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Scammers Alive And Well In The Health Blogosphere

On January 28th I exposed the tactics of a certain unscrupulous company called Wellsphere. In a nutshell, they lured unsuspecting bloggers to join their network with a series of flattering emails from their Chief Medical Officer, Geoff Rutledge, M.D., Ph.D. The emails suggest that by being featured at Wellsphere, the bloggers would receive higher visibility and more traffic to their blogs. In reality, when the bloggers signed up to join, they unwittingly gave Wellsphere the right to take all of their blogs’ content, aggregate it on Wellsphere and then SELL it to Health Central (without compensating the bloggers a penny). The bloggers whom I spoke with did not notice any increase in their traffic – in fact, since their entire RSS feed was featured at Wellsphere, readers had no incentive to click back to their blogs.

Beyond the shady blog-scraping practices, Wellsphere encouraged bloggers to answer medical questions (regardless of their qualifications to do so) on their site. Health Central’s tagline, by the way, is “trusted, reliable, and up to date health information.” In return, they were offered a “Maven” badge which suggested that they had special authority to do so. One blogger pointed out how unsafe this was:

I’m supposed to be a “Health Maven” in the “General Medicine” group … and I got my qualifications from …. a Cracker Jacks box? Wellsphere made it appear as if I was someone knowledgeable in General Medicine, and no one was checking in to make sure I wasn’t killing someone with bad advice! Dude! In fact, most of the questions which were sent in weren’t being answered at all, or they were being answered by numbos like me. Answers from real medical professionals were meager. Imagine if the readers took Wellsphere seriously, and actually trusted our replies!!!

When I first posted the story, about 60 commenters relayed horror stories of how misled they were by Wellsphere, and how their content was not removed from the site in a timely manner when they asked to cease participation. Twitter lit up with more disgruntlement. I figured that Health Central would have issued an apology to the bloggers who felt betrayed, but instead Chris Schroeder, CEO
of Health Central, had this to say,

“Most bloggers are happy about Wellsphere.”

In an early announcement to the media about the acquisition of Wellsphere, Mr. Schroeder revealed that the blogger content would allow Health Central “to more effectively monetize their advertising” because bloggers tend to come back regularly to the site, thus increasing advertising page views.

The Plot Thickens

So after doing my part to make bloggers aware of what was happening – and let them decide if they’d like to remain members of Wellsphere – I decided to move on. However, yesterday a member of Better Health was sent a flattering email from Dr. Geoff Rutledge inviting her to join Wellsphere. This same blogger had received similar emails over a year ago, had joined Wellsphere, figured out that there was NO value proposition for her or her blog, and requested that her content be removed.  Now many months later she receives this email:

Hi XXX,

I’m writing to give you an update on Wellsphere’s HealthBlogger Network, and tell you about the new and greatly increased benefits of participation in the network. My name is Dr. Geoff Rutledge I’m a board certified physician who practiced and taught at Stanford and Harvard medical schools before joining Wellsphere. Wellsphere is the fastest-growing online health platform and is now one of the Top 5 consumer health websites, helping nearly 5 million people each month find health and healthy-living information and support.

Several months ago, I discovered your blog while searching for the best health bloggers online. After reviewing your writing, I thought your blog would be a great addition to the network, and sent you an invitation to join in the Nursing community.  Since then, the benefits of participation have grown dramatically as the network has grown to nearly 2,000 bloggers, we’ve introduced a variety of blogger widgets and status badges, and the number of visitors has skyrocketed to 5 million per month and we are still growing fast!

Once you agree to participate, we republish the articles you have already written for your blog (with links back to your blog), so there is no extra work for you to do. Your articles will appear in the Nursing community, and on all the search results and WellPages (topic pages) where your articles match a relevant topic or search query. 

I would like to emphasize that YOU will RETAIN FULL COPYRIGHT TO YOUR WRITING <image001.png> the only right you give us is to republish your content on Wellsphere for AS LONG AS YOU CHOOSE. These terms are spelled out clearly on the Health Blogger Network Participation Agreement at http://www.wellsphere.com/bloggerSignUp.s?email=er_kim@emergiblog.com

When you participate in the HealthBlogger Network, you’ll be eligible for a variety of badges that will recognize you for your achievements and leadership in your fields, including the Top Health Blogger and Health Maven badges (we’ll send you information about how to become a Health Maven, if you choose to do so). Here are some of the options for these badges that are available to you.

<image002.jpg> <image003.jpg> <image004.png>
You will also be able to choose among a set of custom tailored widgets that you can post free of charge on your blog and provide your readers a richer experience on your site:
· Health Knowledge Finder - comprehensive health search results for your blog. See http://www.wellsphere.com/healthKnowledgeFinder.s
· Wellevation - motivational and inspirational quotes. See http://www.wellsphere.com/wellWidgets.s
· WellTips - simple, bite-sized pearls of wisdom on topics ranging from weight loss to running to yoga, and more
See http://www.wellsphere.com/wellWidgets.s
· Wellternatives - healthy menu options at your favorite restaurant! Gives your readers the nutrition information for restaurant menu items, and a Wellternative – a healthier dish that is similar, but better for you. See http://www.wellsphere.com/wellWidgets.s

Here are some examples of what your blogging colleagues have said about their experience after joining the Health Blogger Network:
Since joining Wellsphere I’ve had numerous opportunities to accomplish my goals for Mommy Motivation, not to mention that I’ve increased my traffic by at least 40%. … Thanks, Wellsphere. - Cathy Tibbles

Joining the HealthBlogger Network was a great move. I look forward to getting the great comments and feedback each time I post and knowing that there’s a growing community there all interested in the same areas. The traffic to the site has increased, too! It’s well worth getting on board if you can. Jeff A.

“My involvement in HBN has been great in that I’ve seen more traffic to my own site.” – Brett Blumenthal

“There are many benefits to becoming a health blogger. Wellsphere offers great promotion and a friendly atmosphere. It allows you to show your talents and share your insight with others. It has been a pleasure being a part of the Wellsphere community. - Lisa Robertson

Here is what some of the members have told us about the benefits of the badges and widgets:
“The badges give my blog credibility. My traffic has steadily increased since I added the awards badges from the People’s HealthBlogger Awards. I’ve also started a new related business that I’m advertising on my blog.  The increased traffic may help me make a living while I help care for my mother.” – Jacqueline Jones

“Honestly, I have to say that the widgets I have (Top Health Blogger and Health Maven) help immensely in terms of credibility.  ….  I have allowed very few widgets on my blog – only the two Wellsphere ones, because it helps me, but even more important, it helps my readers find what I believe to be the BEST health site on the net.  Thanks for all that you do!” -  Lynette Sheppard

We invite you to join the HealthBlogger Network and experience these benefits for yourself. All you have to do is go to the Health Blogger Network Registration Page at http://www.wellsphere.com/bloggerSignUp.s?email=er_kim@emergiblog.com , confirm your email and blog URL, and select a password! We’ll do the work to connect your blog and begin republishing your articles for Wellsphere’s millions of visitors to read. Of course, you are also welcome to participate as a user on Wellsphere, interact with other HealthBloggers and Wellsphere members, and take advantage of the many features and functions of the site. 

If you have any questions about how this works, or would like to chat about it, please feel free to give me a call at (650) 345-2100, or send me email to Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

Cheers,
Geoff

Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD
Chief Medical Information Officer
http://www.wellsphere.com
Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

I am astonished that these emails are still being sent, and the bold faced lie at the beginning (“Several months ago I discovered your blog…”) is truly disturbing.

I personally feel that these emails are now bordering on harassment, and that something needs to be done to protect bloggers from continued contact with Wellsphere.

As a point of interest, I NEVER joined Wellsphere, yet here is a screen shot from their website, featuring blog posts about me, my headshot, and my YouTube videos of recent TV interviews where I was a guest.

wellspherescreenshot

What do you think should be done next?

How The Health Blogosphere Was Scammed

In a press release dated January 28, 2009, the HealthCentral Network announced the acquisition of a company called Wellsphere from its young CEO, Ron Gutman. Many of my fellow medical bloggers are familiar with Wellsphere as they’ve received countless email form letters from Wellsphere’s CMIO, Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge. The form letters are flattering, and suggest that the company would like to feature the blogger’s writing on their platform.

But what happens next is disturbing – to become a member of Wellsphere, bloggers provide access to their blog’s RSS feed. Hidden in the fine print is the blogger’s consent for Wellsphere to publish the entire feed (in other words, all of the blogger’s written work) and that once it’s published on their site, they own the intellectual property rights to it.

Astonishingly Wellsphere convinced some 1700 bloggers to join their network, and have now sold their site (which is comprised almost entirely of blog post content) to HealthCentral Network for an undisclosed amount, likely in the millions.

How much did the bloggers get for their writing? As far as I know, zero dollars.

In the reference section below you will see copies of emails sent by Dr. Rutledge and excerpts from the website’s Terms of Use document.

Is this the biggest scam ever pulled on health bloggers? You decide. If you have any additional information, feel free to post it in the comments section below.

Addendum: HealthCentral Network CEO tells Wall Street Journal “most bloggers are happy about Wellsphere.” If you disagree, send protest Tweet #wellsphere or leave comment below.

References:

Here is the introductory form email sent out by Dr. Rutledge:

Hi Dr. Jones,

I was on a search for the best medical blogs, when I found you at X.  I think your blog is great. I’d like to invite you to participate in the network of medical expert bloggers at Wellsphere, but perhaps I should explain a bit about myself and about Wellsphere as background.

My name is Dr. Geoff Rutledge, and, like you, I understand the power of the Internet to help people. I’m a physician (board certified in IM and EM) who previously practiced, taught, and carried out research at Stanford and Harvard medical schools, before I built and launched the first consumer ehealth service that became WebMD.com.

I now work with Wellsphere, which is a next-generation online platform that helps people achieve their health and healthy living goals – it is a major advance in the way people find and share information and services. Our platform connects millions of users with the valuable insights and knowledge from health leaders and medical experts like you — take a look at how the platform works at www.wellsphere.com. Stanford University was so impressed that they deployed our service for the entire campus (see stanford.wellsphere.com). We sell our service to employers and health plans – you won’t see today any ads or commercial services on our free public site.

I offer you the opportunity to be a featured medical expert blogger for a new  Wellsphere community. Members and visitors will see your postings highlighted, featured, and clearly marked as authored by a true medical expert.

When you join, we will feature you on our medical experts page (here is the preliminary design for this page: http://www.wellsphere.com/medical-experts.htm), and I will highlight your participation and your postings in my personal blog, which is featured prominently on the homepage of wellsphere.com (Dr.Geoff’s MedBlog, http://medblog.wellsphere.com/).

We will republish the postings you’ve already written for you (through your RSS feed), and feature them not only on the community pages of the site, but also within a new dynamic magazine-like Wellsphere360 section, where we give users a comprehensive view of medical expert information, plus news, videos, local resources, and member postings on topics you write about. You can see a sample of a Wellsphere360 special section at http://www.wellsphere.com/Wellsphere360/diabetes-type-2.htm

Also, I will select the best medical bloggers to feature on our homepage at www.wellsphere.com.

Your posts will link back to your blog, so you will benefit from Wellsphere’s high ranking and large readership interested in your topic, which will give you more traffic, additional relevant audience, and a higher ranking for your blog. Wellsphere has well over a million visitors per month, and is growing rapidly.

If you would like us to feature you, just send me an email to Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com.

Good health,

Geoff

Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD
Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

http://www.wellsphere.com


Here is a follow up email after I declined to join the network:

Hi Dr. Val,

We haven’t met, but I’ve been following your journey. We sent you an invitation to republish your blog from RevolutionHealth on Wellsphere, though I understood why that was somewhat problematic. I’m looking forward to seeing your new site at http://drvalblog.com/

Have you followed the advances that Wellsphere has made in creating a consumer-focused site that makes it easy to find both medical expert content and knowledge, and patient/community support?

If you would be interested in reaching the Wellsphere audience (now significantly exceeding that of RevolutionHealth, with over 2 million visitors per month), I would be pleased to extend the offer to republish your blog postings on Wellsphere.

We also could list you as a Notable Wellsite on topic pages of your interest (for which we ask only that you either list us on your blogroll, or take advantage of our free Health Knowledge Finder widget, or post an “I’m featured on Wellsphere” badge on your site.)

Cheers, Geoff

Here is a follow up email sent to a blogger who declined to join the network:

Hi XXX,
I just wanted to follow up on the invitation I sent you to be a featured blogger on Wellsphere.com. I was impressed with your blog at XXX, and invited you to be a featured blogger in the new General Medicine community.  We can also promote your blog in our new dynamic, magazine-like WellPages (with no extra work for you)! If you’re interested in being featured and promoting your blog to the larger Wellsphere audience, please drop me an email!
Good Health!
Geoff
-
Here is more information on how this works:

We republish your articles on our site, and include links back to your site. We also publish your profile with a link back to your site, and we feature you on special sections on topics that you write on, and in your topic-based community.

We will set up your profile if you don’t already have one, so you don’t have to do anything but give us permission to republish your content on our site. We don’t require a particular schedule for posting, though we have invited you to become a Wellsphere health blogger based in part on your history of posting on your blog.

Our growing network of bloggers (now over 1700) have told us they value what Wellsphere is trying to accomplish – helping people of all walks of life and across the spectrum of health to achieve healthier lives. They also appreciate the opportunity to reach the larger (and also rapidly growing!) Wellsphere audience, and to benefit from links in each posting that drive traffic back to their blogs.

We would be happy to include you in our network as we expand into health topics.
——
Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD
Chief Medical Information Officer
Wellsphere, Inc.

http://www.wellsphere.com

Here is an email from Wellsphere mistakenly sent to my webmaster (he’s not a blogger):

Hi john,

We are excited to recognize you in our new YES, WE CARE! Campaign that honors everyday heroes, like you, who put themselves on the front lines in the quest for a healthier, happier world by spending their time and putting their hearts and souls into helping others in need. We’re particularly excited to have this chance to honor you, for dedicating your time and writing to help people improve their health and well-being. We’ve nominated YOU as one of our Everyday Heroes!

As part of the YES, WE CARE! Campaign, we are creating a special video to highlight some of the amazing stories we’ve heard that demonstrate that caring for others is alive and well today all over the world. We would love to include YOUR story in the video! If you would like to send us a short video (cell phone or webcams are just fine!) about what moved you to start your blog, or to share a moving story of caring that you were involved in or heard about, we’d be happy to include it in the video. You can also interview someone you think is an Everyday Hero, or tell their story. Please keep the length of your video between 20 seconds and 2 minutes. The video can be very casual and definitely does NOT need to be professional or polished – just be yourself!

Please send us the video ASAP, and no later than Sunday, October 19th.

We can’t wait to see your videos and are looking forward to recognizing you and other Everyday Heroes you know for your extraordinary contribution to the world!

To submit your video, send us your video as an attachment via email to wecare@wellsphere.com. If you would like to send a video directly from your cell phone, just email me at Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com and I’ll send you the cell phone number you can send a video-text message to.

Good health!
Geoff

Geoffrey Rutledge MD, PhD
Chief Medical Information Officer
Wellsphere
Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

Here is an email from Wellsphere about their plans for a health blog conference:

Hi ,

This week, I’m excited to share the warm words we’ve heard about all of you and the early feedback we’ve heard about the Yes, We Care Campaign, and announce the world’s first Health Blogger Conference!  We can’t wait to meet you in person…

Yes We Care!
The Yes We Care Campaign launched last week, and we’re thrilled to be able to honor you and your colleagues on the Map of Caring. The response has once again been quite dramatic. Many of you have already posted your Everyday Hero badges and the heartwarming Yes We Care! Video on your blogs. Here are a few of the comments we’ve heard about the campaign:

“I am thrilled to participate in your “YES, WE  CARE !” Campaign and am most humbled in your nomination.  What an amazing idea! Our blog continues with the hope of “paying it forward” and helping others, just as you are doing with Wellsphere. .. Thanks for doing such an amazing job!”  – http://www.ranaesheart.com/

“Thank you so much for recognizing my site and the effort that went into creating it!!! It’s amazing people like yourselves that keep me going and make a contribution to the greater good of all !! thank you again my friends !!!” -http://liftheavy.wordpress.com/

“Here is the video from Wellsphere! It is very cool it’s a 10 minute video with people from all over trying to help heal the world! Awesome video guys!”  http://thelifeofthomascslater.blogspot.com/
“I want to take this opportunity to thank Wellsphere for calling me a “Everyday Hero” for the lives I have touched. I want to say thank you for giving me that opportunity to do so.”  http://ucanhope2.blogspot.com

Many of you commented that the Yes We Care video let you see and connect with other members of the Health Bloggers Network for the first time, and asked if we would consider organizing an event for everyone to meet and connect with each other.  WHAT A GREAT IDEA!

I am very pleased to announce the world’s first Health Blogger Conference (“ HBC -09”)! This conference will be the largest gathering of health writers in history!  The Conference will be by invitation only, and as a member of the Health Blogger Network, you will automatically be guaranteed an invitation. This will be a great place for you to meet fellow health bloggers, share best practices, discuss sources of ideas, learn how to promote your blog, and meet some of the most prominent figures in the world of health. There will be a series of organized information sessions and seminars, as well as fun events and ample opportunities for you to meet and mingle in a relaxed atmosphere.   We will announce the location soon – somewhere you will enjoy a healthy, rejuvenating, experience.

If you’d like to get involved in the Conference, here are some of the opportunities available to you:
– become an organizer                                         
– become a volunteer
– give a talk or seminar
– organize a panel presentation
– suggest a topic for a talk or a panel
– suggest a speaker to invite to give a presentation

Here Are Excerpts From Wellsphere’s Terms of Service Document:

Ownership
…All Website Materials, including any intellectual property rights in such Website Materials, are the property of Wellsphere, its affiliates, licensors, or the designated owners, and are protected by applicable intellectual property laws. You should assume that everything you see on this Website is copyrighted unless otherwise noted, and may not be used without our written permission except as provided in these Terms…

Content You Submit to or Post on the Website
…You agree that any and all comments, information, photos, videos, feedback and ideas that you communicate to Wellsphere or submit or post to the Website or give Wellsphere permission to post to the Website (“User Materials”) will be deemed, at the time of communication to Wellsphere or submission or posting to the Website, to be the property of Wellsphere, and Wellsphere shall be entitled to full rights of ownership, including without limitation, the unrestricted right to use or disclose such User Materials in any form, medium or technology now known or later developed, and for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without compensation to you. In the event that you have any rights in the User Materials that cannot be assigned or waived you hereby grant to Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to (i) use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials, and (ii) reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display the User Materials in any medium or format, whether now known or later developed.

When you post your own copyrightable content on the Website or give Wellsphere permission to post your copyrightable content on the Website, you retain ownership of any copyright you claim to your submitted content. However, by posting your content or giving Wellsphere permission to post your content you automatically grant Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to (i) use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials, and (ii) reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display the User Materials in any medium or format, whether now known or later developed…

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