Putchka Design

The Superfish Fiasco – Why You Should Focus on Real Advertising

Online Advertising Based on Questionable Tactics is Bad

By Ilan Adler

Ever since the dawn of the mainstream Internet, there have been plenty of companies trying to exploit it for short term profit. The latest news hitting the web, is the Superfish Fiasco, where Lenovo sold PC’s with pre-installed Superfish adware. This adware can be exploited to allow 3rd parties to create false SSL certificates which then masquerade as the real thing. This man in the middle attack can be used to steal pretty much any information broadcast between you and the Internet.

man in the middle attack

Image courtesy of Web Programming Step by Step, 2nd Edition

The idea behind Superfish browser extension or toolbar, is a visual search tool. Ideally this would actually be a helpful tool allowing you to reverse image things that you are looking to shop for, and shop for them. For example if I wanted to find a cabinet that I saw at a friends house, I could upload the image and then reverse image search it for a place that sells it. This would be an ideal use of the product, and it would work much like Google Image Search.

But that would an ideal scenario, and Superfish did not choose to take that path. Instead Superfish decided to use their product to inject ads all over the internet, use spammy tactics, and make their software extremely hard to remove. I can’t stress enough how annoying I find ad injection systems, they just make for a horrible user experience. The gist of the Superfish sales pitch to advertisers, is that people browsing a site like Amazon, the extension than searched its database for visually similar products, and shows them to users (who are supposed to benefit from the price comparison aspect).

Example of Superfish Price Comparison Tool

Example of Superfish Price Comparison Tool

But the thing that pissed people off the most about this, was the fact that many of the users didn’t even actively install this software. It would come either pre-installed like the Lenovo case, or be surreptitiously added on semi-secretly with install packages for browser toolbars, search partners that take over your homepage, and other similar money grabbing products. Long before this specific controversy hit the web, popular google searches were, “remove superfish“, “superfish virus“, “remove superfish chrome“.

All this always brings me back to the same point, when you offer an advertising tool do it right. Don’t count people who didn’t signup or install as users, since as an advertiser I don’t want to reach and intrude on those people. Google and Facebook, while being often times in the center of scandals, and not always being fortright about their goal to milk each user for as much money as possible, are still legitimate advertising platforms, and that’s why they work. Bing should be a legitimate advertising platform, unless it keeps trying to serve advertisers users with fake search intent.

Without getting into a big philosophical argument about online advertising, and whether it’s ok to target based on private data, or companies that sell that data to advertisers, there is still quite a fine line between these tactics, and the money grabbing tactics of Superfish and the like.



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