Why Reddit is cracking down on your favorite sites

Community news sharing site Reddit is now restricting its users from submitting links from a handful of high-profile web publications, including BusinessWeek, The Atlantic, Phys.org, GlobalPost, and ScienceDaily.

The ban has also caught at least one high-profile Redditor as well.

Reddit claims these sites, among others, are guilty of artificially promoting their content to make it appear more popular. In other words, they were cheating.

“Banning is not something we take lightly. It’s really a last resort,” Reddit General Manager Erik Martin told VentureBeat.

The question is whether the news sites themselves were cheating, or whether they were taken down because of their association with overzealous individuals who happened to submit and vote on links from those sites. In other words: Be careful who likes you; if they go overboard, you could be guilty by association.

Reddit is an ultra-popular content aggregation site that generates over 2 billion monthly page views and attracts more than 35,000,000 monthly unique visitors. People can quickly and easily submit a link to thousands of “subreddits” (sub-categories with a central theme, idea, or topic), which the community then votes on for quality and general interest. The more people vote for your submissions, the more “karma” points you accumulate, giving you more clout for future submissions and votes.

In theory, this system surfaces only the best content to Reddit’s highly-trafficked home page, thus bringing lots of inbound traffic to the website where the submitted content is hosted. Sometimes this “Reddit effect” can translate to hundreds of thousands of page views. For news websites, that means higher advertising revenue. As a result, there’s a powerful incentive for publications to try and get their stories onto the home page of Reddit. Many sites (VentureBeat included) employ social media marketing professionals or on-staff employees to help promote their best stories on Reddit, as well as other news-aggregation sites like Digg and Stumbleupon. However, with the current ban, Reddit is making a powerful statement that it believes these sites have taken unacceptably aggressive self-promotional tactics.

Collateral damage?

The ban appears to have been extended to include at least one user as well as specific website URLs.

VentureBeat recently spoke with a Reddit power user, who is among the most popular submitters in the site’s history and who is also a paying member of Reddit’s premium subscription service, Reddit Gold.

About two weeks ago, this user, who asked to remain anonymous, was banned by Reddit management without warning. This is an interesting development because the user’s most frequently submitted domains were from The Atlantic, Phys.org, and ScienceDaily — all of which are now currently blacklisted by Reddit.

“I contacted the company to find out why all of my accounts had been banned, but they couldn’t give me a straight answer,” the Reddit user told us. “I finally spoke with Reddit’s General Manager who said ‘I think we both know why you were banned’. But really, I had no idea.”

The user also pointed out that he/she wasn’t intentionally trying to game up submissions, and as such, didn’t feel the need to avoid the perception that he/she was cheating the system. Those who are maliciously gaming up their submissions are probably harder to spot, which is undoubtedly why Reddit is going after the domain rather than a relatively untraceable individual.

Reddit’s new ban hammer

The existence of a Reddit domain blacklist isn’t new, but as of Monday it is more visible, Martin said.

“Reddit has always had domain bans from the very beginning,” he explained. “What we did recently is change how those (bans) work.”

Previously, people could submit a link even if the URL was blacklisted. That submission could be seen by the user who submitted it, but wouldn’t appear anywhere else on the site. Reddit’s old system was built to catch blatantly spammy submissions from domains like “CheapCaribbeanVacationTravel.com,” but there is a grey area beyond that, Martin said.

Now, when users try to submit a link from a blacklisted domain they are met with a message informing them that the domain has been banned, and are unable to complete the submission.

“The recent change to how we treat spam/cheating submissions is to let people know that we have taken action against a certain domain,” he said — meaning Reddit is making an example out of The Atlantic, Phys.org, and other cheaters. “We want to show that this behavior isn’t OK instead of keeping the banned domains secret.”

Domains that appear on the blacklist have been added on a case-by-case basis, and some of them were given plenty of notice to stop cheating well in advance, according to Martin. For instance, The Daily Dot reports that The Atlantic Magazine’s social media editor Jared Keller was intentionally cheating to get his publication’s content more votes on the site.

We reached out to The Atlantic regarding the recent developments, and a company spokesperson replied with the following statement:

“Reddit contacted us earlier this year with concerns that a member of our staff was submittingAtlantic stories in violation of Reddit’s guidelines for content promotion. We took steps to address the issue. Reddit informed us Tuesday that what they consider to be irregularities have recurred, and, as a result, the site is temporarily banning submissions with The Atlantic’s domain. We take this issue seriously and are looking into it further.

We at The Atlantic remain big fans of Reddit and the kind of Internet it represents.”

Prior to the current ban, Reddit had also dropped the ban hammer on Village Voice Media for gaming the site.

As for a public list of blacklisted domains, you won’t get it from Reddit itself. The company hopes that over time, it’ll be able to remove domains from the ban list if once domain owner/web publication changes its practices (a.k.a. stops trying to cheat). Reddit users are also keeping track of banned domains on their own via a new subreddit.

Skepticism over Reddit’s domain blacklist

While news of the banned domains is still being hotly debated by Reddit users, there are plenty of people who aren’t crazy about it.

“I’ve been a redditor from nearly the very beginning, and I have to agree that this move is not something I like,” wrote Reddit user farra in a recent comment thread. “If reddit is being gamed, change the game, don’t start broadly censoring domains unless they are truly malicious (ie- viruses, etc.).”

“Changing the game” as farra said, is much safer than assuming you know how and why a particular organization or user is supposedly cheating when it comes to making their submissions more popular. That said, Reddit’s current plan of attack is flawed because it’s difficult to determine if a particular domain is just extremely popular with Reddit users (or a particularly active group of Reddit submitters), or if it’s legitimately being gamed. Reddit user accounts have very little distinguishable personal information, such as affiliation with employers, publications, etc. They’re also extremely easy to sign up for, and don’t even require an e-mail address to start participating.

In terms of how the banned publications were cheating the system, Martin declined to comment because it could allow others to figure out new ways to cheat without getting caught. However, he did state that Reddit’s former parent company Conde Nast had zero involvement in the decision, nor did any other organization outside of Reddit’s management team.

Still, the situation does underline an important point: if Reddit thinks a particular domain is cheating, it’ll get banned.

Artwork via War/nComment


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