"Gah, Amazon has been fiddling to get to the top of Google," I thought. However, if you search on Google itself, Amazon isn't anywhere near the top:
So I searched for "Nikon lens reviews -amazon" in Inquisitor. The link stayed right where it was. This is where the smell of cash wafts in. Amazon has a programme called affiliates, which pays a credit to websites who send them traffic that turns into sales. It's pretty common now: if you pre-ordered Leopard from a particular link on Daring Fireball, John Gruber got a cut, and all Amazon links on Metafilter give Mathowie a cut. Could what Inquisitor is doing be related? Search for "Sony": Amazon is first hit, but only in Inquisitor – not on Google itself. Search for "Nintendo": Amazon is first hit, again only in Inquisitor. "Microsoft"? "Xbox"? Yup.
But are the Inquisitor links going to Amazon Affiliates? You can't tell from Safari, because if you follow one of them, the address bar will show a regular Amazon location. Inquisitor hides the URL it is going to in this case -- it just says "amazon.com" where it usually shows the link. There's nothing on the user side that lets you know what's happening. A sniffer app, however, can see everything that happens over your network connection. Here's what wireshark saw when I clicked on an Amazon hit from Inquisitor:
A connection from my Mac to an Amazon URL. But Safari shows:
The URL that Inquisitor pulled *is* an Amazon affiliates address. See the "tag=exoscience" on the end? That's the username of the affiliates account. Google "exoscience" … and yup, second entry: David Watanabe.
I've emailed David to ask him what's up, but he hasn't replied yet. To be honest, this feels a bit underhand. Sure, Inquisitor is free now, but it wasn't always (and I'm one of those who paid for it). And he's obviously looking into other ways of making money, like a now-removed promotion for free Acquisition (it was here but has vanished since this morning!) if you sign up to scuzzy free offers. All that's fine, because you get a choice. Same with the links on Daring Fireball, or Metafilter.
But with this one, there's no warning anywhere that anything like this will be done: no user agreement, no licence, no terms of service. Inquisitor hides the affiliates URLs it is going to (and it does go to associates URLs on every Amazon hit, not just its inserted ones), so in no sense is this opt-in.
The most worrying bit, I suppose, is that because the majority of my Google searching goes through Inquisitor, I have to trust DW not to do anything scurrilous with it. It's hard enough trusting Google, but David's already got form on the skeezy side of the fence and that makes everything Inquisitor does suspicious.
Amazon, I'm generally OK with -- if we had a choice! -- but what other link referral programmes are running in there that we don't know about? (See below for an update: it's also doing the Apple store). When I was making these screenshots, I noticed that Inquisitor is also calling out to 184.108.40.206 (a Dreamhost address) for the URL /safari/vc_version.php. I assume it's just a version check (as mentioned in Preferences) ... but is it?
Like I said: hmm
Update:I cliped to TUAW about this too, where a commenter points out that Inquisitor also hijacks P2P-relates searches with links to Acquisition, and as Joe Eversole discovers, it does with the Apple Store too, through some lot calling themselves Commission Junction. See Joe's blog for the full list of terms being hijacked. Saddam Hussein? Cor.
Update 2: David has posted about this on his blog, claiming that the sponsored ads were "public knowledge". Which, going by absence of evidence and the universally surprised reaction, they weren't. Doing sneaky things in public is not the same as making them public knowledge. I searched everywhere to see if this had been documented. It hadn't.
I'm not sure he's getting the reason people are upset, either, as he goes on to defend the running of ads. Would anyone have had a problem with the ads if they'd said "ad" on them? I doubt it. Would they have minded if they'd been told about his new "idealistic" revenue model? No. But it was snuck in quietly, which is a problem. To then be hurt at a negative and cynical reaction is ... well, a bit naive frankly.
It's a pity for him. He does make best-in-class apps: there's nothing else like Inquisitor, and his p2p and rss clients look gorgeous and work beautifully, which is a big feat and not to be dismissed because "they're just wrappers for open-source engines". Still, wherever you go he has a hideous reputation, mostly owing to his (sometimes understandably) terse customer support. But if you're going to act the hardman, you can't then go "aw shucks, don't be mean, I work so hard for you guys" when you're caught out in a deceit and get an inbox full of vitriol.
Update 3: ... but now it's fixed! Coo ur. The latest version of Inquisitor now not only highlights affiliate links, it allows you to turn them off entirely. Michty. Classy response.
Update 4 ... well, not quite entirely -- links to other Watanabe apps remain at the top of some searches. Ho hum.