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WhenU Yanked From Yahoo and Google Indexes

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May 17, 2004 12:17 PM PDT    Text size: 
NEW YORK – Advertising spyware network WhenU found itself on the wrong side of the two most powerful search engines Monday morning after Yahoo and Google decided to yank all WhenU search results from their combined search indexes.

The two Internet giants have accused WhenU of using "cloaking" as a way to increase and manipulate search results. According to allegations made by Google and Yahoo and a Harvard anti-spyware activist who first tipped off the two search engines, WhenU was using a method known as "cloaking" to drive traffic to its site and other bogus websites that contained favorable impressions of the much-maligned spyware company.

According to Google, the term cloaking is used to describe a website that returns altered web pages to search engines crawling the site. The webserver is programmed to return different content to Google or other search engines than it returns to regular users, usually in an attempt to distort search engine rankings. Cloaking is also known as "stealth."

According to Google's internal policy, the search engine retains the right to permanently ban any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking to distort their search rankings. Many other search engines also outlaw cloaking because it prevents them from properly indexing what users actually see.

The scheme was first reported to Google and Yahoo by Ben Edelman, a Harvard PhD and spyware specialist, who first informed the two search engines that WhenU had generated a ring of 13 websites designed to re-direct traffic to news and information that was favorable to its image, in hopes of making the impression that they are performing an ethical and legal service to Internet users.

WhenU is a confirmed spyware company that sends out ads bundled with a free screensaver to an estimated 25 million users.

WhenU has been sued for its spyware tactics by 1-800 Contacts, Overstock.com, Quicken Loans, U-Haul, Weight Watchers, and Wells Fargo.

The public perception of adware and spyware is currently at an all-time low and even Congress and individual states have been working to draft legislation that would ban both types of programs, which in many cases perform illegal and unauthorized downloads of software with the intention of tracking user activity and launching blizzards of pop-up advertising.

According to Edelman, another company involved in the process of cloaking is Redwood City, Calif.-based Claria Corp., a behavioral marketing company also known as Gator. Gator has also been subject to numerous lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

All traces of WhenU were removed from both Google and Yahoo on Friday afternoon and search results rendered an apology that no such site could be found.

In the meantime, WhenU is blaming an outside search optimization firm for the problems, according to the company's CEO. WhenU is claiming that it hired a company to only do "legitimate optimization."

Neither Google or Yahoo could be reached for comment by press time.

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