Timestamping is a concept that finds its origin in the blockchain technique, invented in 1991. With the technique you can timestamp content in webshops or other websites. It allows you to easily verify the originality of that same content. Next to that timestamping works wonders for your SEO. How does this work exactly? Read all about it in this interview with Sebastiaan van der Lans, creator of the concept and speaker at Friends of Search 2022.
Sebastiaan, welcome! For the readers who are not yet familiar with timestamping, can you explain what it is exactly?
The internet has made our lives much easier, but at the same time it has a huge flaw; trustworthiness. Due to the lack of trust as a prerequisite in the DNA of the internet, fraud, manipulation & theft are are part of the daily practice. Because of these human mischiefs, search engines, social media and the internet as a whole are no longer a trustworthy and safe place. A better, reliable internet is what we need. What we deserve.
The cause is logical: trust was never part of the Internet architecture. Never has been, either because it wasn’t needed. After all, the Internet was built to connect computers to computers. And computers are not concerned with dreams, power and self-enrichment because they have no ego. This is in contrast to humans.
Simply put, when information affects my life, I need transparency, and a sender who takes responsibility. With transparency and accountability as prerequisites, trust becomes part of the DNA of the Internet:
- What I read is real; I can verify who the sender is;
- What I make is mine, and I can easily prove it;
- If I have a disagreement, I’m protected.
With timestamping we bring radical transparency to all 5 billion internet users, and those who are transparent are rewarded for it by search engines and social media with higher ranks! This is how we achieve a Trusted Web!
For example with WordProof, you can timestamp and feed the content on your website or webshop for your visitors and search engines within seconds, for example through our WordPress, Drupal or Shopify integration, or through our API, as the NRC Media does.
You are talking about timestamping. What do you understand by timestamping?
A timestamp is a series of numbers and digits that together make up a code. This code tells something about when an event occurred. This can be on a daily basis, but a timestamp can also provide information down to the second.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. How did you come up with the idea of timestamping? What was your inspiration or what were you missing on the web?
Blockchain, known as the technique behind bitcoin among others, is open source technology. Back in 1991, this technique was invented to prove that you haven’t messed with publication dates of information and documents.
Over the past 10 years trust in the Internet has declined sharply. For consumers, it is difficult to decide which sites and shops you can trust. This is not the Internet where I confidently let my (future) children wander.
By timestamping all information that matters, and then offering these timestamps to visitors and search engines, the recipient can independently check whether publication dates have been tampered with and who the sender of the information is.
If all 5 billion Internet users can check when information was published, how it changed, and from whom the information originated, that’s a big step in the right direction for a trustworthy Internet.
What were the challenges you encountered in working from concept to realisation?
Blockchain technology is new, and a lot of people still have cold feet. Nice to know: blockchain was invented in 1991 to prove that you haven’t messed with information. So we are bringing to the world exactly what blockchain was invented for!
One goal of timestamping is to combat plagiarism and support claims against it with facts. As an example you often use the claims of designers Blom & Blom. Can you explain how WordProof has helped them in their fight against plagiarism?
Blom & Blom is a small design studio that makes beautiful design products, such as lamps and furniture. They create and write beautiful text and photos with each product. Regularly cheap replicas were offered on Ebay based on the Blom & Blom content, using their texts and photos. When Blom & Blom sounded the alarm at Ebay they got no response. A small player against a tech giant like Ebay stood little chance.
Hiring a lawyer is expensive and it would take a lot (tiring work and also time consuming) on the part of Blom & Blom to challenge this. Blom & Blom would much rather put that money and time into product development. By timestamping the products on the Blom & Blom site, they were then able to automatically generate a PDF letter with proof that the stolen content was theirs when a new infringement occurred. With these letters, they were suddenly able to have the stolen content removed from Ebay within hours.
For less than the cost of one hour of attorney time, Blom & Blom greatly improved the protection of their creative work!
See a video about this case and check how timestamping can help you:
When people talk about plagiarism and timestamping of content, they quickly think of publishers. For which types of websites do you expect that timestamping will soon become indispensable?
First of all: if information matters, if it influences lives, then it must be timestamped. The consumer has the right to check when information was published, how it has changed and from whom it came. Of course, this quickly brings to mind publishers who feed consumers with information every day, but timestamping can be just as wise to do if you own a small ecommerce business.
At WordProof we actively work with policymakers to make timestamping of information important to consumers mandatory. Among other things, we won the European Commission’s Blockchains for Social Good competition with our approach to a Trusted Web.
The SEO aspect we are working on with our investor Joost de Valk and Marieke van de Rakt (founders of Yoast.com), among others, makes it important for any site that benefits from traffic.
Can you explain how timestamping works from the moment a user posts, say, a blog or news article on their website?
Using a publisher as an example, the following happens:
- Journalist publishes an article on the website, and updates it a few hours later.
- Now the website says “Last modified: 3 hours ago” – a reader may say “Wow, that’s transparent”. But at the same time, another reader may say “What was on there three hours ago that I can’t see now?”
- With timestamping, articles and updates are encoded within a second and written away in the blockchain. In other words, a unique fingerprint of information that is stored in a public database. Timestamping can be thought of as taking your article and headline to a notary, but a notary is slow and expensive. A blockchain timestamp is super fast (seconds) and super cheap (a few cents).
- From then on, the reader can simply verify whether information has been tampered with.
On the one hand, we ensure that sites and webshops timestamp; on the other, we ensure that not only people – i.e. readers, buyers or citizens – can read the timestamps, but also search engines.
- Information that has demonstrably not been tampered with should end up higher in search results or your timeline.
- Information to which you verifiably link yourself as the sender should rank higher in search results or your timeline.
WordProof is designed to make this process accessible and simple for everyone. So you can easily use it by using our standard integration on WordPress, Drupal or Shopify. But there’s also an API. A large party like the NRC.nl was able to integrate WordProof with it in 4 hours.
When you think of timestamping you quickly think of textual data such as a date or the content of an article. What type of data can all be written on the blockchain now and in the future?
We only store a fingerprint of the information on the blockchain. This can be from a message, but also from a PDF, image or video. Here you can see what a timestamp is:
Acceptance of structured data by search engines such as Google is important for acceptance by SEO specialists. Many changes to a website only take place after major search engines take it into account as ranking factors, look at the Core Web Vitals, or if it gives advantages in the SERPs. How dependent is WordProof and timestamping on an adoption from, say, Google?
In my talk at Friends of Search, I will go into this in depth. In short, timestamping information makes the quality of the page higher because the visitor can do more checks for integrity. Search engines aim to answer every question with the highest quality answer.
Timestamping also fits seamlessly on developments such as Google E-A-T (where Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness are rewarded) because it is an open source way to make these three things objectively verifiable.
Both the acceptance of search engines and the regulation of the European Commission are important for a rapid transition to a trustworthy Internet.
Here’s a video about how and why search engines and timestamps go well together:
Are you actively in talks with Google or other search engines for adoption?
Yep, we are in conversation with several search engines. In fact, there already is a first search engine that has agreed to highlight timestamped pages in the results page. Behind the scenes, our team and their team are working hard on this. The intention is that this will go live later this year.
Additional information and space in the SERPs is of course very interesting for an SEO specialist. Outside of the SERPs, do you see any other potential benefits in the future in terms of SEO?
A simple first step is the display of timestamps on SERPs, but logically the next step is authorship, whether or not linked to the timestamp, and ranking based on how transparent and how accountable you are; verifiable in an a-to-z open source way.
We foresee an Internet where you, as a user, can set your browser to say: before any information appears in my results, or can be shown in my browser at all, the sender must have linked his/her identity to it. In this way you can create – filtered by the user – an internet that is safe for children and for vulnerable people in society.
Timestamping and E-A-T seem in principle to be made for each other. In particular, Your Money Your Life (YMYL) websites, websites that deal with topics that can have both a positive and negative effect on the user’s happiness, health and financial situation, reliability and transparency are crucial. Do you foresee that timestamping will soon be essential for YMYL websites?
If content affects your life then as a recipient of it you have the right to be able to verify where it came from and how and when it was modified. I think that’s really a human right. Whether it’s general terms and conditions, government information, product information or news: if the information matters, then you need transparency and accountability! That’s the only way we can move the Internet forward.
We think that the turnaround to radical transparency is coming within five years; if you don’t timestamp within five years, the recipient will simply ask you “what do you have to hide?
Speaking of adoption, how dependent is the success of time-stamping on 100% adoption? Suppose there are two publishers, one using timestamping and the other not. The organization that applies it takes content from the other publisher and timestamps it. So in fact they are the first to put their finger on the blockchain.
Being first matters, see it as buying that perfect domain name 20 years ago! But then for all your content. After all: timestamps are backwards compatible, if you timestamp today, and a search engine assigns value to timestamps a year from now, that search engine can assign value to your old timestamps, while your competitor is only just beginning with timestamping.
In the previous example, we are talking about legitimate users. Google places increasing value on filtering out erroneous information. Timestamping does not verify information itself, so fake news might as well be timestamped. Is this another thing you guys want to work on in the future?
The strength lies in the combination of transparency and accountability. On the one hand, with timestamps you can show when something was published and when it was changed -> transparency. On the other hand, as a person, government or organization, you can link your identity to a timestamp. By linking your identity to it, you make lying (or timestamping fake news) ‘expensive’, because your identity and thus reputation is literally at stake.
Our expectation is, and this is also how we train policymakers and big-tech players, that as a sender of information you link your identity to your information via your timestamp, only then can you go viral in algorithms.
Finally, how do you look to the future? What lies ahead for timestamping the web?
We are working on more and more integrations for webshops and CMS systems. Soon we will be featured in the Yoast plugin and later this year in the first search engine. At the same time we are working with policymakers around the world on legislation for timestamping.
Do you have a website or webshop? Please consider starting timestamping, and keep an eye on WordProof to follow the developments.
Thanks for answering our questions and we hope that timestamping will soon be the standard for the web. We’re very much looking forward to your presentation at Friends of Search.