Spammers, ugh… sorry, internet marketers use various means to promote products and services over the Internet. Sending unsolicited emails, posting junky comments on blogs and forums and, in general, making life of other people difficult.
Last week we looked closer at SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and how Wikidot was being (ab)used by marketers to promote online content.
A short explanation what SEO is: most people search the internet using Google or other search engines. E.g. if you are looking for a store with cat food, you most likely type "where to buy cat food", "cat food best price" or "cat food in London" into Google. On the other hand, if you are a shop owner, you would like to be listed on the very top of the search results. SEO is a set of techniques that tell you how to make your website "Google-friendly".
Meet black-hat SEO
Google and other search engines rank results by relevancy and how well recognized a given website is. Just having an online store is not enough. To show importance of your website, you need other websites to link to yours. The more links, the more Google thinks your website is important. Sounds reasonable? Right. Until some start cheating.
Meet automated content creation
So how do you get such links? You can encourage bloggers to write about your website. You could ask friends to link to you from their websites. But you can also buy them legitimately. There are online brokers that will sell you links on decent and high-ranked websites.
But there is a cheaper way: use free services (like Wikidot, Wordpress and hundreds of others) to create sites, pages, blog posts and comments that link to each other, and to the website you are promoting. This way a person can create a whole universe of websites, all for free, that will try to cheat Google into thinking your store with cat food is really well known and popular. Otherwise, why would so many websites link to it?
Creating hundreds of pages by hand is possible, but not effective. I would get bored after just a few. Fortunately for some, there are tools to automate the process — setting up fake accounts, starting blogs, wikis etc. They even integrate with paid services that can read captchas. There is a whole universe of tools and the black-hat SEO business, although ethically disputable, is doing pretty well.
Spam content on Wikidot
Over the last few months we have observed increased SEO-related activity, mostly from automated tools. Nothing surprising — Wikidot is a well-known place for publishing content, and new websites are picked up by Google pretty fast. We have seen automated account creation (commonly using Hotmail email addresses), almost bare-bone websites containing just a single article promoting a particular website, linking and being linked from other such sites created on Blogspot, Wordpress, Tumblr etc.
And why don't we like it?
As long as these "marketing sites" are isolated, not affecting other Wikidot sites and users, why would we care? Because they are spam, they cost us real money and they are abusing our platform which is not a place for automated marketing. At Wikidot, we do not want to participate in it.
And one thing for sure — if we don't stop it, Wikidot could be flooded by SEO activity and low-quality websites. I have seen several projects that allowed such activity (because it brings new "users", new "content", and you know, numbers matter) and they are now either dead or losing their business, because legitimate users avoid them.
Site verification from now on
A while ago, with support from our most engaged users, we have started verifying most of the created sites. Most "marketing" sites are usually deleted within a few hours. Of course, there is no impact on legitimate sites.
Also I'd like to give a big thanks to Helmuti_pdorf, RobElliott, leiger, Timothy Foster, Ed Johnson and Gabrys for helping us to survive the spam flood! It would be much more difficult and much less funny without you.
Disclaimer: In no way do I claim to be an expert in SEO, so please forgive me if I messed up somewhere above.
Image by jisakiel.