Tag Archives: Search engine optimization

Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things (12″ version)

This is the extended version of my earlier blog post. The BBC finally ran my commentary so for those of you who want more info, here it is:

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it works, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. On the Internet Google is like a benevolent dictator: it creates great stuff we love, and with which most of the net wouldn’t work. But it also wields great power–at least if you’re someone trying to make money off the web. Because if you don’t show up in Google’s search results, then you’re nobody. It’s the equivalent of exile, or solitary confinement, or something.

A lot of money is spent, therefore, in gaming your website’s position in Google’s rankings. But you have to be careful. Google also spends a lot of money tweaking its algorithms so that the search results you get are not gamed. Threat of exile is usually enough to keep most web players in line.

But because Google doesn’t issue a set of rules, and doesn’t explain why it exiles web sites, the gray area is big. And this is where the money is made.

One of the mini industries is something called link building. Google reckons a site with lots of links to it is a popular site, so it scores highly. So if you can get lots of sites to link to yours, you’re high up in the results.

Now it just so happens that some of the pages on my modest decade-old blog score quite highly here. So I suppose it was inevitable that link building companies would seek me out.

A British company, for example, called More Digital offered me a fixed upfront annual fee for a “small text-based ad” on my website. As intriguing was the blurb at the bottom of the email:

You must not disclose, copy, distribute or take any action in reliance on this e-mail or any attachments. Views or opinions presented in this e-mail are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of More Digital.

Clearly these guys mean business, I thought, so I wrote back to Alicia Ross. She was excited to hear from me, and offered two options: one was a simple link in my collection of recommended web sites. The idea would be that I would include a link to their client’s website–whoever it was–alongside my real recommendations.

The other was “one page simple text”:

The advert will be text, not a visual banner It will appear in the content, and only on a single page of your website. Our writers will provide you with a copy that will fit naturally into your existing content.

(I think she means “copy” rather than “a copy”). For this I would earn $200 a year per ad if the client was a poker, casino or bingo site;

Now in Internet terms this is big money. It would take me a month or so to make that kind of dosh on simple Google ads on my website. Now they’re talking about one simple text link and I get the cash in two days!

But hang on a minute. There’s that ethics thing in the back of my mind. I have to listen to it a second.

The first one I’m not crazy about: What’s the point of a collection of recommended links if I don’t actually recommend them myself?

But the second one took some getting my head around. I couldn’t figure out what she had in mind, so I asked her. And this is when I started to get really depressed.

Basically what they’re after is me inserting a sentence into an existing blog post that links to their client. These guys are not interested in a new post. That would take time to rise up through the ranks of Google; they want to tap into my micro-Google fame. And remember this is not an ad. It’s a plug. It’s product placement. In a piece that is supposed to otherwise be straight, authentic and, well, me. I like to think that’s why it has Google juice.

By the time I got back to Alicia the offer was off the table as all the spots had been picked up. Clearly this is a well-oiled business. But then I got another, from a different company. Mayra Alessi was contacting me on behalf of a U.S. company selling identity theft protection, which she wanted me to link to in a piece I wrote two years ago about a privacy problem with Facebook. For $30 a month.

Mayra, if it was she, proposed I add a sentence at the end of a paragraph on how Facebook needs to fix the way they handle friendshipt requests as follows:

Mistakes like these from Facebook, make us more and more vulnerable to identity theft, that is why it is important to understanding identity theft in the USA.

Clearly Mayra hasn’t made her way in the world based on her copyediting, grammar or punctuation skills.  And the irony hasn’t escaped me of a company peddling identity theft protection is at best unaware that companies operating in its name are paying websites to mislead their readers, and Google.

What’s wrong with all this? Well, I guess the first thing is the seediness. A company is basically hiring another company to fiddle its rankings on Google–instead of just producing the kind of kick-ass content that it should be building it leeches off my kick-ass content.

And it’s not just seedy, it’s illegal. Well, as far as Google is concerned. Only the other day someone complained on a Google forum after getting his sites bumped off Google’s index. The reason, he suspects, is that he took $75 from one of the companies that contacted me for linking to a site about bikes. And these companies must know that. I guess that’s why the fees seem quite high for the chicken feed that niche blogs like ours are used to earning.

The point is, that the companies apparently funding this kind of activity–those whose websites benefit from the link love–are not necessarily sleazy gambling sites. I was invited to link to were an Internet security company. Among companies willing to pay me $150 for a link are, according to one of these link building outfits trying to get me aboard, are those selling mobile phones, mobile phones, health and fitness, travel, hotels, fashion, Internet services, insurance, online education and, somewhat incongruously, recycling companies.

To me this is all the more sleazy because these are real companies with offices in the UK and US and they’re clearly proud of what they do. We’re not talking Ukrainian spammers here. But their impact, in a way, is worse, because with every mercenary link sold they devalue the web. I’ve been doing a blog for nearly 10 years now, and the only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond.

All in all, a tawdry example of where the blogosphere has gone wrong, I reckon. Keep your money. I’d rather keep the high ground.

Trackback Spam, Praising Dvorak, Office Revenge And Other Byways On The Route To Where You’re Going

One of the scary, but compelling, bits of having a blog is seeing how people found you. TypePad offer referring addresses which make this very easy, but all it does is make you wonder whether most of the people visiting you are on their way to somewhere else. (It also reveals how well trackback spam works.) Here’s a sampling of the past few hours:

That said, most of the searches seem to be pretty good matches. Only now I dread to think what kind of search results this posting is going to end up in.

HP Blogger Deletes Another Customer Comment

A few days ago I wrote about HP’s censoring, and then uncensoring, of a comment to its blog. The removal of the comment caused a furore and led to the HP blogger, David Gee, apologising and acknowledging the good learning experience:

This was a good learning experience for us and we strive to maintain honest and open communication with our customers. If we are going to use blogging as a legitimate connection between us and our customers, we need to choose either to be in all the way or out. We choose to be in. We want to hear from you.

Kudos to them, but I couldn’t help noticing they’ve done it again. As I pointed out in the previous post, another customer had posted an even more outspoken comment, as follows:

I think you are a bastard if you delete posts like that. We have freedom of speech in this country and if you dont like it, THAN MOVE!

Wanna know what I think of HP??? I think HP is the worst computer company ever to exist! They lie. I got lied to 5 times over the phone during a series of technical support calls.They told me that if they sent the fixed product to me and it wasnt “really fixed”, that they would issue a refund. But you know what they did? They replaced (and deleted all of my data) the hard drive!! The problem was the internal WIFI card that I did not want to spend $50 buying a new one!

This Country is a democracy, and if you dont like it, than move!

-Casey S Posted by AngryHPCustomer#9999999991 on May 8, 2005 1:09:49 AM PDT

When I wrote the earlier post on Monday, Asian time, that post was still there. Two days on, I’ve looked hard, but I can no longer find it. Seven hours after AngryHPCustomer Casey S posted his comment, David Gee posted this:

Thanks for all the feedback and commentary here, in Slashdot and by Dan Gillmor. There’s a lot of constructive opinion which I for one greatly appreciate, and we’ll try and keep the spam and defamatory entries sidelined so we can focus on the discussion at hand.

I’m guessing Gee judged Casey S’ comments to be defamatory rather than spam. But are they? Well he does call David Gee a bastard, but he does make it conditional on him deleting posts such as the one the post is discussing. So I’m not sure how defamatory that is. Casey S’ post does contain some spelling errors, but it also contains what appears to be some legitimate feedback on HP’s customer service, albeit expressed in insufficient detail for HP to pursue directly.

But there’s a bigger point here. David Gee admitted messing up on the first deletion. That’s good. This second one is more tricky. But blogging, and taking comments, is not just about constructive opinion expressed politely. ‘Honest and open communication’ means just that. It means allowing all sorts to express their views, however poorly they may do so. Offensive comments that have no bearing whatsoever on the subject should be removed; offensive comments that do have some bearing on the discussion should either have their offensive wording removed (offensive being the comments about David Gee’s illegitimacy, not the assessment of HP as ‘the worst company ever to exist’), or the post removed and an explanation as to why put in its place. To do neither, and just remove without ceremony or explanation the post on a topic entitled ‘Taking It On The Chin’, ends up distorting the comment record and making a mistake little different to removing the earlier comment.

To parse David Gee’s subsequent comment more deeply: Lumping ‘spam and defamatory entries’ together is somewhat disingenuous, since it appears to put CaseyS’ comments in the same bucket as comment spam. Which it clearly is not. The word ‘sidelined’ to me sounds like a euphemism for ‘deleted’ or ‘erased’, since I can no longer find any record of CaseyS’ post. To talk about doing this to ‘focus on the discussion at hand’ sounds to me like steering a debate in the direction one wants, which is not what comments on blogs are about. Lastly, I’d suggest that CaseyS’ comments, though distasteful to some and not as coherent or directly relevant as others on the page, do refer to the ‘discussion at hand’, namely censoring blogs. Indeed, by removing the comment, David Gee has made CaseyS’ comments directly relevant to the ‘discussion at hand’.

In short, blog censorship is a tricky business and I’d urge HP not to indulge in it unless it really has to. Removing comment spam and comments that are clearly unrelated to the topic in hand is a no-brainer; they are no use to readers of the blog. But anything else is censorship, however disagreeable it may be to read. Casey S, however badly expressed his comments were, had a point. He is a customer, apparently, with a complaint. He should be heard, and his complaint should be investigated. He should not be erased without an explanation. HP — and other big companies embracing this new medium — have only just begun its learning experience.

(I’m going to send a note to David Gee and ask for his comments, which I’ll post here later.)

The Tag Report III: Bowen Dwelle

Here’s a chat I had with Bowen Dwelle on tagging.

JW: i just wanted to get my brain around your tag posting, and get your views on the broader tagging (r)evolution.

Bowen: I attempted some sort of explanation of this in this post:
Bowen: said again, there are several ways to classify information — human top down (Dewey, DMOZ, old Yahoo directory), machine “AI”, machine brute force (Google), etc. Brute force is great, but doesn’t allow the human value-add and the power to social networking to take effect…
JW: yeah, that’s well put…
Bowen: Top-down categorization breaks down almost immediately. I used to build search engines and such (HotBot), and I never thought that directories were very interesting at all. Think about how confusing the yellow pages is because you don’t know where to find Restaurant, Supplies, Retail – ugh.
Bowen: So even though there is some built-in level of “error” in tags (mis-spellings, synonyms, etc), in aggregate the social network adds more meaning than it costs in terms of effort.
JW: where do you see it going?
Bowen: As illustrated by my own crude efforts on my blog, I think that a “tag” centric view of one’s own online world is a useful one. The number of recent tools that have emerged that leverage the tag metaphor shows that people get it.
Bowen: Technorati, Flickr, delicious, etc
Bowen: Some are pointing to Google’s nofollow
Bowen: “nofollow” thing as a “tag” – although I don’t think it’s quite the same
JW: that’s just a way to cut comment spam from page rankings, no?
Bowen: right.
Bowen: but gmail does tags…
JW: that’s true.
Bowen: basically, the idea of having some mechanism to tie various axes of data (email, links, photos, etc) together, and then being able to pivot on those axes is very useful
Bowen: it gives people a comprehensible way to link things together
Bowen: and, most importantly, it gives people a way to link to other people, and — potentially — to be grouped together..

Thanks, Bowen.

WhenU Addresses Its Image Problem

The whole WhenU story gets weirder and weirder.

Last week Ben Edelman, the privacy hound, pointed out that the besieged pop-up provider WhenU was ‘cloaking’ itself. This means, in Ben’s words, ”using prohibited ‘cloaking’ methods to make search engines think certain WhenU servers offer content of interest to readers seeking certain search terms, when in fact the servers merely redirect readers to articles favorable to WhenU.” The result: ”WhenU elevates the visibility of sites it selects, while pushing critics’ sites lower in search engine rankings.”

Google and Yahoo have since removed from their listing all WhenU sites involved in the scheme. WhenU, for their part, have blamed an outside company for the move: “WhenU hired an outside Search Engine Optimization firm to legitimately enhance our search engine rankings. These issues were brought to our attention today, and we immediately addressed the situation and instructed the outside firm to reverse their actions. We anticipate being relisted at the major search engines shortly,” says Avi Naider of WhenU.

Now Ben has spotted something that WhenU may find harder to explain away: WhenU has, he says, stacked copies of more than two dozen news articles on at least 12 of its websites in an apparent attempt to create a “boost in visibility of this pro-WhenU content, at the expense of content critical to WhenU”. These websites include a dizzying smorgasbord of names, including whenubuild.com, whenuchat.com, whenyoucook.com, whenudecorate.com, whenulearn.com, whenumail.com, whenuretire.com, whenusleuth.com, whenusurf.com, whenyouinvest.com, and whereuinvest.net.

Of course there’s nothing wrong in itself with doing this, although the intention seems to be clearly the same as the earlier the move — to improve search results for webpages referring positively to WhenU. But as Ben points out: “Research has yet to determine whether WhenU has authorization to make these article copies, but the articles mention no such authorization. The articles also lack ordinary statements of copyright by their respective publications.”

I’ve sought comment from WhenU on this, and will post anything once I receive it. At first glance it does appear that WhenU are taking desperate measures in the face of public criticism and legal challenges. It will be interesting