The Link Saboteurs, And Why They Will Ultimately Fail

There’s an interesting thread over at SEOmoz about how some unscrupulous marketers will try to sabotage a competitor’s web site by engaging in social media communications and link seeding/spamming tactics that they hope will spark a rash of bad publicity and maybe even trigger some sort of rankings and/or reputational search penalty against their competitor. Dubbed social media poisoning, I guess you could compare it to “borrowing” your roommate’s car (the roommate you hate) and tearing up the neighborhood in it, knowing the license plate will be traced back to him.

Reading the thread I was chagrined and nostalgic at the same time. Do any of you remember the service created by the brilliant Scott Bannister called Submit-It? Submit-It was useful, clever, and a time saver.

Right up until the spammers found it and tried to ruin it.

The search engines fought back by asking webmasters to not use automated submission tools and do not submit your site every day. So what did the SEO saboteurs do? They’d submit competitor site URLs by the thousands on a regular basis for no other reason than to try to get the attention of the engines and… bingo! …poison their competitor’s site at any given engine. I seem to recall Lycos was the engine at the time that first called for a truce. This type of thing sparked some of the very first captchas (the graphic puzzles used with submission forms to foil automated bots).

My reason for sharing this bit of web folk-lore (LinkMoses loves lore) is because it was happening all the way back in 1995 and shows how even back when most companies didn’t have a web presence, the nature of people was to try and mis-use any online marketing tool so as to do harm to a competitor with had a web site or not. In fact, attacking the reputation of a company that didn’t have a web site was easier than attacking one that did, because with no web site the company had no live venue for countering or deflecting the attacks. Nobody had a blog in 1995.

So competitive poisoning is nothing new, and attempted poisoning by way of social media is to me just the natural evolution of online poisoning tactics. For those of you that remember nntp and USENET newsgroups, there was USENET tag-team spam, fake recommendation requests, and forged USENET spam against competitors. The newsgroup has been around since 1994.

But enough nostalgia. The point I’m meandering towards is this. No matter what new tool or method of online communication appears, the usefulness of that tool or method will follow this basic path.

  1. New online tool/technology is developed and deployed
  2. People hail it and enjoy using it to communicate for legitimate purposes, including marketing
  3. New tool spreads and gains new users quickly via what today we call “viral” linking
  4. Spammers find ways to utilize it for purposes ranging from mildly annoying to pure E-vil.
  5. The spam-to-legitimate usage ratio tilts in favor of the spammers
  6. The tool/technology is effectively rendered useless for anyone with a clue
  7. Repeat the above cycle

I don’t intend to be cynical, since the continuous influx of cool new tools and technologies is what excited me about the net in the first place and keeps me going today. I remember thinking Geocities was the greatest invention ever and thinking the same thing about StumbleUpon.

There’s a Moore’s Law, so maybe we need Ward’s law, which is:

The more inventive and useful something is, the more likely it is spammers will render it useless over time.

Link well, my friend.

Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building: General | Link Week Column | SEO: Spamming | Social Media Marketing


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via

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  • Matt Cutts

    I think it’s interesting that as a result of the cycle, you have a group of would-be spammers that are pretty savvy, and the folks developing the new technologies aren’t always as prepared for spam. So any new search engine would have spammers jumping on it much faster than in the old days. I call this the “spammers getting in on the ground floor” problem. See for example some of the new TLDs, for example. It’s clear that the spammers were ready for the sunrise periods, but the new registries weren’t always aware of what loopholes people would try to exploit.

    These days, any new system (social, algorithmic, or a combination) needs to consider how spammers will try to exploit it.

    Last point: for #6, I would say that a technology can be degraded by spam without being rendered useless.

  • eric_ward

    Good point Matt!

    Web 1.0

    - Email introduced better counterspam measures
    - Discussion groups did likewise
    - USEnet didn’t and paid the price. Just about dead…

    Web 2.0

    - Wikipedia introduced nofollow
    - Digg provides bury plus counterspam measures

    There’s still plenty of work to be done to keep the wolves at bay, but I hereby modify Ward’s Law #6 with “Cutt’s Caveat”

    #6 The tool/technology implements anti-spam measures so as to remain useful/vaible.

  • Winooski

    Eric, the way I think of it, the succinct answer to your post’s titular proposition, “The Link Saboteurs, And Why They Will Ultimately Fail”, is this:

    “Relax: No search engine that values results relevancy will let third parties sabotage your rankings for very long”.

    Sure, the spammers and saboteurs will find new techniques, but the SEs worth their salt will adjust their algorithms to mitigate the effect.

    This is why you don’t see keyword stuffing in the Meta Keywords tag working as a ranking factor any more…let alone the Meta Keywords tag working, period. The worthy search engines learned and adjusted.

  • Tom Foremski

    Back in April 2006 I was calling this practice pagerank assassination(!)

  • Chris G

    Though Winooski’s comments may largely be correct, I think the internet marketing community takes for granted that technologists are always well-versed in what spammers get up to, when it’s often, in my experience, not the case.

    Matt C. is correct to say that “the folks developing the new technologies aren’t always as prepared for spam”. I’ve been surprised in the past by how unaware some very bright technologists I’ve worked with are about what search engine spammers get up to. Obviously, such naivety no longer cuts it in the world of search.

    On a completely separate note, Eric – I’ve been having difficulty contacting you in order to follow up on some previous communication. Could you contact me at the email address associated with this TypeKey account? (Note: Sorry if it was inappropriate to post this message to Eric here.)


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