Many people around the country will be familiar with emails about a locally-produced search engine named Web9.
These emails obfuscate the sender name to impersonate various well-known companies which may trick the receiver into opening the mail.
The emails are sent out on a daily basis and always include an advertising voucher for the Web9 search engine.
Links within the email go to the Web9 search engine page and the domain from which the email is sent – web9africa.net – appears to point to a spam filter test for the daily emails.
Many users have reported receiving this type of email on a daily basis – and after a little digging, we found the source.
The emails always have the same formula, although there are a few key words which change per mail.
Firstly, the subject of the email is usually an attention-grabbing line, examples of which include “Google shares your information with the American Army”, “Google is not your friend”, “It’s finally here!”, and “Nelson Mandela would be proud”.
Sometimes less-interesting subjects are used, such as “Happy Friday”, “Happy Saturday”, and “Happy Tuesday”.
While this is not unusual for direct marketing or spam SMSs, these messages also share a trait with more malicious phishing mails – as they change the sender name to impersonate major companies.
All the messages are sent from the “[email protected]” email address, but the sender name changes on a daily basis.
Web9 emails have been addressed to recipients from “SARS”, “Cell C”, “Google”, “Facebook”, “Oracle”, “FNB”, “ABSA”, “BCX”, and more.
Looking into Web9
MyBroadband contacted a local security expert about the emails and he said they do not appear to contain harmful code – and were a way to sell adverts.
The Web9 search engine sells itself as a South African alternative to Google, with the objective of the emails being to sell ads on the platform.
The approach does not seem to be ingratiating the general public however, with MyBroadband receiving numerous complaints about the emails and the platform’s Facebook page flooded with angry comments.
On the Web9 website, the company states that it offers affordable and simple advertising, and calls itself the “Google of Africa”.
Looking at the website’s registry details, the name of the registrant is Shingi Mushipe.
Mushipe is also listed as the CEO of Web9 on LinkedIn and Twitter.
The man behind Web9
While searching for Mushipe on Google does not turn up much, typing the Web9 CEO’s name into his own platform returns a confusing mix of biography, search engine logos, and attractive female models.
After finding contact information for Mushipe and sending through questions about Web9 and its emails, the CEO was happy to talk to MyBroadband about his operation.
Mushipe said that the Web9 search engine was founded on 24 November 2013 and that it is not the first company to use direct email marketing for advertising purposes.
Responding to queries about the emails being classified as spam, Mushipe said they were more affordable and efficient than conventional advertising.
“Yes these are marketing emails,” Mushipe said.
“In the past we have spent thousands of rands advertising on expensive American platforms like Google Ads, Facebook Ads, and Twitter Ads with limited results.”
“We have found that the most direct, affordable, efficient, measurable, and scalable marketing platform is email.”
We then asked the Web9 CEO why the name of the email sender was often disguised as a major company and not clearly stated as Web9.
“Some of our marketing emails do have Web9 as the sender. The random company names are used simply as a publicity stunt and to increase click and open rate on the emails,” Mushipe said.
“To date we have not received any complaints from any major companies except a small trademark issue with Google in 2015 which was resolved.”
Mushipe added that Web9 uses “automated systems” to collect email addresses from all over the Internet for its mailing list.
“Every email address is automatically assigned with an advertising voucher number and as soon as the voucher is used to activate an advert the emails will stop immediately,” he said.
He also added that people can ask for their email addresses to be removed through the Ask Web9 page.
A “small trademark issue”
The “small trademark issue” Mushipe referred took place after Web9 was founded in 2013. At the time, the platform was named “Goofrica” – a portmanteau of the words “Google” and “Africa”.
Mushipe began to advertise the platform using the terms “Google”, “Google Africa”, and “Goofrica”, but this did not last long, with Google accusing the company of trademark infringement in 2015.
Google demanded that Mushipe refrain from using the Goofrica domain and branding, and Mushipe subsequently renamed his search engine to Web9.
“I will no longer use the term ‘Google’ or ‘Google Africa’ in a misleading manner on our new website, marketing materials, social media or any other place,” Mushipe told Google.
Despite this, Web9 has labelled its mass “marketing emails” as being sent from “Google” and “Google Ads” over the past few months to encourage more recipients to click through.
In his communication with Google, Mushipe admitted to being “a bit naughty” in the choice of his name and apologised, adding that he was grateful the company’s motto was “Don’t be evil”.
Mushipe explained to MyBroadband that Web9 was a unique and locally-produced platform.
“Web9 is the first and only search engine to be built in Africa for the world. We like to think of it as the Google of Africa,” he said.
“What makes it different is that we have a unique algorithm which we use to rank website pages and more importantly we offer a low-cost advertising platform which has just over 6,000 registered advertisers.”
“We are not an evil organisation and we are not hiding,” Mushipe added.