Traitorous “Thank You” Pages

Most Webmasters and bloggers are only interested in keeping their freely available content out of the hands of plagiarists and spam bloggers. However, those who sell content, be it ebooks, music files or other material, also have to worry about users obtaining the content without paying for it.

Though file sharing and illegal download sites can be a thorn in the side of these Webmasters, especially if their business model isn’t compatible with file sharing, what’s worse, or at least as bad, is when potential customers easily or even accidentally download their product without paying.

The problem is that, for many Webmasters, the very “thank you” pages that make such electronic commerce possible turn out to be the weakest link in the chain, enabling both malicious hackers and well-intended users to obtain paid content for free.

When #1 in Google is Bad

The idea is pretty simple. A user visits your site, looks through some freely available content and decides to buy your ebook, your MP3 or whatever good is for sale. The user goes through the checkout process and, after purchasing the product, is sent to a “thank you” page where they can download it.

Normally the process works well and all of the steps are taken in order. Sometimes, however, things can go awry.

The biggest problem is that the “thank you” pages often get accidentally picked up by the search engines and, after a time, be ranked very highly. Users searching for the file will often times be directed by major search engines to thank you page, not the home page or the ordering page, and will download the file without even knowing that they were supposed to purchase it.

How exactly this happens varies wildly from site to site. It often involves bad security, directory indexing and mistakes in setting up the server. However, it’s a problem that many Webmasters encounter.

Though it’s a problem that can be easily corrected, at least one method can create an almost equal problem by exposing your hidden pages to the world all over again.

Robots.txt

One of the most common methods of preventing search engines from accessing sensitive data is to use robots.txt. The system works by listing files and folders that one does not want crawled in a special file on their computer.

Though it does work well and all responsible search engines follow the robots.txt standard, it can also lead human visitors directly to your hidden content.

The problems is that the robots.txt file is readable by anyone. Even Google’s is easily visible on the Web. Anyone can punch in your site address, append “robots.txt” to the end of it and pull up your list of files and folders you want to keep hidden from the search engines.

Though this creates many different security problems, it can be especially troubling for webmasters trying to hide their “thank you” pages and prevent unwanted downloading of their content.

Fortunately, there are other, better ways of handling this problem, ones that do not expose hidden files to the world.

Solutions

The simplest solution is to just not use robots.txt to hide sensitive files from the search engines. Instead, use meta tags to prevent indexing. These pages are inserted into the page itself and eliminates the need to list the page in the robots.txt file. Should a search engine stumble across the page accidentally, it will not be indexed and it will remain secret.

However, a better way is to simply partner with a good company such as Yepic or Lulu to house and protect your for sale content. These companies might take a percentage of your revenue, but they offer a great deal of security and work hard to keep their systems safe from both accidental and intentional thefts.

Another solution might be to switch over to tangible goods. Tangible goods offer many benefits over digital ones and are difficult to copy. Many people will pay money for a physical copy of a book, even if the electronic one is free. Several CC Licensed novels have proved that point.

However, the best way, if possible, is to find a business model that is tolerant of file sharing. Subscription models when combined with regular updates of high-quality niche content will not only produce a more steady income stream, but also blunt the effects of file sharing. Though it’s not a viable option for all artists, if it can work it is probably a better solution.

In some cases, even an advertising solution might be preferable and more profitable.

Conclusions

When you take the extra step of selling your content, no matter what format it is in, you open up a slew of potential copyright and content theft issues. Though plagiarism, scraping and spam blogs are bad enough for most, sellers of content have much more to worry about.

All of this highlights the need to look forward to a new content economy. High quality content, in all formats, is more important than ever and protecting it has never been a larger issue, but the traditional means of monetizing it are beginning to wane.

For those that continue to use the traditional business models, it is essential to protect your content to prevent unauthorized downloading and copying. It’s no small task when dealing with digital assets, but a few simple steps can greatly reduce the potential for for both copyright infringement and missed sales.

It might not be an ideal way to do business over the Web, but it is better than being robbed blind.

Special thanks to Tim Coulter for writing the article that got me thinking about this subject.

Tags: Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, File Sharing, Plagiarism, Spam, Splogging, Splogs

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