corporations to spin the kids on the street and on the Web.
Salon.com recently posted a story revealing that Amazon.com has been engaging in extreme Astroturfing, with painful turf-toe results. In order to garner the benefits of hot startup buzz among the grassroots, Amazon.com created a shell start-up that in turn launched a Web site. Amazon.com under the auspices of an entity called the Robot Co-op launched a site called 43things – a social networking site where users express their life goals. But Amazon launched 43things as a separate entity and didn’t let on to users that the site was in fact an Amazon project. Salon was tipped off by a little birdie and called Robot Co-op’s Erik Benson to ask if the company is indeed a subsidiary of Amazon. Benson “refused to comment on the ‘rumors,’ and defended his Seattle company’s indie cred: ‘We’re working in a small office in Capitol Hill above a yoga studio, use our own Powerbooks at work, have our own hosting and dreamed up this project and company 100%.'” He should have coordinated that with Amazon corporate flacks who, when cornered by Salon, acknowledged that “Amazon.com is the only investor in Robot Co-op, and we’re not discussing details beyond that.” It also turns out the top employees of Robot Co-op worked at Amazon’s personalization group. So busted.
Read – Amazon’s 43 secrets (Salon.com)
Read – McDonald’s Fake Lincolnfry Blog (Strategic Public Relations)
View – Fake McDonald’s Blog (The Lincoln Fry Blog)

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