In covering search marketing for the past 13 years, I’ve tried not to be judgmental about certain marketing tactics some people might undertake. Search engines have “rules” that they themselves knowingly allow others to break. Arguments erupt over the idea that any type of marketing is “manipulation.” But at some point, enough is enough with some tactics. And today, I’m done. I’m calling bullshit on anyone who is link spamming or creating crappy nonsensical content sites.
Seriously, enough. You’ve wasted enough of my time, and you’ve wasted enough time of people all over the web. I’ll give you a personal illustration of this below. Sure, I’ll skewer Google along the way.
Sphinn is our social news site for internet marketers. Like Digg, anyone can submit a story, vote on it and comment with others about it. It’s built using Pligg software, which seemed to be constructed without a clue that anyone might try to spam a social news site. They do, of course.
We knew this would happen. That’s why Sphinn is heavily modified to the degree that it’s damn hard even for those not trying to spam to register (CAPTCHAs, email verification). Then there are limits on how much you can submit at first, plus we have a staff of human moderators. The many tools designed to auto-spam Pligg platforms don’t work with us, because of all our changes.
Nevertheless, the spam comes in. As I watch it, part of me always thinks “Who are these idiots?” Seriously, who thinks submitting their reverse mortgages page, their “affordable canvas art” page or their car covers web site is not going to be noticed as out of place on a site for internet marketing news, populated by internet marketers themselves who know the many tricks out there?
With Thanksgiving coming up, here’s a slice of some of the spam that’s being held in our Spam Jail:
The worst people are SEO and internet marketing firms that spam Sphinn. It’s downright insulting. At least do something creative if you’re going to spam those you’d think are your peers. Insane.
What’s driven me over the edge is the onslaught of comment spam that’s been hitting the site over the past month or so. If you’ve been on Sphinn, at some point, you may have noticed comments like this:
1) http://chris-harwood.blogspot.com/2008/10/lavamus-review.html – the Largest digital music storage. Legal, secure mp3 service with well-ordered mp3 content
2) http://westsounds.com claims to have a simply enormous catalog – over 200,000 albums online. This seemingly extensive catalog contains not just the latest and greatest, but also older tracks too – which lots of people (like me) are shopping for. I have had a tendency to lose CD’s over the years, so this is a good way for me to reclaim (cheaply) the music I’ve already bought in the past.
3) Modeling is a very stressful profession… http://www.articlegator.com/2008/11/22/a-site-every-mp3-music-collector-should-know-about
What seems to be happening is that someone is trying to promote these two MP3 sites:
Either they’re clever — or they think they’re being clever — by not dropping links directly to the sites. Examples 1 and 3 above are links to reviews that in turn lead to the sites.
I think they also believe they are being clever by comment spamming stories on Sphinn that are very old, perhaps assuming the comments won’t be noticed. Of course, any comment shows up at the top of the latest comments page, so that’s pretty easy to spot.
While we have a variety of tools to nuke (we call it killspamming) someone who submits junk stories, it’s harder to wipe out the link spamming gang. Moreover, as we’re rebuilding Sphinn from scratch with our own custom software (to launch in the first quarter of next year), we haven’t wanted to put more effort into building further into the existing platform.
But hey MP3 gang, nice going. We’ll probably spend some time to block commenting on stories that are older than 90 days. Plus, while we can’t kill you as quickly as a story spammer, we can and still do wipe you out.
Here’s the odd thing. Someone is trying to be smart about this. Not only do they link to reviews and hit older stories, but they’re also hitting stories that are somewhat relevant to music. The link drops are still way out of place, but it looks like they’re run a search across our site for any story that’s even roughly related to music.
That makes me think they’re assuming these pages are more relevant to search engines — that getting on them will be more valuable. Someone has taken time, as they are taking time in coming back over and over to drop these links using fresh accounts they create each day — and yet they’re not getting it that we just wipe them out? Or not registering the fact that the links are nofollowed, so there’s no search credit to be had.
Last night, I went beyond just killing the comments. I shot over to the page listed in example 1. Then I started comment spamming the hell out of the site. OK, I commented on like five different posts saying to stop spamming the hell out of Sphinn.
Poor old Chris Harwood, who runs the blog hosting that review. He quickly emailed asking what was up – he had no idea what was going on. In the meantime, I’d done some further checking — his review was being pimped out at many social sites across the web, as you can see in this report from Yahoo Site Explorer.
He was shocked — I gather he’d used the site at one point, got encouraged innocently enough along with other users to write a review and boom, gets his site used in some strange bizarre triangular comment spamming scheme. In reaction, he’s pulled the review.
I visited the Westsounds site, but there was no way to contact them — the FAQ and Contact links just go to a deadend.
Example 3 was a new link drop I’d never seen until today. I headed over and found the wonderful ArticleGator site which seems to exist only to post crappy articles that make no sense loaded with anchor text designed to boost search rankings. For example, the link drop lead to an article that said this:
Modeling is a very stressful profession. People who look at it from outside may think it is all about glamour, big bucks and adulation. But they do not know about the sordid aspects of the industry that remain hidden under the layers of makeup, costly dresses and arc lights. I have been in this industry for the last 5 years and have built a place for myself with hard labor and dedication. My work takes a toll on my nerves at times and for de stressing I listen to music. That is why I carry my cute Creative Zen stone mp3 player everywhere I go. This stores a lot of songs and I can play according to my mood.
However, I had to face some problems in getting high quality mp3 music earlier. I tried some sites but the files they have are of poor quality. I was fed up with these sites. It was only after my designer friend Adam advised me about a site named westsounds.com that I woke up to reality. It gave me an option to select and download Jazz mp3 files having high bit rates and clarity. Now I rely on the site for my music download needs.
Seriously — we start off with modeling and get into an MP3 site no one has ever heard of, with the bolded words leading to the site rather than the site name itself getting a link? Or how about one of the latest posts to that blog:
Health is the most important thing. You can never work if you are not well. So it is very essential to take care of health. Diet is an important part for a healthy life style. Proper exercise is also important. I am Jennifer. I am a beauty consultant. I have to deal with many clients. Most of my clients complain me about the dull skin. I also have to deal with the clients suffering from wrinkles. I had instructed many things to my clients and I have to do research work on a regular basis to prevent these problems.
Recently I got to see some of the most important diets which helps to treat the dry skins and prevents wrinkles. I had visited fishoildiredct.com. I was really surprised to see the benefits of fish oil products. Fish products are very helpful for the prevention of wrinkles. It also helps in developing a glowing skin. I had instructed my clients to add the fish oil products in their regular diet. They have got wonderful results.
Stellar content. I’m so glad this exists on the web, helping all of us out there.
Well, it’s making someone some money. And it’s doing so because that site is loaded with ads from Google. The irony, eh? Because it’s difficult to cry out against crap like this in terms of it polluting search results when Google itself is funding plenty of it.
And so all the rationalizations begin. Hey, I’m going to go after crappy directory links because screw it, they work. I’m not going to bother with focusing on content because I see plenty of crappy content doing well, so good content is bullshit. I’m going to keep cloaking or doing whatever I want because clearly Google doesn’t enforce its rules in an even-handed manner. I’m going to A, B, C because of X, Y, Z.
I’m really old. I’ve heard all the arguments, over and over again. There is nothing, honestly nothing, on most issues that hasn’t been argued, dissected, discussed and debated multiple times.
Google’s not without blame. The war on paid links just keeps getting ratcheted up, as we saw in the launch of InLinks (which by the way turned out to not be as stealthy as positioned). Matt Cutts — and I like Matt immensely — still reached for the FUD about FTC requirements. As I wrote on Sphinn:
Well, he’s talking the FTC saying that. And no, it’s not clear at all that the FTC guidelines apply in the way he says. In the past, Matt’s trotted this out over the idea that the guidelines suggest that if you’re paid to do a review, you should disclose that (and with paid reviews, often the idea is to get a paid link).
With this new system, from what I skimmed, you’re being paid to turn a word on your site into a link. There are goodness knows how many ad programs out there that already do this. Google’s own toolbar, using Autolink, will turn words into links (though there’s no advertising revenue for this).
Of course, the key difference here is that the words also become links that pass PageRank. Google obviously doesn’t like that. But it’s a far different thing that running a review because you were paid.
By the way, Microsoft and Yahoo once again have said — as they did about a year ago — that they don’t take actions against links just because they are paid. Rather, they take a more sensible approach of trying to decide if a link deserves credit period. If it’s a paid link, but it’s from a good site to another good site, then it might not be a problem with them.
Having said these, I doubt even those two search engines particularly like the idea of paid link schemes like this new one. But it’s Google that’s really leading the charge against them, only one of the three majors with this view (albeit by far the most important).
Lest I sound all anti-Google, I’m just really tired of them trying to fight a failing war. People are going to buy and sell links, and the FTC FUD is, well, FUD. I’d rather they just say that they’ll potentially take action against any site that they feel are gaming links in ways they don’t like (which includes, you know, perhaps not letting someone like Robert Scoble decide he wants his brother to rank well so gives him some free anchor text love).
Google’s paid links war simply gets many people up-in-arms that Google is trying to control web sites, to prevent them from earning money or simply dictate how the web should run. As as Google gets more and more powerful, more and more people want to naturally rebel. It provide excuse fodder for all those who simply want to take an anything-goes attitude. And Google just looks bad and petty (not to mention demonstrates poor relevance) when you can’t even find InLinks by name when searching for them on Google (Yahoo and Microsoft both list them). That’s deliberate suppression, not that there’s any disclosure of this. Search for nazi, you can find the American Nazi Party — but InLinks, that’s what we’ve got to protect searchers from? That’s more evil? (NOTE: Voila, InLinks appeared in Google’s search results about two hours after I wrote this).
But you know what? It’s not about Google. It’s about what individuals feel is right or wrong. Going back to InLinks, I also wrote to conclude the comment above:
As for InLink, hey, Patrick’s a nice guy — but this is bullshit, a new site up with nothing on the FAQ, nothing at all, disclosing the risks. Nothing, and that’s not on. From what I wrote in Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker:No one should be dragging others into a potential mess without making them aware of the risks. You want to buy links or be a link broker? Then be upfront that this is an activity that Google does not like and that the faint hearted shouldn’t apply. Only after you’ve scared the heck out of them should you start talking about the ways that you’ll try to reduce the risk, if they choose to carry on.
And to another discussion on whether “blackhat is ethical,” I commented:
I can see the point here — that just because you don’t follow some search engines rules, that doesn’t mean you’re operating in an “unethical” manner. Not everyone will agree with that, of course — some think that to be ethical, you must follow the rules.
I tend to agree with Nick on it — blackhat/whitehat is a separate argument that whether you are an ethical marketer. For example, follow all the white hat rules you want, but if you charged someone $100,000 to rank them for “north carolina exterminators who kill mosquitos and ants,” a pretty long and non-competitive term that few will search on, are you ethical? How ethical you are is more than a question of what hat you wear.
Sadly, I just don’t have much energy for these types of debates. I guess having seen them go on and on and on with all the same answers and responses several times over the years, I’ve been beaten down. OK, I know I’m old, and I know there are always new people coming in who need to have education in these areas. But I swear — I hear nothing new about the black hat – white hat debate much less the debates on ethics that has been said again and again and again. And yet nothing much really happens to change anything.
Back to the point. Ethics is in the eye of the beholder. When Gab says this is ethical:
“Linkspamming abandoned sites that the owner no longer spends any time on. Of course, this is different than linkspamming someone to the point where they choose to abandon their site.”
Bullshit. Hey, if I move out of my house, it’s not ethical to come along and spray paint graffiti on the side of it, not in my book. And if I no longer update a blog that’s say a tribute to some friend who has died, and you run a crappy little linkspamming tool to drop something on it, you suck. Sorry. But it does suck.
Back in 2005, I tried to get the industry to push against linkspamming like this (see Can We Agree Automated Comment & Link Posting Is A Bad Thing?). I thought in an industry where no one seems to agree on ethics, maybe this particular tactic which has generated so much bad will and which seems pretty unethical to many might be something we could all agree was unethical. 57% said yep. 22% thought saying it was unethical was too strong. And despite the discussion, there’s still a sense of “all’s fair” or “it’s OK if the blog’s not used” or other justifications. And I grow weary.
So I guess a plea. If you’re comment spamming, if you’re creating content that has no reason to really exist –that doesn’t add value — that especially is of the nonsensical variety. Stop it. You’re pissing all over the web. You’re pissing into my search results. You’re wasting my time, the time of others and potentially your own, by not putting your energies into more productive and long-term strategies.
I don’t care if everyone else is doing it. I don’t care if “Google hit you first.” We’re not in kindergarten. We’re not children that need some type of internet parents to tell us what’s right or wrong. I think we inherently know much of this stuff.
If you’re not doing it, and you know someone who is — tell them to knock it off. Seriously. People joke about this stuff all the time, even the search reps. But it’s not funny anymore. The climate should change. Until it does, until it’s not a laugh about some of the destructive, low-quality junk that goes on, it’s going to continue. Even if the climate miraculously does change, spam will obviously still be there. That’s inevitable. But perhaps fewer people will be a part of it.