OK, this gets extremely confusing because the "facts" have changed as the story has evolved over the past 24 hours, but here goes... It all began when the Matt Cutts, the guy in charge of anti-spam efforts at search giant Google, found what appeared to be a major spam operation on Facebook perpetrated by a company called Make-my-baby.com. ReadWriteWeb has a good (and updated) article about this. Cutts decided to check out the site (I think) because an AdAge article listed it as the third-largest advertiser on Facebook, behind only AT&T and Match.com. What he found over at Make-my-baby.com was a familiar toolbar scam. Take it away, Matt: Visiting make-my-baby.com instantly prompts you to install a browser plugin. The "terms and conditions" link takes you to http://mmb.bingstart.com/terms/ which has phrases like "If Chrome ("CR") is installed on your PC we may change the default setting of your home page on CR to Bingstart.com." In other words, if you're not really paying attention, you're granting permission for the toolbar to change your default home page to Microsoft's Bing search engine. Many people who didn't pay attention no doubt were puzzled, or even infuriated, to find that their home page had been switched to Bing. Why would they do this? Money. Make-my-baby.com is an affiliate marketer of Bing, meaning it gets a percentage of revenue generated by users of Microsoft's search engine who click on ads. That's a lot easier to do if online searchers are using Bing instead of Google or Yahoo. But here's where it gets confusing. According to Facebook and comScore, Make-my-baby.com is not Facebook's third-largest advertiser. In fact, Facebook says the site isn't an advertiser at all. Meanwhile, Microsoft tells Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan that it has cut ties with Zugo, a web publisher and creator of the toolbar that was using Make-my-baby.com as a Trojan horse to sneak onto people's computers: Distribution deals and affiliate programs are an important part of how all search engines introduce their product to customers. That said, we have been made aware of some practices from a specific publisher that are not compliant with the guidelines, best practices and principles put in place by Bing. As a result, the relationship with this publisher will be terminated. This might be a good place to remind readers that Microsoft has a big investment in Facebook, not to mention in its Bing search engine, which is desperately trying to eat away at Google's leading market share. So is it possible that Facebook and Microsoft had no idea -- no idea! -- what Make-my-baby.com and Zugo were up to? Google's Cutts gives the companies a pass. Kirkpatrick quotes him as saying, "It's entirely possible, even likely, that Facebook and Microsoft didn't realize this was going on. I wouldn't assume they were aware of what was going on." Maybe Cutts wouldn't -- at least publicly -- but does anyone really believe that Microsoft and Facebook have earned our unquestioning trust? If so, they haven't been paying attention.
Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.