will the last one at SF Gate / San Francisco Chronicle please turn out the lights?

by Violet Blue on March 3, 2010


Image of The Chronicle being printed in their now-closed plant.

In 2006 I was tapped from the blogosphere to become San Francisco’s sex columnist. I recently discovered that the SFGate (the online home of the San Francisco Chronicle) is copying my column archives and distorting them. After four weeks of asking the Gate to fix them, they have made it clear that it’s not in their interest to do so. Additionally, they wouldn’t agree not to alter my content in the future. It appears that newspaper journalism and SEO is no longer going to be church and state. They do have the right to re-use my content, but it would be an understatement to say that it is my opinion that they have used their rights irresponsibly. I will no longer be writing my weekly column Open Source Sex (which I own) for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com.

Here’s what happened.

In January I noticed that SFGate was republishing my column’s archives in ways that initially struck me as bizarre. Because SFGate’s internal search is powered by Yahoo, I use Google to quickly find my columns when I wish to link to them. I was preparing a blog post that would include a link to my interview with former porn star Jennie Ketcham (Penny Flame) about her graceful departure from porn. The column focused on her sex-positive attitude about her past; this subject was remarkable because she was not ashamed of her porn past, but had simply decided to move on.

My Google search results did not return my column’s original archive, as it always had in the past. Instead the top results were a copy of my column on an SFGate subdomain (articles.sfgate.com). The column had been stripped of all links, and divided across several pages. My bio was missing, as were all the comments. Freakishly, all the commas were gone. And the URL had been changed. The address was comprised of words; to my horror the URL had been keyworded to say “ashamed porn star” — the exact opposite of the article’s content. **See update** Worse, when I clicked around on the articles.sfgate subdomain I couldn’t navigate, couldn’t find content by author (or find anything), and was essentially trapped in a dead end of static content and ads.

My first thought was that I needed to email Jennie and apologize. She trusted me to tell her story the way she told it to me. Now if anyone searched “ashamed porn star” they get the interview I did with her. This was but one example of 161 columns I wrote, and I wasn’t sure how many had been altered with potentially offensive or sensationalistic keywords. In the past, SFGate had always notified me of alterations/edits post-publishing, and mutual agreement was always reached. Something had changed.

I fired off a few angry tweets, with links to the altered content. Then I started investigating, and sent an email to my main contact at the Chronicle, basically stating that the articles.sfgate.com content was now higher-ranked in Google than the same content in sfgate.com, and that articles.sfgate.com content is of lower quality in part because it is stripped of links (and on at least one occasion mangled):

(…) my columns have been stripped of all links, are missing commas throughout, and the URLs have been re-created with keywords — some of which are offensive to my work and the subjects of my column. what happened to my work has happened to all content duplicated on articles.sfgate. (…) in my opinion, the subdomain is trading off my name/content for pageviews. there is no reciprocation in links, or biographical credit. this means in the world of search — and these results are top ranked right now — they are using my own content against me. as with the other writers, who likely don’t know this is happening.

I wonder if they are going to do this for all of their online content. the articles.sfgate pieces are many, and all are stripped of links. I wonder if they think that people who stumble upon Gate content via Google search do not value links/linking. and I strongly believe that to remove my links damages my credibility as an online writer.

My contact responded saying they appreciated my explanation; they didn’t have a full understanding until my email. I sent a list of requests that could fix the content: links, bio, commas, keywords. Nearly a week later SFGate had not responded, and I pushed for a response. By the following Monday I got a phone call with their VP: Digital Media. She pressured me not to talk about SFGate on my own Twitter account. I did not agree, but I did say that now that I knew who to contact about issues, I’d contact her first when I had problems in the future. (Now this seems ironic, considering how long it took her to respond to me.) I told her I would be fine with my content appearing on articles.sfgate.com if the necessary fixes could be made, and she indicated a level of difficulty in restoring the articles so as they would likely have to pull my content from the subdomain. The commas could be fixed, the bio was actually there but on the last page (unlinked). Restoring my articles’ links would be the dealbreaker; they could not do this.

Does anyone remember what I went through in 2006 to get them to publish articles with links?

Days later I got an email with excerpts from my contract (apparently they would now exercise their option to use my content any way they wanted), and was told that if I wanted my articles removed from the subdomain I would have to pay SFGate their estimated losses on ad revenue for my duplicated content.

I responded telling them that it was utterly perverse of them to suggest that I pay to have my content taken down. I honestly wanted to know: did they really expect me to say I would? No, of course they did not. By suggesting something so ridiculous, they ruined what should have been a relationship of allies, and this seriously damaged my previously good relationship with SF Gate and the Chronicle.

That I might have to explain the essential importance of link integrity and standards in online journalistic practices to someone in their position is astonishing. Not to mention I couldn’t believe anyone in this day and age would gamble revenue (and relationships with notable, reliable writers) on search engine results, or controlling readers’ experience.

It was becoming my strong opinion that the SF Gate / Chronicle had begun to behave as a bad actor in this space, with regard to the integrity of organic search, presentation, and discovery of news content. As many of you know, something like this goes against my firm beliefs and professional practice as a media professional. My contract with the Chronicle was loosely prescriptive with what the Gate could and couldn’t do with my content. That contract was signed in good faith and I’d enjoyed the servicing of the contract while the Chronicle operated as a good actor in the space. I told SFGate now that the Chron was no longer acting in good faith with the way it reproduces my content, I felt the current contract was untenable. I told them I couldn’t write another column for them until my contract reflected protection for the integrity of my work and reputation.

I received an email saying they could restore my articles to my requests (at this point, just links and keyworded URLs) but that they would have to talk to legal about my contract, as they were not sure how much it could be changed. Okay, cool: I waited. Then, nothing. For four weeks. Links were not restored, so it looked like they *could* do it, but would not. After a month — last week — I got an email from the woman I had been negotiating with “formalizing” the end of my contract, citing that I had not turned in a column for four weeks. After four years of an agreeable relationship, the woman who demanded I call her before talking about SFGate on my Twitter feed waited four weeks to circle back, saying that my column “no longer fit their content needs.” Indeed.

There is a much bigger story here. It’s all in what’s going on with archive duplication and the nation’s old media newspapers online. I think that the work done to the duped content is done for the purpose of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). The idea here seems to be stripping content, duplicating it, make SEO’d content that is a dead end for readers, and drive up results with cost per click ads. This is not a business plan. It’s a short noose made of long-tail content.

Make no mistake. Other national newspapers are doing the same thing (the same strategy is at the LA Times*, articles.latimes.com + latimes.perfectmarket.com). Add to this the forthcoming paywall for the NYT and we have a very volatile and brutal future ahead for old media. If this is all they’ve got for revenue plans online, including the creation of an atmosphere of mistrust with writers and our content, it’s going to get bloody. It’s not simply someone being uncreative and desperate to drive revenue; these tactics are not unsimilar to what I’ve seen in my years of watching porn sites struggle to make money off of content that people simply don’t want to pay for.

In my research I also found many redirects in Google results leading back to the articles.sfgate site on multiple subdomains; articles.sfgate, ww2.sfgate, sfgate.info, sfchroniclemarketplace.com, sfchronicle.us, m.sfgate, sfgate.perfectmarket.com. They all go to the same ad-stuffed, linkstripped dead-end. This is what I would call SEO spamming. It is now a challenge to find original versions of SFGate content in Google searches; the subdomain results trample the original content. The results also dominate related content: my own blog posts related to the content, which used to come up, are no longer in their natural search result position. What’s worse is that this dead-end trap of copied content isn’t breathing new life into old archives; I found three examples of other Gate/Chron writers’ articles being gutted and copied quickly — their columns and articles were reproduced at only a week old.

Dear newspapers: your industry is dying and it is your own goddamned fault.

Update: At SF Appeal, Violet Blue Explains Why She Quit The Chronicle/Gate. Most spot-on to me is this comment,

Aside from Eve, I’m sure most of those who comment here do not actually know Violet. She wrote her column from her own experience and point of view. It reached a wide-ranging audience. With sex as the topic, it was bound to offend many, titillate some, and amuse a few. These reactions are merely reflections of the sophomoric attitude of our culture towards any attempt to have an honest, open discussion about sex. However, her writing also illuminated many topics that people often avoid at their own loss and peril, and helped countless others heal the wounds of their past. If you’ve ever met her, as I have, and had a real conversation with her, you know she is an intelligent, sensitive, hard-working woman.

The Chronicle/SFGate has profited immensely from her hit count. Despite the fact that she is routinely personally attacked and threatened with violence, they did little-to-nothing to protect her from the psychotic element most attracted by SFGate’s pseudo-anonymous user comment system. Leaving the Chronicle/SFGate is hardly a set-back for her. Rather, it sets her free to reach the goals she is already working toward. Fly, Violet, fly! xoxo

Update 03.04.10: Commenter Ani Niow informs us today that the Gate has quietly and non-transparently made a change. “Looks like the SF Gate removed “ashamed” from the url of the article you were talking about. Still shows up in Google’s cache however.” (I screencapped it, for posterity.)


* * * * * * * *

Here are some highlights from my column Open Source Sex during its time at the SF Chronicle / SFGate:

* Republished on UN sponsored health site RH Reality Check: Obama’s National Sex Ed Program
* Republished in Best Sex Writing 2008: Kink.com and Porn Hysteria – The Lie of Unbiased Reporting
* Republished in Best Sex Writing 2009: Is Cybersex Cheating?
* To be republished in Best Sex Writing 2010: Please Use Porn Responsibly
* 1300 comments: Fear of a Gay Planet – Why Prop 8 Passed
* Infamous: Sexual Healing – Recovering from Sexual Trauma
* Infamous: Kids Charged for Child Porn
* Infamous: San Francisco Values

I miss writing my column.

* I found a total of nine American newspapers using this strategy.

{ 34 comments }

1 Daniel March 15, 2010 at 7:43 am

The techdirt article and the blog post it’s based on are hugely erroneous. None of these pages, at least of the ones I’ve seen, are “keyword stuffed”. The “questionable tactics” amount to no more than presenting the papers content in the most search engine friendly fashion they can.

2 Michaelk42 March 13, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Well, hey, look at that:

http://techdirt.com/articles/20100312/0023188528.shtml

“Newspapers Gaming Google With Questionable Tactics”

:D

3 Andy Beard March 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I think they could do a better job of the SEO of those pages, they should really come up with a way to have the title more unique.
That would give them a chance to target more keywords effectively.

Google isn’t going to filter them all… maybe some depending on what they are doing with each of the destination sites, but compare this to stories syndicated by the AP, and it is just a drop in the ocean.

This doesn’t mean I am defending them changing the meaning of your writing, and I am a huge fan of followed links in all kinds of scenarios. That is espeiclaly true if the link is important to the content.
That is then a material change that affects the material substance of what you were writing. If they can’t come up with solutions to provide human clickable links then their tech guys really need to get another job.

4 Rooster March 11, 2010 at 7:01 am

As an SEO guy, I can tell you that the advice from Bacchus is sound and you should report them right away. Here’s the link again:

https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport

5 bswise March 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Violet,
I am completely blown away by this absolutely amazing highlights list. Bravo! I am in total awe to read these again. You should get a Pulitzer for taking on these important issues with such great skill, passion, logic, humor, and analysis. Seriously. I’ve really enjoyed this column, and this post is as fascinating, and fair and informative as always. I think you are an excellent writer, and I look forward to reading you wherever you publish.
Excelsior!

6 Daniel March 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

@bachus
It’s going to put their sites into the Google penalty box, and keep ‘em there until they eliminate the duplicate content. And their lowliest web intern probably could have told ‘em so, had they the brains to ask.
I think you misunderstand how Google treats duplicate content. Low quality sites that have no content of their own and simply steal the copy of others will certainly find it hard to obtain good search rankings, but it’s quite permissible under Google’s guidelines to offer different versions of your own content. In that situation there’s no “duplicate content penalty” as some people seem to think, it’s more like a filter – they will attempt to pick a definitive version and only show that in their results. They even provide mechanisms to help webmasters do this with the rel=canonical tag (which sfgate are using incorrectly, but that’s another matter).

And their lowliest web intern probably could have told ‘em so, had they the brains to ask.
That may well be the case, but they’d be wrong, just as you are. With all due respect this is why you shouldn’t take SEO advice from interns or random blog commenters ;-)

7 Daniel March 8, 2010 at 2:57 pm

“trapped in a dead end of static content and ads”
Is the version I’m seeing in Google’s cache different from the ones you saw? Because the cached version has a link to the home page, so I’d hardly call it a dead end…go to home and you have all the functionality you need to further explore sfgate.

From a random visitors perspective this might even be a usability improvement…why bother with all the site “furniture” if you only want to read that specific article? If someone loves the piece and wants to find more of your work granted it’s slightly more difficult, but again they’re only a click away from the home page and full search functionality.

8 Daniel March 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I’m not at all clear on what your issue is here. Certainly the removal of commas and the “ashamed” URL is unfortunate, but they are easily fixed and it seems like SFGate were willing to fix them.

Beyond that you had a contract with them to provide articles, and they had a certain amount of freedom in the formatting of those articles. Removal of links (probably done to preserve page rank/ “link juice”) would seem to fall under a reasonable interpretation of that. And the main site is ad-supported so I don’t understand why you’d have a problem with the articles sub-domain showing them?

At the end of the day sfgate are presenting their content to search engines in this way because they believe it will attain higher rankings, which mean more visitors, which mean more budget for quality content. Do you really think this approach is spam, or are you simply upset about the comma/url thing (which you have every right to be) and trying to make it into something more than it is?

9 Amy Lightholder March 6, 2010 at 10:17 am

Oops, nevermind. Bacchus spells out explicitly the vague feeling i was having in my tummy.

10 Amy Lightholder March 6, 2010 at 10:10 am

Have you considered reporting them to/lodging a complaint with Google? I’m not sure if this is officially offered yet but I know they have a team of people devoted to black hat SEO tweaking and if you work your connections, you can probably get their attention. I’m not sure if what SFGate is doing would qualify as black hat or not, but it seems at least grey to me so it’s possible that they’d sandbox SFGate content for the affected keywords. And furthermore that such action might become part of the toolbox for writers when they get ripped off.

11 Pameladeda March 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

Ugh, this sucks and good for you for speaking up! Sometimes these corporate idiots actions are just well so stupid. I guess they are not dying fast enough so they are trying to commit suicide.

Now for the important stuff —- where will we go for your columns?!

Long may you run

12 Victor Agreda, Jr. March 4, 2010 at 9:42 pm

It’s a shame, really, but kudos for you for standing strong on this. The article about Jennie is still #3 as I write this for the ‘ashamed’ search, but it’ll fall in time. This is a short-term, dead-end, last-gasp play by newspapers. @Bacchus quotes the scripture as to why ;)

The larger ethical implications are just sad. On to your next leap forward!

13 Christin Evans March 4, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Violet,

I was just talking about you yesterday and then saw this!?!? Wow, this is an incredible story about how SF Chronicle failed at new media.

I really enjoyed watching the video you did when you started out on this adventure: http://ryanishungry.com/2006/09/21/violet-blue-our-front-page-news/ and then reading your account of how it unraveled.

It really shows how the Chronicle is desperately trying to adapt, failing miserably and then bungling their mistakes, responding ineptly thus furthering their woes.

14 Jeremy Hatch March 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I was wondering when this would happen. I’ve long felt that you are better than the Chron deserves (such a joke of a publishing company, really), and you have been so ill-served by them over the years anyway, what with their troglodytic commenter base, the ridiculous issue about links, etc. The paper always seemed like a hostile environment for your work — the whole suburban mindset it exudes is at such odds with everything you wrote there, I felt their contracting with you was a cynical ploy from the beginning, about using sex to drive up pageviews, and not about any sort of respect for your work or sympathy with a sex-positive outlook. (Though I’m sure there were a few people who wanted you on board for the right reasons.) Anyway, I say good riddance to them, and here’s to a brighter future for you.

15 Paula Wirth March 4, 2010 at 10:54 am

Sorry to hear about this – glad you stood your ground, regardless. Glad to hear there are journalists out there who believe in integrity, truth, accuracy and openness. Not sure all your fellow bloggers and dead paper journal owners share your positive qualities.

16 ThatToyChick March 4, 2010 at 9:40 am

I’m sorry this happened to you, Violet. I enjoy your work and I’m disappointed that they would do this to you after all the years of content you provided.

As others have said, your star is high and only rising, so it is truly their loss.

17 Lip Reader March 4, 2010 at 8:18 am

yes, the deadwood edition is horse and buggy . save a tree , read the web. i have noticed a difference in the deadwood and the online versions of stuff i read. seldom do
i read the dwe anylonger. but isn’t this been the practice of newspapers for ages. changing a field reporters item , enough so it leaves out important details that mislead
the reader.

18 Mark March 4, 2010 at 6:55 am

I know the law is different in the U.S., but in Canada (and many other Commonwealth countries), this action by SFGate could be considered as a violation of your moral rights in your work which, unlike copyright, cannot be waived or assigned. In other words, there would be grounds for a lawsuit because your intent expressed in your work was changed substantially by the publisher in a way that cast aspersions on you (essentially it’s like third-part defamation in a way).

19 David Carroll March 4, 2010 at 6:34 am

Wow I’ve learned a lot about SEO and such today. Thanks Ms Blue and the rest of you.

I was wondering: What is to become of the Trolls, Haters and other assorted crazy people who seemed to dominate the comment section of your SF Gate column? How will they fill the hours of their pathetic little lives?

I’m off to rat-out SF Gate to Google now…

20 Michaelk42 March 4, 2010 at 4:54 am

@Violet – @Bacchus there confirmed what I suspected to be the case. If Google did let this sort of thing go on, the web would be CHOKED with these sorts of shenanigans.

SFGate just looks to be utterly cluless, but newspaper, so I’m not shocked.

21 Ani Niow March 4, 2010 at 1:02 am

Looks like the SF Gate removed “ashamed” from the url of the article you were talking about. Still shows up in Google’s cache however.

22 Laura Casey March 3, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Hi Violet,
I admit that do miss your witty and fearless columns. I think you bring a voice to this area that is so unique, even if I am not a huge fan all the time, you know? And I believe we need more edgy writers in MSM. It’s a shame this partnership did not work out.
I wonder, though, if this is the fall of newspapers. There are several amazing writers who are still at the Chronicle and Sfgate — Jill Tucker (schools), Demian Bulwa and Henry K. Lee (public safety), Bob Elko, Mark Morford and on and on. The Chron isn’t what it used to be, no doubt, but tell me a company that is.
I felt terrible googling “ashamed porn star” and finding your story. That’s just not right. I agree, it needs to be changed.
But I am still curious about the death of newspapers. Also, it sounds to me like this is a SEO company or education problem that should be addressed but I wouldn’t take it personally.

23 Andrew J. Holden March 3, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Hi Violet,

As a Web / SEO Professional I’d like to confirm Bacchus’ comment – this isn’t ‘good’ SEO and it will actually drop their site’s value considerably.

A lot of the web industry is corrupt – they leverage their client’s lack of knowledge on technical issues and online marketing to their advantage. This would be one example.

If they had kept your columns intact, links, etc. – that would actually be of the most search and visitor value, by far.

24 rjones March 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm

I’ve worked with companies that have done what you described above pretty much by accident/ignorance/greed. For a highly “respected” domain it can take longer for google’s algorythym to pick it up automatically, but it will get picked up even if manual intervention is required. Then all of the content will disappear from search results and probably all domains including original sfgate. Basically, sfgate is being screwed over by ignorant manager or bad seo consultant, and long term it will kill their website.

Not sure if that will make you feel better or worse about this, though.

I’m really sad to hear how badly they’ve abused your work. SEO and quality writing is a struggle, but this was an assault.

25 Greg March 3, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Bacchus has it right – this is lame blackhat stuff. But perfectmarket has that nice corporate image that oozes respectability, so using dupe farms for link spam mus be ok.. right?

My additional current gripe is their use of Tynt to autoinsert link backs into your copy buffer, so that if you paste any content, it adds a link back at the bottom of what you pasted. I already link back (as do most reputable bloggers) and it’s damned annoying to have to edit now because they’re worried about “content theft”. My solution? I’ll be taking (typically) the same AP content from another publisher, and they’ll lose links.

26 Bacchus March 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Violet, it’s my opinion that these papers have been sold the classic black hat SEO bill of goods by some SEO charlatan. The practices you describe are in clear violation of Google’s SEO guidelines, and will almost certainly come back to bite the papers on the butt. Better yet, there’s a way to help hurry this process along.

Google’s SEO Guidelines specifically state:

Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.

.

Duplicate content is defined by Google thusly:

Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar…

In some cases, content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic. Deceptive practices like this can result in a poor user experience, when a visitor sees substantially the same content repeated within a set of search results… [When] Google perceives that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we’ll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved. As a result, the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site might be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.

What’s more, Google specifically solicits reports from users who find spammy search results. Opinions differ on whether those reports get much attention, but here’s what Google says one the Webmaster guidelines page already linked:

If you believe that another site is abusing Google’s quality guidelines, please report that site at https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport. Google prefers developing scalable and automated solutions to problems, so we attempt to minimize hand-to-hand spam fighting. The spam reports we receive are used to create scalable algorithms that recognize and block future spam attempts.

The Bacchus bottom line: Doing what SF Gate has done is 20th-century dead-tree smokestack-industry dumb. It’s going to have, long run, the exact opposite effect from the financial windfall they were hoping for. It’s going to put their sites into the Google penalty box, and keep ‘em there until they eliminate the duplicate content. And their lowliest web intern probably could have told ‘em so, had they the brains to ask.

27 Ed March 3, 2010 at 6:35 pm

You said it, newspapers just don’t get it anymore. It’s a shame as your column was the only reason I ever found myself on SFGate.

28 violet March 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Michaelk42: I don’t know, because I’m not sure what rules they’re breaking, if any. the pages are plastered with Google ads, so I’m guessing Goog is okay with. the difference is that I’m not, and that’s my own POV (which is why I wanted to post this).
ryan: I don’t think anyone else is aware of what the implications are for their content in this model. it does suck, though. and thank you!
nlvldg: I honestly think this is not something done out of malice, but out of lack of understanding. but again, I would never do something like that.
Padgana: I can; I do own them and have rights to republish if I want. they still can, too. but I certainly plan to, in case they decide to nuke my content altogether in some future scenario of theirs. I have no idea.

29 John Q March 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I searched for your articles and was linked to the articles.sfgate.com site. It was nicely formatted and each of your articles that I read included your bio at the end. From what I can see you gave up a paid writing gig for a major publication, throwing some unprofessional public fits in the process, because some links were removed. The actual content was intact. Is that really worth the damage to your current and future career? When you sign up for a writing job which gives the publisher the rights to re-publish in different formats, why do you think you can tell them not to? Violet, you got fired for acting crazy while publicly representing your employer and it was a bad career move on your part.

30 Padhana March 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I take it there’s no way you can’t simply host the articles on your site, or at another party? It is your content, after all. Or is that something SFGate and Chronicle can sue you over?

Have you considered another site or publisher for your articles?

31 Mimi March 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm

You did the right thing.

32 nlvldg March 3, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Wow. I never thought that something this dishonest would be going on in newspapers industry. I knew print was dying, but to think they’d use such underhanded trick to drum up readership.

33 ryan March 3, 2010 at 2:27 pm

are any other writers there experiencing the same things with their content? Has anyone else complained? Does anyone else even know what is going on?

Sorry to hear about this…it is their own damn fault that they are failing…

Good luck with your next adventure!

34 Michaelk42 March 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Question: doesn’t Google frown on this sort of bad behavior?

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