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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

OJR.org: An opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time

So how much does an old online journalism domain name go for these days? For OJR.org, it appears the price was over $19,000.

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotIn case you didn’t see my story posted late in the day yesterday, the Online Journalism Review — a 15-year-old chronicler of the evolution of digital journalism — has been turned into a spamblog. All the details are at the original article, but the basics are these: USC Annenberg, which ran OJR, forgot to renew their domain name. It was grabbed by someone named Marcus Lim, CEO of an Australian startup called Oneflare, who proceeded to turn it into a fake version of the Online Journalism Review — pretending to still be part of USC, stealing dozens or hundreds of copyrighted OJR articles, and generally being a jerk. Why? All to promote its products through better search engine optimization.

In the hours since my story went up, there’ve been a few updates.

— I received a statement from USC Annenberg about the snafu:

USC Annenberg is taking steps to regain control of Online Journalism Review, after the domain of OJR.org was allowed to lapse earlier this month. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made into the news outlet over the years — and of all the work so many talented writers and editors have put into it — and hope to continue ownership of it in the future.

— Oneflare, probably rightfully scared of the litigation it would otherwise be asking for, removed the legally dubious material from OJR.org. They removed the OJR archive stories and the USC logos and changed the site name from “Online Journalism Review” to “Online Journal Review,” whatever that means. So the site is now solely a spamblog, rather than a spamblog cloaked in an old journalism website. Progress, maybe?

— We have some evidence for what price OJR.org went for. The domain was put up for auction at NameJet (“The Premier Aftermarket Domain Name Service”) after it was allowed to lapse. This roundup of domain sales from November 6 reveals the price it went for: $19,100.

ojr-domain-sale-screenshot

(Wow.)

OJR.org had also been listed in October on a list of high-value expired domains — high value because it had been registered back in 1997, which gives it better Google juice.

— Perhaps because it’s hard to step away from a $19,100 purchase, OJR.org continues to evolve as a spamblog. It’s actually a rare opportunity to watch a spamblog be built in real time — normally you only find them after they’ve been doing their dark magic for a while.

Along with the original article promoting Oneflare, Lim (or whoever’s running the backend) has added five new articles to give the illusion of a real site. (Something had to take the place of all those old OJR stories, I imagine.) The stories don’t have spammy links yet, but they are artificially backdated (as far back as 2011) to give the illusion of a long-existing website. (They also look like algorithmically altered versions of existing stories — weird synonyms subbed in where they should be, for instance — but I couldn’t find any original versions with a few quick searches.)

— There’s one other side benefit to building a spamblog on an old news brand like OJR: OJR content is whitelisted into Google News. So, for instance, one of the new spam articles is about the Garmin Forerunner 610. Search for “garmin” on Google News and look what the third result is:

garmin-ojr-screenshot

That means the main work to be done now is Google’s. It needs to remove OJR from Google News, and it needs to eliminate the PageRank advantage that the old site built up for the new one. From there, it’s USC’s move on what to do with those remarkable disappeared archives.

                                   
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  • http://riastuff.com/ Ria Parish

    Wow, I’d most definitely be interested in being kept up to date with this story’s development. It’s almost like watching an action movie, wondering how long OJR can keep going on the run for before Google catches up (if it does). Intense….

    /me gets out the popcorn.

  • Jett

    The site content has been deleted

  • Chris Koszo

    Looks like they learned their lesson.. Don’t let your chit expire. Hopefully the spammers made a few bucks but saved the archives so that they can give the domain back, for a fee of $19,000 of course, and let the site continue to live and be useful. Will be a fun SEO exercise for whoever gets tasked to fix the site’s reputation in Google and Bing.

  • Perry Gaskill

    Lim is a bottom feeder. One in a long line of those who would game the system in a way it was never intended. This list would also include NameJet which evidently charged Lim the $19,000 for ojr.com in the first place.

    It seems to me there’s a relatively simple solution to this, but it would need to happen at the domain registrar level, and might even be a potential value-add differentiator when deciding which registrar to use.

    If you do a typical whois lookup, what you’re supposed to get is not only basic contact information for the domain administrator and the expiration date, but also Domain Name Service information in the form of IP addresses. So far, the convention has been for DNS servers to switch by using actual valid IP addresses, but there’s no network law that makes it mandatory.

    An alternate approach, to avoid USC Annenberg’s current problem, might be that if a registrar such as Network Solutions hits an expiration date on a domain, instead of having the domain immediately go up for grabs, it would resolve to a default IP address of, say, 0.0.0.0 for a grace period of 90 days. What this would do is cause any browser request for ojr.org to bounce to a 404 error which would be a red flag.

    Even better might be to have the error resolve to a standard boilerplate page saying that the ojr.org administrator needs to contact Network Solutions because DNS has failed at a registrar level.

  • http://www.jasonmccuen.com/ Jason McCuen

    Great article – But that is a .ORG.AU. that is a very high price to pay for a .ORG.AU. Anyone who knows Australian TLDs knows that there are very strict guidelines regarding who registers them and how they are used. It will be interesting to see if the auDA gets involved.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    No, it’s an .org.

  • Jamie Knop

    Wow that is a lot of money for a domain that aint making any money. Looking at SEMRush the site lost most of its organic traffic in February 2012, so it didn’t even have good traffic.

    Site is empty now. It’s up to the registrar really to sort this one out if they have a heart.

  • me
  • Tom Rothwell

    These websites that harvest domains and re-sell them for a an exorbitant amount make me sick. It’s such a dishonest living and has hit me several times thanks to poor efforts by my domain registrars.

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