Another Company Outed for Paid Links: Sequoia-Backed Milanoo

A story on TechCrunch today notes that a Sequoia-backed shopping site called Milanoo appears to be spamming Google with hoards of paid links that are helping them rank for things like [cheap dresses] and [evening gown]. They got news of the situation by way of a site called Digital Due Diligence that checked Milanoo’s backlink profile and determined that “we couldn’t find a single inbound link that points to the page that isn’t spam or paid for”.

Sound familiar? This feels like deja vu except with the name J.C. Penney replaced with Milanoo. Both TechCrunch and Digital Due Diligence do a great job of illustrating the links that appear to be spammy so I won’t recount that here. (And in my J.C. Penney story, I did a rundown of what paid links are and why Google doesn’t like them, so check that out if you want more details.)

So what’s the story here? All kinds of sites — big and small, public and VC-backed — violate search engine guidelines all the time in an attempt to rank more highly through manipulating the search algorithms. Google has a large spam team devoted to uncovering these violations (through both manual and automated means) and is demoting and banning sites daily. This cat and mouse game has been going on since the early days of search and will continue for as long as there’s money to be made in ranking well.

Why Would a Venture Capital firm Invest in Spamming?

From the perspectives of TechCrunch and Digital Due Diligence, the story seems to be that a venture-backed company would engage in such behavior. Didn’t Sequoia do any due diligence? Why didn’t they uncover this themselves? And if they did, why did they go ahead with the investment?

I have no idea what went on with this particular deal, of course. So stepping away from the particulars and looking away from Sequoia and looking instead at the VC community generally, I have talked to a lot of start ups who have been funded from a wide variety of VCs over the years. I do know that some VCs aren’t super savvy with organic search to the point that they would know to look for paid links.  Some start ups are trying to game the system because they think better traffic (and Alexa and Quantcast…) numbers will make them a more attractive investment.

Once a company gets funding, the board looks closely at metrics. I’ve heard stories of boards judging performance on crazy metrics like PageRank scores. Sometimes startups get fixated on showing short term growth rather than long term sustainability.

And certainly it’s the case that not everyone (including some VCs) thinks white hat methods are the way to go. I’ve heard some tell me that it’s their business responsibility to get more customers and revenue via any means at their disposal. Even methods that violate webmaster guidelines? Sure.

Let me be clear — I’m not at all saying that Sequoia has this mindset. In fact, I would be very surprised if that were the case. My limited interactions with them regarding search have always led me to believe that they advocate long-term, sustainable white hat methods.  But it has not been my experience that VC-backed companies generally are more likely than others to avoid black hat SEO methods.

Which leads us to another reason this story may be news. Spammy techniques work.

Can’t Google Catch Spam?

Danny Sullivan tweeted about this story: “nope paid links totally don’t work. google catches them. oops, it doesn’t.” This is the other refrain we hear when situations like this come to light. Why didn’t Google catch this? If this behavior is spammy and risky, why is it working?

I also hear this a lot from companies who are white hat and see their competitors rise above them in the search results using back hat methods. When I tell VC-backed startups who want to start embarking on these methods that putting the company at risk of dropping out of Google search results is no way to run a long term business, they sometimes tell me I’m being naive. It works. They won’t get caught. They’re too small/big/clever/light-shade-of-gray.

So what is the deal?

Yes, it sucks that these techniques sometimes work, especially if you are a searcher and have to wade through spam or your company is getting outranked by a spammy competitor. But here’s the thing. Google really does catch this stuff all the time. Daily. They just aren’t publishing blog posts about it every time. Should they do better? Of course, but they’ll never catch 100% of it.

When a story like this comes out that shows that paid links are working, that doesn’t mean Google doesn’t catch paid links. It means those paid links potentially are temporarily working right now for this site.  Google is catching paid links all time. Would it ever have caught these links? I have no idea. Probably. Maybe not.

Are those startups who tell me I’m being naive and they will never suffer consequences for black hat methods right? Maybe. It’s possible they’ll never get caught. But I get calls and emails every single week from companies who have been caught and have lost all of their incoming traffic.

And you can believe Google’s spam engineers aren’t just hanging out on their bouncy colorful balls drinking wheat grass from the Google cafe. I mean, yes, they are doing those things. But that wheat grass is only making their crazy smart PhD brains even smarter. And they’ll keep evolving their methods of catching this kind of spam.

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Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Link Building: Paid Links | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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  • GregBoser

    “Yes, it sucks that these techniques sometimes work, especially if you are a searcher and have to wade through spam or your company is getting outranked by a spammy competitor. ”

    The interesting thing with this latest wave of outings is that there isn’t any correlation between backlinks being spammy and the sites benefiting being spammy. No real users were complaining to Google about JCPenny or Overstock showing up for the terms the cheated on. The only people upset were competitors.

    But what is even more unique about this new spam hunt is the fact that Wall Street is now the ones doing the investigating. After Overstock, and JCP, I got several calls from stock analyst types wanting to know if various brand names were spamming Google. And that might ultimately become Google’s best link spam algo of all time. :)

  • Danny Sullivan

    To clarify more about my tweet, I totally agree that Google catches many paid links and that anyone buying them is engaging in extremely risky behavior. My past post, Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker, has some more about this:

    Having said that, despite the years that Google has spent warning people that it catches paid links, I find it amazing that it didn’t manage to spot JC Penney (which is hardly an unknown company) ranking well for variety of competitive terms via paid links. This wasn’t under-the-radar.

    Now Milanoo ranking well for things like “summer dresses” — apparently through paid links — it’s again not giving me a whole lot of faith that Google’s doing its job stamping this stuff out.

    Paid links, spam links — we’re in a post-Panda world where the algorithm is supposed to be all tuned-up and doing a better job. And yet, I feel like I’m still seeing the same crud that got me worked up last September when I penned my How The “Focus On First” Helps Hide Google’s Relevancy Problems article:

  • Adam

    One of our competitors is doing exactly the same, they have managed to secure spammy links on Chinese .edu and .gov sites, they are now ranking first place on google for a number of competitive keywords.

    Not giving me much faith that Google’s doing its job in detecting and penalizing these sites, neither does it give me much faith in the security of the .edu or .gov sites allowing the backlinks.

    I wrote about it here:

    If you do a simple google search for “buy viagra”” and you can see the 1000′s of .gov websites that contain spam outbound links.

  • Vanessa Fox

    Danny, the point of my article was that we have no idea how often this type of thing is caught so when cases when it’s not caught hits the news, it’s impossible to know if that means Google is missing things .001% of the time or 50% of the time. Just seeing anecdotal stories here and there doesn’t actually tell us anything about how well Google is doing with spam detection.

    Adam, keep in mind that just because a bunch of spammy links exist (and that you can easily pull up a list of them using the site: operator) doesn’t mean Google hasn’t already detected and devalued them. Viagra is in particular a tough one because new spam pops up every day so it’s a never ending battle.

    BTW, I’m not saying that Google does an excellent job of spam detection and these examples are crazy anomalies. I’m saying that we have no idea whether they are doing an excellent job or not without actual data. All we know for sure is that they don’t catch 100% of it instantly.

  • Ethan

    Ha! I love Greg’s point. To paraphase a favorite writer of mine:

    “In a [market] where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught…. The only final sin is stupidity.”

  • ChrisT

    I saw your J.C. Penney entry as well and I get the image you’re try to portray for Google and in a ideal world thats how it should work. But what you say its nothing like the real world.
    Everyone that watches SERPs has seen outrageous cases of ranking based on methods that
    were supposed to be dead decades ago. font size=1, font color matching background colors (hidden links). Hello ? Its 2011 this method was outdated years ago, yet I’m still watching one of my competitors ranking solely on hidden links from sites with no content, for years.
    Do you think that the thought that google will eventually catch up makes me feel better ? No, he won’t care if he gets caught because he already cashed in more than his work was worth while I’m looking stupid waiting for mighty google to catch up with decade old techniques. Guess who won ? And how much longer should I wait before starting to practice the same techniques that just work ?

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