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

The OJR.org saga has a happy ending, with the domain headed back to USC Annenberg

The Australian startup that bought OJR.org says a rogue SEO consultant is responsible for the zombie spamblog version of the site. They’re ready to give it back to its original owner, which let the domain expire.

ojr-2002-tiny-screenshotOJR.org is going back to its original home.

A quick recap for those who haven’t been following this tale of wayward domain names (one, two, three): The Online Journalism Review was, starting in the late 1990s, one of the earliest and best sites to cover the digital transition of journalism. Based at USC Annenberg, OJR mixed original reporting and smart analysis to be, for a number of years, a key part of our understanding of online journalism.

Earlier this year, USC forgot to renew the domain name OJR.org, which put it on the open market. Because it was an old domain, it had value in Google’s search index, so it was purchased and then put up for auction. An Australian startup named Oneflare purchased it for $19,100 and replaced it with a zombie version of OJR — lifting dozens of its articles, improperly putting USC and USC Annenberg logos on the site, and generally trying to make it seem legit — while also using it as a spamblog to promote Oneflare.

When I started writing about it, Zombie OJR removed the copied archives and the fake logos and, later, took down the whole site. But Google still knocked Oneflare for going outside the boundaries of appropriate search engine optimization.

Fast forward to last night, when I got a call from Marcus Lim, the CEO of Oneflare, saying he wanted to make things right.

“We’re extremely apologetic about what happened,” he told me from Sydney. “We received extremely bad advice.”

Lim said that Oneflare had hired an outside SEO consultant to help them with how their site ranks in Google, and that the strategy of buying and spamming up an established domain was the consultant’s: “This was done without my knowledge.” To Lim, reasonably, OJR.org was just a three-letter domain, not a site whose archives had real value. (“To be honest, we’re Australians: Unless you’re in the journalism industry, we don’t know what OJR was.”)

Lim said Oneflare severed its relationship with the outside consultant and took down Zombie OJR once it understood what was going on. Then it had to figure out what to do with its tainted domain. “You know what we paid for it,” he told me. “We’re not a charity operation — we’re a business. But we decided it would be the right thing for us to do to donate it back.” Oneflare considered putting it back on the market to try to recoup some or all of that $19,100, but decided “if we did, someone else would just do the same thing. We felt the buck needed to stop with us.”

Since my stories ran, Lim said, they’ve been trying to contact someone at USC to arrange a transfer of OJR.org back to California, but haven’t been able to reach anyone. So he was contacting me to see if I wanted it. (I told him I’d be happy to make the connection with USC and enable a transfer back there.) “I sincerely hope that OJR can be restored to its glory days,” Lim said.

I spoke with USC Annenberg spokeswoman Gretchen Parker, who sent over a statement: “If a donation of the OJR.org domain is made to USC Annenberg, we’d be happy to accept it and reclaim the site…USC Annenberg looks forward to restoring the archives of the site and would like, in the future, to revisit plans for the direction of OJR.org.”

That’s worth remembering: The return of the domain name is unlinked to the return of the OJR archives. One doesn’t guarantee the other. Here’s hoping that those old pieces resurface soon.

In any event, I’m glad that those three letters will be back at their proper home, and good on the people at Oneflare for realizing their error and doing what they can to repair the damage.

Renew your domain names, people.

                                   
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