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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Holding the Line Against Screen Spam

Years ago, when someone pointed out that I spent more time writing about trains than I did running them, I said, "I guess my hobby is writing about my hobby." That hasn't changed, but it has expanded. Because of continuous reader interest in various subjects, I've split off several subject areas into new sites that have, as a rule, kept growing on their own. At last count I have something like 15 domain names linking to active web pages with real content. But the net effect is that now my hobby is writing about hobbies (plural).

That said, ISP contracts, domain name registration, hosting fees, and simple "office expenses" cost money. Real money, as our sites have expanded in number and size. Fortunately, as these sites have developed over the years, I have usually been able to cover those costs by adding a few advertisements on each page.

A Silent Commitment

Back in 2004, when I started putting ads for Garden Railways magazine on my garden train pages, I promised myself that I would avoid advertising any products that weren't at least somewhat related to the content on that page. I haven't been 100% percent successful, because the advertisers themselves sometimes replace a train ad with an ad for baby dolls or something. But, those glitches aside, when you come to one of my sites, you don't have to worry about seeing dancing aliens advertising low mortgage rates, misleading ads for "free" credit checks, "dropdown" banners that you can't make disappear until you've clicked on them and been forced to view another page, warnings that your computer will explode unless you click this box, Netflix ads popping up when you close the page, or any of the thousand or more unrelated, distracting, and often objectionable banners that clutter the screens even on otherwise "respectable" sites like and

I also try to choose only advertisers whose products I respect and who have a good reputation for customer service. Unfortunately, that has caused my list of advertisers to get shorter, not longer, the last few years. Hopefully, our readers respect my decision not to load every page with unrelated, obnoxious, and/or misleading advertising. Could I make more money if I had dancing aliens or Netflix popups on every page? Maybe. Maybe a lot more. But I would also have sites that I wouldn't personally want to visit very often.

Growing Pains

As the size and number of sites we support grows, so do the expenses. Fortunately, our modest ad revenue has helped us stay around the break-even point since 2006. But our sites' steady climb toward the first page of most Google-related searches has led to another issue - would-be advertisers have finally noticed us and begun deluging me with offers to make me rich if I advertise their products - especially if I use deceptive means to do so.

Ad Placement Requests

Requests to pay for ad placement are honest, at least. Or at least I keep them honest. It goes this way. An "advertising executive" contacts me and offers to pay me X dollars a month for putting an ad on some popular page. "Fine," I say, "What's the ad for?" "Oh, trust me," they say, "It will be related to the content on that page." And it would be, if I had content about Leap-Frog type educational toys, fancy kitchen appliances, discount travel, PC registry fixer software, credit refinancing, day trading . . . you name it. From the innocuous to the obnoxious, I reject multiple requests to place ads for unrelated products on our sites every week. I even like some of the products, but I like having readers even more. And how many readers would keep coming back if I started cluttering every page with unrelated ads?

"Cross-Linking Scams"

Folks trying to get new web pages off the ground often contact me and offer to link to my page if I'll link to theirs. Back in the earliest days of Google, this would trick Google into thinking that the sites must be good because other sites are linking to them. But, of course Google figured out the cross-linked site thing very early, and they actually reduce the ratings of sites that do it. By now Google probably has algorithms to detect three-way and four-way linking as well.

But let's pretend these requests aren't futile and self-defeating on the surface. Back when I occasionally had time to humor the requestor, I would respond, "If you would like, I'll take a look and see if your site has content related to any of my pages." After all, I link to a couple hundred sites now, all because they contain worthwhile content that directly supplements the content on my site. "Sure," the requestor always answers, "Our site directly relates to the content on your site." And inevitably, the site they want me to advertise is about something totally unrelated. From the innocuous (computer game discounts) to the predatory (credit refinancing) to the objectionable (tasteless gag gifts). And of course, the value to me of being buried on a "links page" with a hundred other links to anyone who's fallen for their offer, is literally less than zero.

Note: If you have a page or site that directly relates to the content on one of our pages, and would truly benefit our readers, please let me know - I LIKE supporting other resources that support the same hobbies with quality, original content. In fact, I've deliberately linked to some under-rated sites that I thought had important content just to help their organic ratings. But if you are just starting a page to promote your home cleaning product business or something, please don't bother asking me to post a link to it.

Hidden Link Boobytraps

Here's the newest, and to me, most objectionable internet linking scam - requests to bury a link to some unrelated product right into my own text as though the link would take you somewhere else on my site. I've fallen for this on other sites. Say, I'm on an otherwise informative site about basement remodeling and I see that the phrase "floor tile" is a hyperlink. Well, the article I'm reading is informative, so I wonder what this guy has to say about floor tiles. I click on the link, and suddenly I'm on a noxious popup-filled advertising page for some fly-by-night product for cleaning floor tiles or whatever. More often than not, the page has "jammed" the back button so I can't even get back to the previous page, and I have to shut my browser down and start all over again.

I don't know if this deliberately misleading practice is more common in the UK than here. But for some reason, I get more offers of this kind from UK sites than from sites in North America. The ironic part is that, as often as not, they are from the kind of business that doesn't cross the Atlantic very well. So a North American reader who clicks on one of these boobytraps is taken to a site that they couldn't shop from even if they wanted to.

The first time I was contacted about one of these "boobytraps" was right after our article about dangerous Christmas decorations jumped to the first page on several searches. An advertising agent from the UK contacted me about burying a link to his client's site in of my article's sentences. He offered me a thousand dollars a month to put it and keep it there. Okay, I was tempted. I went out to the site in question and realized that:

  • The content of the landing page had nothing to do with Christmas, Christmas decorations, obvlious childhoods, or any of the other content of the page.
  • The site advertised a company that only does business in Great Britain - meaning that over 99 out of 100 readers that clicked on the boobytrap wouldn't be able to buy anything from the guy's client anyway.

I explained my concerns to the fellow, including the concern that such a boobytrap would inevitably disappoint our readers who are used to our links taking them to worthwhile, related content. I'm not complaining about the fellow. He meant well, I suppose, and his terms were generous. But when I pointed out that he was paying for advertising that would miss its mark over 99% of the time, he realized he'd be better off putting his boobytrap on a UK site.

Since then I've had dozens of similar requests, of which all but one were for products that were unrelated to the content on the page they wanted to boobytrap. The one that was somewhat related was for a site that sold artificial Christmas trees. I told them that I would consider posting an ad from one of my pages about Christmas trees. They refused to consider that. Rather, they insisted that I bury a boobytrap link to their site under the word "tree" on the home page of Family Christmas Online.

Okay, they HAVE removed the unrelated-content objection. How much would they pay me to sell just part of my soul by placing their boobytrap on a page that gets thousands of hits a day during the Christmas season? Boobytrap offers from the UK usually hover in the $600 - $1200 a month range. The Christmas tree shop was willing to pay me $35 a month. Never mind.


I haven't even bothered to go into all the ways people try to scam me personally. I just thought it was worth explaining A: why we have limited advertising, and B: why the ads we post are unobtrusive, and, when possible, related to the content on the page.

When I have time to keep our existing advertising links up to date, and when the economy is not in the toilet, I actually come out ahead, though not by much, usually. Maybe if I have energy to keep all of these sites up after I retire, I'll figure out a way to make a suplemental income. But in the meantime, I'd rather focus on promoting healthy pastimes and holiday celebrations, and leave the boobytraps and dancing aliens to the people who really are just in it for the money.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,

Paul Race

P.S. Enjoy your trains. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

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