Now that Google has gone after content farms, the next frontier for spammers is e-books.
Mike Essex, a Search Specialist at UK digital marketing agency Koozai, believes that ebooks are the next frontier for content farmers and is already noticing an increasing number of spam e-books hitting ebookstores like the Kindle Store. He originally wrote about his discovery on the Koozai blog.
Many ebook vendors don’t check copyright on works that are submitted, and Essex noticed that people are stealing content from the web, quickly creating ebooks about the same topics from multiple angles in order to target different keyword variants, and publishing them—some Kindle authors have “written” thousands of books in a single year. The Amazon.com domain name gives these books an added boost in search results; royalty payouts are high even when a book is priced at $0.99, and reviews aren’t a surefire solution to combating the problem.
In his blog post, Essex pointed out that readers won’t necessarily recognize whether content has been plagiarized. And if an e-book is exposed as plagiarized, the author can simply take it down and resubmit it under a new name. A bad review on one site won’t keep people from buying the same ebook on another site. And these titles are priced so low that unhappy buyers may not bother complain.
Essex carried out an experiment for PT: “I took the lyrics to the song ‘This is the song that never ends’ and repeated them over 700-plus pages. No formatting, just one continuous block of duplicate text. Within 24 hours, it was live on the Amazon Kindle Store and I haven’t received a single message from Amazon about it. Surely an automated process would be able to easily tell I had repeated myself over and over, but this wasn’t flagged up.
“It’s maddening. The logic of ‘the market will decide’ is flawed. How many customers have to be ripped off by shoddy content that adds no value before someone leaves a bad review? There’s no option to report a book as spam, and people can get away with rubbish content which dilutes the offering for good authors. I’ll continue to carry out tests until Amazon looks into this.” (Amazon did not respond to our request for comment.)
We asked Essex a few questions:
When and how did you notice spam content’s move to ebooks?
ME: When I first started writing an ebook, I wanted to see what other authors had written in my niche. Within five minutes, I had seen endless streams of spam that offered little value. Knowing that these other books would appear in searches for my own frustrated me as they make the topic look bad and have a negative effective on me. If someone buys a book in my niche and it’s rubbish, they won’t buy another.
[At Koozai], we became very aware of the penalty Google had issued on content farms in its most recent update. It occurred to me that a lot of content farm writers would no longer have a good stream of income and that ebooks were the natural place for them to progress to.
When I tried to find bad content on Amazon, I had tons of examples within ten minutes. If content holders like Apple and Amazon spent even one hour a day searching, they would save customers a lot of money by removing bad content. In addition, they should be able to build automated systems to filter out the rubbish. That was the main thing I wanted to expose in my article.
Are Amazon or Apple making efforts in this area? What can legitimate publishers do on their end?
ME: Following my previous article, I spoke with Mark Coker at Smashwords, who assured me they have a “zero tolerance policy for content farm garbage” and that they have human and automated systems. Although I haven’t been able to test this, it’s reassuring to know that Smashwords only makes quarterly payments to authors, which presents a wider time period to identify someone as a spammer and cut them off before they get a check.
The approval process for Apple is six weeks, so that’s somewhat reassuring, but as with the App store, the majority of content is still accepted. I’m not saying we should have a totally closed environment that only approves ten to twenty ebooks a week, but I highlighted eight solutions in my original article which would be easy to implement and would work:
- Integrate a plagiarism detector that compares book content to scans of the web.
- If content is syndicated from a blog, ask blog holders to upload a verification file to prove they have the rights to the content.
- Compare hosted ebooks to look for similar/identical content.
- Add a link on every ebook listing page where people can report the book for stolen content.
- Ask writers to verify their address before a book is added. This keeps duplicate accounts and “publishers” from selling the same content.
- Investigate any content creators with more than 50 ebooks to check the quality of their content.
- Create an independent website where people can store reviews in one place, which will be a better way of spotting bad apples.
- If you spot someone who is trying to game the system, post bad reviews on every site where their book is listed.
- Allow search engines to crawl ebook content so they can rank stolen content lower, using their existing checks.
It’s important for legitimate publishers to ensure that they have a presence beyond their titles simply appearing in the stores. At Koozai, we ensure that our clients’ websites talk about their content, so it’s clear that they are human beings, and we recommend they create profiles with information about themselves on ebook sites. The more people get ripped off, the more research they will do about authors and ebooks before they buy.
It’s also important for authors get reviews on websites other than the ones hosting their books. When you’ve got an ebook, it’s very easy to create a password-protected PDF and send it around to people in your industry. When you’re talked about online, customers are more confident when they buy your book in an online store. Get Facebook and Twitter profiles and use them, a lot. The more you talk about your niche in these channels, the more it seems as though your ebook will be worth purchasing.
A lot of this is about search engine optimization. Authors and publishers need to ensure that their work can be found online in as many places as possible. Even big publishers must ensure they rank when people search for their books, and that people can find out as much as possible about these books directly from them.
What feedback did you get on your original story?
The thing that scared me the most was an email promoting a viral ebook Automatic Submitter. Anyone who purchases it gets 149,000 articles that they can use for any purpose, so they can make their own ebooks very quickly.
There are also resale services that let you buy content that you can also quickly spin into content-farmed ebooks.
Bearing in mind that this is a fairly new trend, I have major concerns about the future of ebooks. Things need to change.