Friday, December 13th, 2013
37

The Golden Era Of Spam Comments Has Ended

The search engine optimization community has spent the last two years in a panic. SEO people flood our Internet with spam links and fake Twitter bots and paid traffic, to help bad websites look more popular than they are, to deliver fake viewers to web ads.

They now spend their lives on the run, Google nipping at their heels. Their biggest project? Removing all the spam links on websites like this one—the spam links that they put there.

In early 2011, Google issued an update to its search algorithm—they called it "Panda"—that elevated social media and news sites. Sites both big and small, usually spammy and sometimes not, saw major decline in their Google traffic. Companies like About and Mahalo and eHow cratered. Google said they wanted for "the 'good guys' making great sites for users, not just algorithms, to see their effort rewarded."

In spring of 2012, Google moved on from Panda to Penguin, which further refined that goal, though still the updates sometimes had a negative effect on non-spam sites, cutting traffic to older and larger sites.

But it was the Penguin 2.1, released in October, that sent spammers to the bitter edge; now they can't repent fast enough for their spammy sins.

Given how ubiquitous the act of Googling something has become, it is easy to forget how much goes into returning search results. "Google's algorithm takes into account dozens of criteria," wrote the New York Times in 2011, after J.C. Penney was penalized for having paid a search-engine optimization firm to place incoming links around the web. "But it has described one crucial factor in detail: links from one site to another."

Essentially, the more your site is linked to across the web, the higher Google will rank you, and links from sites that are similar to your own are better than links from sites that have nothing to do with anything. Over time, the quality of those links has become more and more important. (This 43-page PDF from Google is more specific, if you're really interested.)

Those links, in part, have an effect on one's placement in search results. Many of the J.C. Penney spam links were published on web sites that seemed to exist solely for that purpose: as a space for spam links to live. Out of the way, they never intruded directly on the experience of the average internet user (who may or may not be a robot anyway).

But: what's the easiest way to place a link on a site you don't own? Why, it's blog comments.

Hairpin user "michaeljohn," you will see, has a lot of substantive contributions to make to the conversation, like "buy bongs." (Fun!) We call this "black hat" linking. Web publishers—even as they pine for Google's affections, or at least play by Google's rules—are besieged by such comments.

So the black hat spam folks who spread these links across the Internet have reversed course. The Awl, and other websites like it, receive email after email each day from companies requesting that we help them clean up their presence in the comments, deleting links posted by fake accounts, the log-in information for which has long been lost or never recorded.

This isn't only happening in The Awl's inboxes, either. "The funny thing is, we don't actually want that spam lurking around in old comments," Boing Boing's Rob Beschizza wrote to me in an email. "But we obviously like seeing the spammers suffering as a result of their own misbehavior."

"So we just leave it up," he wrote, "even though we don't want it, in the hope that Google may penalize them further."

And exactly what form do those penalties take?

"For 500 keywords that we track, 90% of them were on page one," Or Hillel told me over Skype. ("Keywords" are usually the words associated with the linked site; if your link is to a gambling website, well, "gambling" is a good keyword.) Hillel has worked in SEO for the past eight years and was, a few months ago, hired to be the Inbound Marketing Manager at MyCurrencyTransfer.com—tasked to protect the brand. As is often the case, one SEO person is undoing the previous work of long-gone SEO people.

"The average drop was from page one to page five in Google," he said. In some cases they even dropped as low as page ten. How often do you find yourself on the fifth—much less the tenth—page of Google results? If you've gotten that far, you're better off just refining or revising your search terms.

"We needed to delete all of the bad links," he said. "It was a big list—a few thousand, even ten thousand links. We just moved one by one: this is a toxic link, we need to delete it; this is a good, natural link."

"We had links from the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, and we had links from profiles in shitty forums or small websites that we didn't want to get the link from," he said. Apparently by that he meant… us. So the goal clearly isn't to remove all spam links. Just the least-good ones.

This is very sneaky, what they had done here. They made a commenter profile—and then put the spam link in the commenter profile's description. Clever.

I asked Hillel whether they considered hiring the SEO company who had placed those links to begin with to clean up the mess they'd made.

"That's a problem. It's a freelance company that no longer exists," Hillel told me. "I don't know the name of the company. Is it important?"

A few minutes after I hung up with Hillel, his boss, Dan Abrahams, one of the co-founders of My Currency Exchange, called me on my phone. He asked about the article, and whether I could keep his company's name out of the story. They're very protective of their brand's identity, he said, and didn't want to be associated with these kinds of shady practices. Which is why, presumably, they paid a bunch of spammers—"freelancers from the Philippines"—in the first place.

Abrahams wasn't able to find any records of his company's business with the (allegedly) now-defunct SEO firm, either. You think there'd be a receipt somewhere.

My Currency Exchange isn't the only B R A N D to reach out to The Awl, asking for links that they paid for to be removed. (Also, not every SEO company has figured all this out! There are still people paying people to place spam comments on sites like this one.)

My favorite are the emails from OneFlare.com.au.

"We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links," Selena Le wrote on October 20th. "These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings."

"We have discovered that a company we hired to help promote our website have used a variety of questionable techniques to secure links," Nick Chernih wrote on December 5th. "These links were placed purely for SEO purposes, with the intention of manipulating search rankings."

You don't say.

"The presence of these links is harmful to our site's good standing with search engines," the good people from Oneflaire.com.au each wrote. "Unfortunately, retaining them may also be potentially harmful to your own website's reputation.

Very threatening! And fairly hilarious: If you do not delete these comments that we paid to have placed on your site, Google will punish you.

That's possibly true. "Generally, it's fine for sites to have paid links as long as they're clearly labeled as ads and don't pass PageRank," a Google spokesperson wrote to me via email. "We may take action on sites that don't follow our quality guidelines."

Beschizza isn't worried. Google, he wrote, has said "they're not going to penalize users or disavowed links."

"I would hope there are still implicit consequences for asking Google to do this," he wrote. "It is a rather obvious admission of foul play, and while Google may forgive, it surely does not forget."

"www.theawl.com has a number of links pointing to our site," wrote a man named Ben, who identified himself as the owner of Identity Theft Protection dot org. "We would appreciate it if you removed them as soon as possible. We would be happy to provide you with a full count and list of the links if you would like."

"We understand that you may have not been responsible for building the link(s)," wrote "Jobs in FMCG," "but we would really appreciate it if you could remove the link(s) from where it appears on the page(s)."

Indeed, The Awl certainly was not responsible. Who was? "The excuses are always choice," Beschizza wrote. "My favorite one is that a competitor put their spam there. You know, as if a competitor would have thought, in 2007 or so, "Let's put out spam promoting our rival’s site, just on the off chance than in five years Google will penalize them!"

What then, is an SEO firm to do? "The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community," Google says. Simple enough! If you build it, they will come, and all that. Still, even if you build it, they still need to be able to search for it, which is why they have this nice, 32-page Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

So the new SEO tactic is to email hustling for links—good links, not obvious spam links. "I noticed that you mentioned a page on the FDA's website—I'm not sure if you heard, but the FDA stepped down from a lawsuit with the tobacco companies earlier this year that required the graphic warning labels," a Sarah Green emailed us to say recently. (Real name? probably not.) She goes on to offer a link to an anti-cigarette lobbying group. (Barking up the wrong tree, as they say.) She closed: "Just wanted to give you a heads up :-)."

The other, more fascinating method, is that offered by the online marketing manager who identified herself only at "Monika" when she emailed The Awl. Now, Monika ain't no dummy. Homegirl knows what the score is.

"SEO is dead as we know it," Monika wrote. "The old math of increased back links and stuffing keywords is now a target to identify your site and bury it in the search results."

"SEO is no longer a math problem," she wrote. "It's a human one. Social indicators are becoming key to Ranking and link algorithms are being retired."

"It's time for you to see the truth about SEO and adjust accordingly."

I have seen the truth, and it's Monika's THIRTY-SEVEN POINT PLAN to get The Awl to the "1st Page at Google." (That was actually the subject line of her email.)

Here below is the content marketing activities "Monthly Task and responsibilities"
1. 200 Press Release Submissions (20 press release x 10 press release websites)
2. 20 Press releases, 400+ words written
3. 5 Unique Articles will be written
4. 5 Web 2.0 Properties will be made
5. 5 Unique "how to Articles" will be written
6. 5 Face book Pages will be created
7. 5 Twitter channels will be created
8. Will increase twitter followers?
9. 1 YouTube channel will be created
10. 10 YouTube videos will be created by Animoto.com (paid)
11. Will likes, shares, tweets, reedits, and 1+ in order to get natural back links
12. Anchor text diversity (will not use exact keywords for back links).
13. Will get Natural back links by link worthy articles
14. Will draft & submit 5 articles to Ezinearticles.com
15. Will create Google+ page for your business
16 will distribute 15 posts daily via Google+ Page
17. Will participate in Forum
18. Will create blog for your website
19. Will make 1 post daily on your blog
20. Will bookmark real content to leading 150 Social Book marking sites as dig, delicious
21. Will submit your website to 10 leading Web directories as Dmoz.org On-Page work activities "Follow only first month".
22. Meta tags/Title tag changes
23. Keyword research/Analysis
24. Competitor Analysis
25. Analysis by our Paid Seamus Program
26. Heading tag changes
27. Alt tag changes
28. Interlinking wherever required.
29. Keyword density in site content.
30. HTML Site Map
31. XML site map and Submission in webmaster tool
32. Ror.XML File creation
33. Robots.Txt File creation Extra work activities
34. Google Webmaster tools
35. Google Analytics
36. Html to text ratio optimization
37. Keyword Prominence

Sounds interesting? Feel free to email us or alternatively you can provide me with your phone number and the best time to call you.
Many Thanks
Monika

How exhausting. But I think we should go for it, honestly.





Brendan O'Connor is a writer in New York. Photo by Dan Foy.

37 Comments / Post A Comment

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Okay guys, who can do the funniest spam commenter comment?

deepomega (#1,720)

@Tulletilsynet A reliable commenter always comes-up with new and exciting jokes and while reading I have experience that this commenter is really have all those quality that qualify a commenter to be a good one. christmascats

deepomega (#1,720)

Once the CASCADE arrives, none of this will matter because there will be no links. Only a ceaseless torrent of identity protection and cash4gold brands.

destor23 (#9,892)

I liked the author's post about spam comments and am eager to read more from this author.

Can you believe that I just made $500 working from home out of the comfort of my home?

My employer gets emailed by search engine optimizers all the time, telling us that they can improve our search engine ranking by buying links for us. This is particularly sad/hilarious because I work for Wikipedia.

bob bob (#254,952)

@ForOnceIWishAwlHadKinja Obviously, your employer already works with a good SEO firm. Perhaps you would care to share?

@bob bob I assume your comment is tongue-in-cheek, but just in case: we don't. We earn the Google-love the old-fashioned way: by writing content that doesn't suck and that people link to organically. Pretty good summary here.

~ swinton (#217,366)

@ForOnceIWishAwlHadKinja Aah! I used to receive those very emails. Have you gotten the traditional parcels from the lady in Canada this year?

You really should go for it. I am dying to know what the awl created content youtube videos would be like.

Alright, you guys caught me: I never had pine mouth.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Clarence Rosario In the pocket of Big Pine Nut, I see. Were you lying then or are you lying now?

jolie (#16)

@Clarence Rosario My home is filthy.

@jolie I DRINK in January. Like a fish.

jolie (#16)

@Clarence Rosario I heard you don't even know how to boil water!

jolie (#16)

BALK'S A TEETOTLER! CHOIRE IS A DOG PERSON! MARIA DOESN'T BELIEVE IN THE INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE! ABE IS FROM NAPA!

@jolie I'm a vegan!

Smitros (#5,315)

Now we'll lose track of how much people make per hour working on the computer.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Smitros I make $21 an hour working on the computer ask me how!

Br. Seamus (#217)

I'm obviously very interested in this "Paid Seamus Program."

"Oh, that's where we take a guy named Seamus and pay him. Google loves it."

15233577@twitter (#254,960)

Hm … maybe I should approve the 60,000 spam comments that Akismet has blocked?

741803@twitter (#254,994)

I turned comments off on my blog because of spammers. I was spending too much time "managing" them. They will never be turned on again. If people want to comment, they have Twitter now.

Ed Borasky / @znmeb

Every time Google makes a change somebody writes an article like this saying SEO is dead. It is the opposite. The more Google does to stop it the more an SEO has to sell. People are still doing things Google killed 10 years ago. There are companies that still sell a service to submit your website to 1000 search engines. There are still companies that charge people to add meta keywords to every page when Google has said for many years that they ignore that completely. People still tell people that if your site loads faster you will rank in Google because Google mentioned once that it might have a very tiny tiny affect on SEO. There are probably 10,000+ people in India and other countries that still make a very good living making spam comments and there is plenty of stupid people that hire them. For every person that realizes that things have changed and they need to stop doing some bad SEO tactic there is 50 new people that have been sold some $150 SEO plan that involves this kind of stuff.

3570231@twitter (#255,039)

.

EXCELLENT!!!

I hadn't heard about that before. I did notice my google traffic suddenly drop a bit. It happened right on the dot in January two years ago. (I run one of those giant old sites, heyday for Science Hobbyist was 1999.)

I knew it had to be a google algorithm change. But it was done to hurt spammers? Cool!

If I could help bankrupt even a few of those. I'd gladly sacrifice my entire google incoming traffic. Heh, maybe I should put my old webBBS back up again. Even with huge volunteer efforts it was clogged with spammers, and I gave up on it.

Oh, and there ARE things that greatly affect google ranking. Nobody will find out though.

3570231@twitter (#255,039)

.

.

_______________________________________________________________

Oh, also, I too experienced turned off comments on my blog because of They will never be turned on [mesothelioma] EXCELLENT!! The real problem is do the funniest spam commenter comment?

Excellent blog here, I highly approve of contact me I need to recover a very old user password ASAP.

I too am vegan like a fish.

lakawak (#245,249)

HAs ended? Apparently the unemployed "writer" who wrote this article hasn't been on the internet lately to see that they are still going strong.

lakawak (#245,249)

And this would al be great if Google did this just for spam. But as we know, they also penalize companies that don't do business with them. OR ones that don't have a Google+ account even though no one has EVER looked up a company looking for their Google+ account.

Danny Sullivan (#255,062)

There's so much wrong with this article, but let me start with the headline — the idea that Google has somehow done something that's going to stop spam comments.

No, that's not the case. No, the "Golden Age Of Spam Comments" hasn't ended. That's because if there was a golden age when these actually worked, that was back before 2005, before the "nofollow" attribute was widely introduced and integrated into so many commenting systems.

If you don't know what nofollow is, I won't drop a link to our background story on this, because ironically that might set-off a spam filter. But Google: "Infographic: What Is The Nofollow Tag; When & How To Use It," and you'll find our information on Search Engine Land.

In short, nofollow was introduced as a way to prevent links from passing credit. It was pushed for after many people felt comment spamming was out of control. And yet, despite being introduced in 2005, the comment spamming continued. If anything, it got worse.

That happened despite the fact that so many of these links just didn't help you rank for anything in Google, any longer. So why did it keep going? For one, because many spammers aren't that educated. They'll spam and spam and spam, especially because it's cheap and easy, especially with automated tools.

So now, The Awl thinks that Google's crackdown on bad links is going to help do what nofollow failed to do? Doubtful.

For one, some of the same uneducated people who spammed for links are now trying to get links removed out of fear they are hurting them, when they might not be.

For another, there are still plenty of uneducated people who are just going to keep spamming anyway.

For a third reason, this isn't something that magically happened just in October. Google's crackdown on link spamming (of the comment or other type) happened with Penguin 1 in April 2012 (to learn more about Penguin, Google "google penguin update" and our Search Engine Land library page has more information about this.

Link warnings like described, panic over removal, all that stuff soon followed. In fact, the freakout got so bad that Google introduced a "link disavow" tool in October 2012 to help those who tried to get links removed but couldn't.

So all that's happening, but The Awl is writing that a year later, in October 2013, the panic hit? No. The panic just continued as it was already going on. Penguin 2.1, by the way, was actually Penguin 5 if you number according to the "waves" or releases of when penalties were issued. After each wave, a group of sites are hit, then they tried to get things removed — but despite these wave, the comment spam continues.

Seriously, did anyone notice that comment spamming got less from April 2012 through October 2013? No. But Google's Penguin algorithm was live, penalties notices were going out and yet cheap automated tool keep it going.

That leads to the third major issue with the article. "The SEO community" isn't in a panic over this, nor do "SEO people" flood the internet with spam links. Spammers do.

SEO is a set of best practices that the search engines themselves recommend, such as in the starter guide that The Awl links to in this story. Spamming is going against those best practices. To call spamming "SEO" is like saying sending an email is sending spam mail or that stealing is shopping.

Finally, the article talks about the idea that link quality is more important than number, as if this is some sudden new change. It's not. That's actually been at the core of Google since it literally started (other search engines did only count links without assessing authority). Google has worked to try and improve how it determines quality over the years, but there's been no sudden new change. Indeed, Penguin isn't about rewarding quality links. It's about Google doing a better job of trying to prevent and penalize spammers for doing things it was supposedly supposed to be already catching but not doing a good enough job with.

So "the new SEO tactic" of hustling for good links isn't new at all. That's just good SEO — and, in fact, has long been the recommended tactic of Google. That also means that SEO isn't "dead as we know it," because you weren't writing about SEO. You were writing about spam. And the spam, I'm sad to say, in comments probably will still continue. We just have the added fun of seeing some of the dumb spammers who didn't understand these failed to help now continuing, as they've done for the past year, wasting their time trying to get them removed. And maybe, just maybe, a few will get out of the spamming game.

Steve Mahard (#255,165)

@Danny Sullivan
I agree with Danny, much of what you wrote about is not new. What real SEOs have been doing is helping clients that have been fooled by scam SEO companies (spammers) by trying to fix a lot of their shoddy work, primarily link profiles.

Search Engine Land has been writing about this subject for some time now. There is an article that goes back to Oct 26, 2010 called "How To Clean Up Your Link Profile", this was long before webmaster inboxes were getting bombarded with the emails you mentioned.

I agree with your comments about linking out to other quality sites but you still need others to link back to your site. Some feel they can control how others link back to them if they offer to guest blog, but Matt Cutts just addressed this on the GoogleWebmasterHelp channel on Youtube with a video called "What should I be aware of if I'm considering guest blogging?" These types of links may appear to Google as spam.

So how do you get the type of links you want? Over at Marketing Land, Courtney Seiter wrote an article called "9 Real-Life Rules For Creating Shareable Content". In short, it has to be great content that people will want to read, if they read it, then they may want to share it, which takes more than some spun article stuffed with keywords.

Thanks Danny for taking the time to be as specific as you were.

ThomasJ (#255,081)

This is really just an opportunity for publishers to earn on having hosted all those bad links. If companies want you to labour at removing their links – links that they paid someone/bot to insert – it's only natural that they pay someone to remove them. They can also choose to spend their money chasing link disavowals by the tens of thousands.

572417260@twitter (#255,100)

HaHaHa! That's me, laughing at all the people who are reaping what they once sowed in SEO world…

My only mild concern is that a lot of companies might have signed up for SEO services not knowing that some opportunistic jerk was going to be link spamming, and their site took a hit as a result.

Just prior to starting my most recent job, my supervisor hired an SEO company that went and did a veritable check-list of bad SEO practices, and we're paying for it now. In this case my supervisor was just a victim of snakeoil SEO salesmen who were so incompetent they didn't even know that their SEO practices were now toxic. Frustrating.

KarenUhOh (#19)

It's about time someone explained to me how to get paid for posting drivelly comments on websites.

A nod to Danny's comments. My only disagreement with Danny's comment is that I do believe there are a different "SEO Communities" in the marketplace. There are those that are truly trying to do SEO best practices such as posting relevant content with links to relevant sources, etc., and then I believe there is a different community that bills itself as "SEO Experts" who are making money by doing what they call SEO practices that are not necessarily in the best interest of SEO. Those are the ones that tend to align closer with spammers than with content creators.

I'd also like to point out that there is value to spam links beyond just the SEO benefit. I run a number of very high profile forums that get hammered with spam. Our filters kick out thousands of registrations and posts trying to spam the communities. The SEO value to these folks is pretty much zero for reasons Danny pointed out — we simply nofollow all links in posts. Having said that, a text ad on a site is worth a tiny amount too. There is always that chance someone will click a link whether on purpose or accidentally. Those clicks can add up too. I believe this is why we see spamming getting worse on our sites.

Anyone in a position to decide to hire an SEO is usually intelligent enough to do what any sensible employer would do and search for or ask for references. There are many good freelancers and SEO companies that are more than happy to provide these. We don't like the inundation of Cowboy SEO's either. Today is no different than 10 years ago – anyone that bought WebPositionGold and could find someone willing to pay was suddenly an SEO. It happened before that with "Webmasters" and anyone that owned Front Page 5.0. Here's a hint – Search for them on Google. Do your research. Good SEO isn't cheap and like an investment of any kind, knowledge is priceless.

We have been telling you for 15 years that you can't "Be Number One on Google in Under 30 days for $495" – You just thought we were trying to inflate your rates.

What exactly do you think we do?

As a professional SEO company with many top clients I can tell you – definitely not what you assume.

Most of our days are spend analysing data, creating content and social media campaigns which will naturally draw links and more importantly REAL people. We spend tens of thousands on software and staff to work tirelessly on what we dub "Right Hat" rather than 'White Hat". We brand-protect and constantly monitor on-site and off-site data and essentially are the right hand of your marketing efforts.

As Danny (One of the most respected SEO's in the industry if you weren't aware) mentioned, none of the points you have made are anything new. Cowboy SEO's have been using automated software like Hrefer, SENuke, Market Samurai, Traffic Travis and other software like WebPositionGold that has been around for at least ten years. If you want it REAL cheap go to Fiverr.com and hire the same guys you paid $495 to that got you in this mess to begin with.

Effective SEO/SMM pays for itself and like anything else, if it sounds too good…

(Ps. Email hustling for links is hardly new. In fact if I recall (I'm 47 and of 16 yrs online 6 was a super affiliate and 10 as an SEO), emaIl requests to Webmasters for a link or link exchange was my very first tactic)

GaryTheScubaGuy

1331647128@twitter (#256,815)

The hurdle is now removed and the way is now open for the all and now you can get your deserving position in the google SERPs.Google updates proves to be most influential updates and now it's the time of quality work rather than following Wolfy tricks.

Just wanted to give a huge THANKS for this article. I cannot count how many emails we get (oddly enough, tons from Australian sites lately) requesting we remove their links. What irritates me is that they (or someone they hired) do something wrong and then want us to clean up their mess. I have a standard email I send back that includes a section that says if Google were to penalize us we would likely use their email as evidence of lack of action in a possible court case. We aren't a small company, so thankfully we could pursue something if we wanted. It would be nice if Google would come out and publicly say 'Spammers – Don't expect the sites you spammed to fix this for you. Any emails to said sites will result in an automatic delisting' or something.
Ill be passing this article around to some people in my company so they better understand my frustration.
thanks!

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