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.
- New York Times Exposes Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google
- Google’s Action Against Paid Links Continues: Overstock and Forbes Latest Casualties