The UK’s Conservative Party has a new co-chair, The Right Honourable Grant Shapps, Member of Parliament for Welwyn Hatfield. Honorable except with Google, which considers the business he apparently founded to be pushing a tool designed to spam its search engine and fill its listings with rubbish.
According to The Guardian, Shapps founded HowToCorp in 2005, a site that, among other products, pitches the TrafficPaymaster software. The software apparently “scrapes” or copies content from all over the web, from RSS feeds to even sets of search results, to automatically generate pages that probably make little sense to the human visitor but which may pick up some traffic from Google and, in turn, generate clicks on Google AdSense or other ads.
Let’s talk about the software first, then I’ll get back to the Shapps connection.
Scraping & Auto-Generating Content
I’ve qualified my second paragraph above with “apparently” and “probably” because I haven’t tried the actual software nor reviewed each and every site that may have been created with it. But the type of software, and its poor results, are pretty familiar to me.
From the TrafficPaymaster site, here’s a diagram of the types of content it gathers:
All that content is somehow magically pieced together to create web pages using automation because, as the site’s video explains, it’s a lot of work if you had to write original content all by yourself:
The outcome of these types of programs, as you can imagine, isn’t great if you’re a human reader.
Here’s one example of TrafficPaymaster in action. The software’s blog recently had a “Sebastian Fox” with the company sharing a real site created with TrafficPaymaster.
“I threw this site together in 10 minutes,” wrote Fox (which as I’ll explain further below, might be a pen name for Shapps). The post brags about how after only two weeks, the site had 203 pages listed in Google. Today, I see more than 1,000 pages listed:
This “progress” is proudly touted by the post as proof the software is a money-making machine:
This stunning progress will continue as the high quality TPM generated pages continue to be produced and then picked up by the Search Engines. It’s absolute clear proof that machine generated pages *ROCK* when they’re done right and are of use to both humans and the Search Engines.
Needless to say the more pages you have listed, the greater your income potential. TPM websites can generate hundreds of pages for each of your websites. And you can install TPM as many times as you like!
It’s actually not proof of this at all. Just getting pages into Google doesn’t mean that they rank well for particular searches. Anyone can get pages listed. But if the pages don’t rank for actual searches that people do, they might as well be invisible.
Does this site have listings that appear in the top results for things like “golf” or “golf grip” or “golf lessons,” all terms that it clearly targets, because it has pages on these topics? Not that I can see.
Scraping & Spinning
As for the “quality” of these pages, here’s the opening sentence of the “free golf lessons” page:
A free of charge golf swing lesson appears a very little as well superior to be accurate.
Doesn’t make sense, right? That’s because the sentence was almost certainly copied from some other page on the web (“scraping”) then had words changed around or replaced with synonyms (“spinning’) in a way so that the page isn’t a direct copy — but also in a way where the sentence is left making no sense. Here are a few more sentences like that, from the page:
So the to begin with phase to getting a quality golfer is to order some clubs that match you.
You do not demand to order the top rated of the line PGA competent clubs.
Right after you have watched your golf video, you can observe some zero cost swing movies on the net.
So like by yourself and play some golf.
None of these sentence make sense, but they don’t have to. Pages like these are typically fired out like a shotgun blast in hopes they’ll get some traffic that in turn leads to ad clicks.
If you can make a 1,000 pages in 10 minutes, even if they don’t rank for very popular terms, any small amount of traffic they might bring in cost you little effort. In turn, the goal isn’t for someone to read the pages but instead to click on the ads or offers, often strategically placed. You can see that with this page:
Google Doesn’t Like Bad Content
Suffice to say, Google doesn’t look favorably upon the practice of scraping and spinning. Last year, its Panda Update was designed specifically to prevent “thin content” that these types of programs can generate from ranking well. Its Top Heavy Update earlier this year went after pages that seemed designed only to show ads. Its Penguin Update in April went after spam and especially, from what I’ve seen, had a heavy impact on many who were using spinning software.
Interestingly, TrafficPaymaster’s “Sebastian Fox” commented earlier in May that the Panda and Penguin Updates had no impact on users of TrafficPaymaster:
We’ve seen improvements in TrafficPaymaster following both the Penguin and previous Panda Google updates. TPM produces high quality pages on websites which grow gradually over time. As a niche SEO product you won’t find TPM all over the web and as a result it REALLY works a treat
This claim was repeated in June:
TrafficPaymaster works brilliantly post both Panda and Penguin updates. If anything, the program improved after Penguin. That’s because we’ve taken time to create software that generates high quality pages, fill of original content.
I don’t see how TPM can make this claim, if it’s based on the idea that the software generates high-quality pages “fill” of original content. It’s pretty self-evident from the example site that TPM itself posted that the pages will be full of nonsensical sentences. That’s not what I think most people would define as high quality.
Whether sites have done better or worse with the software, who really knows? But what we do know is that Google — according to The Guardian — has said that TPM violates its policies:
On Sunday sources at Google confirmed TrafficPaymaster was in “violation” of its policies and that its search engine’s algorithms had been equipped to drop the ranking of any webpages created using HowToCorp’s software. Officially, Google said it does not comment on individual cases.
“We have strict policies in place to ensure web users are presented with useful ads when browsing sites in our content network and to ensure our advertisers reach an engaged audience. If we are alerted to a site which breaks our AdSense policies, we will review it and can remove it from our network.”
Actually, Google’s ranking algorithms will have no way of knowing that pages were created with TPM. The pages might not credit the software, and there’s probably no particular TPM “fingerprint” to associate them with the software versus other scraping software out there. What the statement from Google really means is that the algorithm is designed generally to go after pages that are deemed to be of low-quality.
While Google might view the software violating its spamming and other policies, the company hasn’t banned it from being listed in Google itself. Earlier this year, Google temporarily removed the site of an SEO firm after finding it was involved with a different type of spam, link buying. But searches on Google show that TrafficPaymaster has over 300 pages listed and also ranks for its own name.
Chances are, this may change in the coming weeks. It’s a fairly high-profile case to hit the news, and I’d expect Google to make some type of token effort against the software, after this much attention has been focused on it in Britain’s national papers (The Daily Telegraph also picked up The Guardian’s story, among others).
MP Takes On Google?
It’s high-profile, of course, because it’s fairly hard to believe that the new co-chair of the UK’s ruling political party (mostly ruling, the Conservatives share power with the much smaller Liberal Democrat party) is behind software that “plagiarizes” content to spam Google.
Technically, I’m not sure if the spinning is plagiarism, but both UK papers I’ve mentioned are running with that angle. They’re also big on this quote posted on Warrior Forum that appears to be from the aforementioned Sebastian Fox:
Google may or may not like a particular approach, but the real question is whether there are any signs about how a page has been created. If the answer is no, well then it doesn’t much matter what Google officially thinks.
The Guardian cites that as if the quote is dismissive of “Google’s attempts to police the internet,” whereas The Telegraph suggests that it means “Google would be unable to stop the copying of websites.”
The reality is that the claim isn’t some type of gauntlet being thrown down against Google. It’s simply meant to reassure a prospective buyer of what I covered above, that Google probably can’t tell that the page was created using automation, so even if Google has official rules against that (it does), TPM users probably won’t get caught.
As the quote from the forum continues:
And that’s where pages produced by TrafficPaymaster are completely different from other WordPress auto-blogging packages. TPM doesn’t produce blog pages at all. In fact these are regular HTML pages which aren’t based on other blog software.
So there’s nothing that distinguishes pages produced by TrafficPaymaster from pages produced by you.
The Shapps Connection
This leads back to Shapps himself. Is this really his company? The Guardian says he created HowToCorp in 2005 and used the name “Michael Green” for his non-government work:
In the past, Mr Shapps has said that he used the name Michael Green to differentiate his political and business activities Before becoming a minister at the last election, he specialised in internet marketing.
As the Independent (another big UK paper) notes, there are profiles linking Green to being a Parliament member:
“Believe it or not,” says the profile, “Michael Green is a member of the UK Parliament, is a CEO of How To Corporation and is a successful online marketer…His wealth is such that he actually flies his very own personal plane and also lives in a fabulous mansion.
“Some find it hard to believe that regardless of Michael Green’s internet success, this online marketing guru only allots a day per week to work on his internet ventures.”
Mysteriously, the photograph accompanying this blurb (right, top) is not that of anyone ever seen around Parliament, but of a male model. Michael Green – we now learn – has a dual personality.
His alter ego is a character called Grant Shapps (right, bottom), who has supposedly been Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield since 2005, is Minister for Housing, has about 57,000 Twitter followers, and is expected to be promoted in today’s reshuffle.
But “Michael Green” seems to have been replaced by “Sebastian Fox.” HowToCorp now pitches itself as “Sebastian Fox’s HowToCorp” even though it says on its home page that it’s “Michael Green” internet marketing forum:
Clicking on the “Michael Green” forum link leads over to the “Sebastian Fox” forum:
As for Shapps, a spokesperson said that the business is a partnership between him and his wife, yet also said that he has nothing to do with it, to the degree of not earning off of it (because technically, I guess, income earned by his wife doesn’t somehow benefit Shapps):
Mr Shapps did not comment on the claims. His spokesman told the Guardian that the company was: “always a partnership between Mr and Mrs Shapps.”
He added: “Grant Shapps derives no income, dividends, or other income from this business, which is run by his wife Belinda with a registered office in Pinner in north-west London. He is quite simply not involved in this business.
Not involved at all. Except that he apparently is Michael Green and took time today, even in the midst of being named co-chair of the Conservative Party, to pen a sales pitch to this guide on golf that he thought would be so perfect for his wife that his wife’s company now apparently sells it through her HowToCorp business. After all, here’s the pitch page:
The reality, of course, is that this page just slaps whatever the current date is into the pitch. Whether Shapps actually wrote this at some point using his Michael Green pen name, who knows? Whether he now writes and posts as Sebastian Fox is also unclear. Most likely, a variety of people were posting on behalf of HowToCorp using the Green name and now use the Fox name.
Perhaps UK prime minister David Cameron, the Conservative leader who ultimately gave Shapps his new position, wasn’t aware that Google wouldn’t like the type of business that Shapps (or his wife) run. That’s understandable. Cameron probably isn’t that familiar with Google, what with his former director of strategy Steve Hilton being married to Rachel Whetstone, Google’s head of communications.
The Conservatives came under accusations that they were too close to Google earlier this year. Having the party run by someone who created, and still seems associated with, a business designed to help people spam Google probably will serve as a nice balance to that.
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