If you search for the word "antivirus" on major search engines like Google, Yahoo, or MSN there is a possibility you will end up with "6StarReview.com" or "StarReviews.com" with a link name like "Top 10 Antivirus for 2008" as one of top sponsored ads. The Star Reviews is basically a Web-only review site that covers everything from blog services to online banking. Perhaps the site is a bit heavy on affiliate links, but nothing out of the ordinary. No pop-ups. No browser exploits. All in all, it looks legit.
However, while reading the rankings of "2008 Antivirus Review," I felt somewhat uncomfortable, to a similar degree as when I watched the episode of "Will It Blend: iPhone." The rankings show "The Shield Deluxe" as the best AV product. A product that I have never heard of before, beating all other major vendors like CA, BitDefender, Norton, Kaspersky, NOD32, Panda, McAfee, and TrendMicro. This was disturbing to me in two different ways at the same time:
1) Is this product really that good? I usually keep up with the latest security technologies and products. So, if I have missed this dark horse until it has reached the number one in the ranking, then I have not done my due diligence of keeping up the market research.
2) Is this review rigged? What's in it for the reviewer to place a no-name product on the top of the list? Is this product even a real product?
After a bit of digging, I could eliminate disturbing thought #1 and a part of disturbing thought #2, because it turns out that The Shield Deluxe is just a re-badged version of Kaspersky Antivirus 6.0. And, since the older version of KAV is beating the newer version of KAV 7.0 in this review, I can safely assume that this review is somewhat rigged. Now, the only thing left is to find out what the real deal is between the Star Reviews and The Shield Deluxe. At first glance, these two sites are unrelated. They do not share the Web page template. They do not share any owner names in the contact info. The Star Reviews is based in New York and The Shield Deluxe is based in Florida. The Star Reviews' hosting server IP is located in California and the Shield Deluxe's hosting server IP is located in Missouri.
But, I just couldn't let go of the suspicion. With some more research I finally found the crucial (incriminating) clue. The DNS records show the same name on the contact info for both products. I guess there wasn't enough time to clean up the DNS records.
So, after putting together all of the clues, I can reveal a brilliantly unethical master plan:
1) Create a product, or buy a license from an existing vendor.
2) Set up a fake independent review site with affiliate links, ranking the products in the order of what would bring the most money. Make the review site look as unrelated to the product site as possible. Put up a disclaimer, saying it is a subjective opinion only.
3) Buy the expensive top-slot sponsored ads from the search engine to draw the traffic to the review site. Since people know the top slot sponsored ads are expensive, they are going to trust the review site more. But, the bottom line for the review site is that if a high percentage of the incoming clicks from the sponsored ads go out via more expensive affiliate links, then there is a positive cash flow.
I'm pretty sure that the Star Reviews site isn't the only less-than-honest review site on the Internet and it may be true that Star Reviews and The Shield Deluxe have not broken any laws. Star Reviews has every right to publish a subjective opinion and rather than wag a finger at them, I would like to tip my hat to their moral flexibility and cleverness in abusing the system. But, where do you draw the line between exercising the freedom of speech and publishing a seemingly independent, yet highly "biased" review site to sell one's own product?