Topify: When Going Mobile Goes Wrong

Topify LogoFor webmasters of all stripes, mobile access is becoming more and more important in terms of attracting visitors and connecting with an audience. This is doubly true for forum administrators, who not only are working to make their sites easy to read on mobile devices, but also easier to post and reply to.

But while there are many tools that make it easy for forums to go mobile, including plugins, responsive designs and other tools, many forums are not easy to use on portable devices at this time. To help those who aren’t there yet, many companies and services have stepped up including Tapatalk and vBulletin Mobile Suite, both of which offer easy ways to create a mobile app for your forum.

However, one company that has entered this space has caused a great deal of controversy among forum administrators. Topify aims to create a combination mobile reader and directory for forums but, according to many webmasters, has gone too far in incorporating content from other sites without permission.

So what did Topify do and why are so many forum administrators angry with it? I decided to take a look and find out.

The Basics of Topify

Topify ImageTopify is an app for both iOS and Android that is designed to make it easy for users to read, post and generally interact with forums online. Currently, it only works with forums that are based on the vBulletin platform though Topify says that it is working to expand to other forum types shortly.

When users load up the app, they are presented with a directory of forums that they can browse. However, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the sites are not available in the service. Though users can browse the names of the communities and even their forums, any attempt to look at the individual posts in a particular forum brings up a warning that the site has not been “Topified” and encourages the user to contact the site admin.

Topify Image 2On “Topified” sites, the user is given full access to the forum, they can easily browse the forums categories, subforums and, if they’re logged in, post new topics and reply to existing ones.

In short, Topify serves as a mobile client for forum sites in its directory. However, unlike notable competitor Tapatalk, which requires forum admins opt in and install a plugin to index a site, most of the sites that are in Topify’s directory did not ask to be there and took no steps to opt in.

This has led to a tremendous controversy among forum administrators, in particular ones using vBulletin, and even resulted in the creation of a StopTopify site, directly opposed to the app.

However, what caused the outrage is a bit more complex and requires a deeper look.

Where Topify Went Wrong

The controversy over Topify began to ignite in late may when users at a The Admin Zone forum, a forum for forum administrators, noticed that Topify, which was new to them at the time, appeared to be scraping content from hundreds, if not thousands, of forums and putting them in the app. The thread there has over 330 replies as of this writing and is still active now, almost two months later.

Though the scraping eventually stopped, it returned at least briefly earlier this month, which prompted another outcry and for a member of Topify’s team to respond saying that it was a mistake and has been undone. Currently, no forums that have not opted in to Topify have their full content in the app or on Topify’s domain. Though some remain in the Google Cache, their numbers are dwindling.

But even as the full-site scraping of non-Topified forums seems to have stopped, many forum owners are still upset that their sites are included in the app at all, including their community names, categories and forum listings. They feel it’s deceptive to include their site in a directory they haven’t opted in to be a part of, especially without including a link to the forum’s home page.

To make matters worse for Topify, there’s a great deal of confusion as to exactly where this directory comes from. The company shares connections with VigLink, an online advertising service that has a partnership with vBulletin and also runs ForumCon, where that partnership was announced.

However, no one has confirmed or denied that VigLink data is used to map out who is included in the directory. (Though allegations that information from vBSEO, a popular SEO plugin for vBulletin, is being used has been denied.)

I reached out to Topify to answer this question. Ray Lyle, the co-founder and CEO of Topify, responded quickly saying he would be in touch today, I’ve yet to hear back and will update this post with his reply.

In the meantime though, I’m left trying to decide how I feel about Topify and make sense of the seemingly never-ending discussion around the service.

Thoughts on Topify

One of the things that makes Topify so complicated to talk about is all of the rumored and suspected connections. However, in the end, I had to push all of that aside. As an outsider to the community, it would take too long and be too confusing to thoroughly research all of the details.

Instead, I decided to focus on the app itself and not the people behind it. From that perspective, Topify is in a very difficult position.

To start out scraping content from forums without permission is a bad way to begin, even if it was just a temporary step. Forum owners are understandably protective of their mobile presence and, though some may choose to partner with an app like Taptalk (or even Topify) to have their content taken, placed in a mobile format and monetized by Topify without permission is not going to win any friends.

Even if it was a mistake and even though it was quickly fixed, being introduced to forum admins as a scraper does not make them likely to work with you.

And encouraging forum administrators to work with Topify is going to be difficult and Topify’s current approach, encouraging Topify users to contact forum administrators, doesn’t seem to be helping matters much.

I reached out to my long-time friend and Copyright 2.0 Show co-host Patrick O’Keefe for his thoughts on Topify. As the author of two books on running a community and the owner/administrator of a network of forums, none of which appear on Topify at this time, I wanted his insights.

Though he said that he wasn’t particularly bothered by the possibility of having his forum listed in Topify, so long as there was no implication of endorsement and it wasn’t fully scraped, he said, “I do think it is possibly a little misleading and, really, it hurts them (Topify) because how many times are people going to click on a forum name and see that it isn’t actually in your app, before they just give up? It’s like launching your website and 80% of the pages are ‘coming soon.’ It’s far better to simply do outreach and contact forums 1 by 1 to ask them to opt-in to your service.”

And it’s the opt-out rather than opt-in nature of Topify that has so many upset. No one quite knows how Topify choose its sites and, though you can contact them to remove your forum if you wish, there are currently countless sites listed in Topify that didn’t ask to be present and clearly have mixed feelings about their inclusion.

Though many, including Patrick, question the logic of using services like Tapatalk to make your site easier to access on mobile devices. Most of those companies have been able to avoid any controversies such as Topify’s making them more appealing to work with.

“I believe that apps like Topify (or Tapatalk and Forum Runner, who are more established and haven’t had the same ethical concerns, as far as I know) can help forums grow by potentially bringing new people into the fold. That said, I am hesitant to encourage people to promote their usage of them, because you are creating a middle man that can get between you and your members. If you create your own app or simply offer a richer mobile experience through a mobile theme or responsive design, you don’t place control in someone else’s hands.”

In the end, though, I don’t think Topify, in its current incarnation, is doing anything illegal. While the full site scraping certainly raised serious legal issues, that has since stopped. Though scraping is a legal minefield, it’s going to be difficult to claim that Topify is infringing copyright or even violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in its current form.

In short, even if Topify is doing something illegal any case against it would be an uphill and likely lengthy battle.

Still, I can’t escape the feeling that what Topify is doing is at least ethically dubious and misguided. Including sites that don’t wish to be included doesn’t provide any meaningful benefit to users of the App, it just artificially inflates the number of forums “available” and tries to make the user a representative for Topify and advertise on the service’s behalf.

I think both Topify and the sites that have signed up with it would be better served if it simply dropped any and all sites that haven’t opted in, leaving just those who have.

Keeping it as it is now is only going to anger administrators, confuse users and hurt relationships with both in the long run.

In short, I agree with Patrick, it would be much better for them to make it opt-in and approach forum administrators 1-on-1 about joining.

Bottom Line

In the end, Topify’s behavior, legal, ethical or not, has boxed it into a corner. Topify has made a large number of enemies among forum admins and Topify’s business depends on forging good cooperative relationships with exactly that audience.

Considering Topify is already facing down better-established and larger competitors, these relationships are going to be critical for their survival but may, by this point be damaged beyond repair.

Topify illustrates perfectly the importance of asking not just “What is legal?” and “What isn’t wrong?” and actually asking “What is the right thing to do?”

If Topify had approached forum administrators with open arms and not simply surprised them by scraping their posts, it would be different for them today. There’s a right and a wrong way to approach webmasters about using their content and Topify’s was clearly wrong.

More important than the legal and ethical question is the practical one: How do you build a service when the people you need as partners are actively working against you?

The answer is that you can’t and Topify, if it wants to thrive, needs to start mending those bridges now. Every day it doesn’t is another day it’s competitors get farther ahead and the divide between them and forum administrators gets deeper.

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