1 year ago • 71.0X social lift

Caninediabetespickings

Well that was an interesting evening. Let’s analyze!

First, it’s well known that I don’t care for Brainpickings or Maria Popova, and I knew that would color some of the response yesterday. Obviously there was a degree of schadenfreude in revealing this yesterday, but I also found it completely by accident and not as part of some ongoing scheme to discredit Popova. My only position is that people running scammy affiliate marketing sites should explain themselves, especially high profile people with rhetoric like Popova’s. Onwards.

The resulting furor (just about qualifies, I think) after my post yesterday eventually led to Jon Mitchell contacting Popova for comment. Here are the important bits:

So anyway, I talked to Popova, and she didn’t want to speak on the record, but it’s okay. There are plenty of ways for us to understand and misunderstand what this was on our own.

Now again, the substance of my conversation with Popova is off the record, and I’m not going to blow that. But if you look at the stuff Mr. Dick Wisdom found, you’ll see that the sites are old, and many of the domains are about to expire. If they’re renewed, then we’ll have more questions for Popova. But if they aren’t, I think it’s reasonable to assume that someone who wants to make a career on the Web will dabble in all of its arts to learn how they work. I’ll say that, given what I’ve seen, I could believe that’s all there is to it.

Popova wouldn’t give Jon a quote, not wanting to defend herself and preferring to allow speculation, so we’ll likely never what the actual story is, but it seems safe to infer from the full post that she claimed it was some kind of abandoned experiment in affiliate marketing that she fiddled with pre-Brainpicker.

The story makes some sense, but it is littered with holes. The domains in question have all been modified in some way (per the WHOIS record) as recently as early this year, and were renewed in 2010. (By which time Brainpicker had been running for quite some time.) At least three of the sites were still active, with Google Analytics and Adsense code on them. So abandoned or not, Popova was absolutely making some money from the sites as recently as yesterday. The sites are now gone, of course.

And something I didn’t share last night, because I couldn’t verify it, is that Maria Popova has potentially as many as 58 domains registered to her name. I’m confident enough to say it’s a minimum of 20. None I could find seemed outwardly spammy, but boy are there some odd ones. A bunch were registered in Bulgaria (where Popova is originally from) around the same time as the ones we talked about yesterday, but most seem abandoned. I don’t have the time or the skills to look into it further, so I don’t know how far this really goes.

Popova is calling this an experiment, and I mostly buy it, but she is leaving so many questions unanswered here. She doesn’t seem too concerned about it, apparently feeling that it isn’t scandalous enough to warrant a response, but even that is suspicious. Popova is no idiot, she knows it becomes a bigger story if she provides a quote, and what we know now is that she’s intimately familiar with how that will play out on Google. As far as I can see, she’s simply doing damage control and trying to make it die. That’s a strange course of action over a silly experiment, no? Speculation, of course, but I’m struggling to find other conclusions that make sense. Even if it’s totally harmless, why not just clear the air?

Here’s another question it raises: isn’t Brainpickings.org just an affiliate marketing site in sheep’s clothing? To me, the knowledge of Popova’s past schemes explain Brainpickings completely. Remember when it came out that The Oatmeal used to be an SEO spammer, and uses that knowledge to great financial gain in his current “legitimate” and remarkably unfunny ventures? I would suggest to you that the same thing is happening here. I bet the Amazon kickbacks feel a lot better than the fake pharmaceutical kickbacks. I would love for Popova to say something publicly and disabuse me of this notion, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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