New Spammer Panic
December 16, 2013 7:46 AM   Subscribe

 
That is very satisfying.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:56 AM on December 16, 2013 [10 favorites]


Fascinating article, but unless I'm misreading it, it's leaving out the most fascinating part:

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.


In-between those two paragraphs, what exactly changed that made them reverse course? I'm assume some update to the Google algorithm, but it doesn't seem to be explained anywhere. What happened that suddenly made all of those links that people paid to place, suddenly the kiss of death?
posted by jbickers at 8:01 AM on December 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


On that article, the comments really are worth reading.
posted by entropone at 8:04 AM on December 16, 2013


"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."

I love this SO MUCH.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:08 AM on December 16, 2013 [15 favorites]


Hrmmmm.

Has anyone created fake SEO spam on a site? A whole site dedicated to some of the most obvious SEO spam as ginned up comments?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2013


Does this explain why ask.metafilter often comes up as the number 1 hit when I'm searching for answers to questions? Or is that just search personalization?
posted by Carillon at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2013


Fascinating article, but unless I'm misreading it, it's leaving out the most fascinating part

Uh...did you miss the top half of the linked article, that talked about Google's fall 2011 "panda" revision to it algorithm, and subsequent "penguin" and "penguin 2.1" releases?

This is interesting, and very satisfying, for anyone who ever operated a mid-2000s blog and had to delete hundreds of the damn things.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of this is only a matter to time before they re-game the system -- I have an acquaintance who works for a company that employs hundreds if freelancers to write original content for commercial/business sites, specifically to help their ranking.

I imagine creating an spammer controlled network of accounts within Facebook and Twitter that shares these links among themselves is probably already happening...I wonder how big it'd have to be to look plausible...
posted by Diablevert at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


jbickers - they reference the change at the start of the article, but not very clearly. Basically Google runs a bit of software called Penguin that's meant to penalize websites that get high search rankings through spammy search engine optimization. The latest release was in October and it seems to be penalizing links in unrelated web comments/profiles.
posted by muddgirl at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Following the outcry in the SEO community has been interesting. Suddenly everyone has been targeted by a nefarious competitor that's been doing adversarial SEO - for years! - or they've hired an SEO firm that's been doing black hat stuff behind their backs. Actually, the latter might be true because businesses are generally clueless what their SEO firm is doing.

Tip: if you're hiring an SEO firm, make sure you have it on paper exactly what they're going to do to drive traffic to your site.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:22 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the explanation, muddgirl; I'm not quite getting it either. How does it know that the web sites are unrelated?
posted by Melismata at 8:22 AM on December 16, 2013


Seems fair. As a moderator on another site, I still have to delete this stuff and ban people for it daily. We started getting spam for various blogspot sites a few months ago, and it just will not stop.
posted by Slinga at 8:27 AM on December 16, 2013


Bwhahaha, glorious.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:28 AM on December 16, 2013


As a member of the SEO community, I can tell you we have not been living the past few years in a panic.

Since we focus on quality, we see the changes to the Google Algorithm as an opportunity.

Feel bad for those poor bastards in India and the Philippines, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:35 AM on December 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the explanation, muddgirl; I'm not quite getting it either. How does it know that the web sites are unrelated?

It's hard to find good reporting on this, because it's of greatest concern to SEO blogs who have a pretty specific knowledge base and bias. This article has a pretty comprehensive list of the kinds of backlinks that are being targeted. Google identifies a bad backlink by algoritmically evaluating the source of the link and the destination. If there's a comment in an article called "Women Laughing at Salad" to a website containing images of women laughing at salad, it's probably a good link. If it's to a webstore selling bongs, it's probably (but not 100% guaranteed to be) a spam link. Google can look at all the backlinks to a specific domain or webpage to identify a trend.
posted by muddgirl at 8:35 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does this explain why ask.metafilter often comes up as the number 1 hit when I'm searching for answers to questions? Or is that just search personalization?

Google loves metafilter.

As of the time/date stamp of this post the word p00pstickz produces no results.
Your search - p00pstickz - did not match any documents.

Suggestions:

Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
Try different keywords.
Try more general keywords.
I bet you that before 11 this page will be the first result. I further bet that you could make 1,000 websites and link them all together using that word and metafilter will still be the top result (it's the oldest reference, metafilter is a "quality" site, etc.).

So even if google had no idea who you were ask is often in the top results. Add in that google probably is tailoring results, and you get the results you do.

One of the things I find fascinating about trying to game the SEO results is how changes to the google algorithms affect my sites. Since I don't engage in any kind of astroturfing I generally just go up in the ranks as they adjust for scammers.

My SEO rules are simple:
  1. Use titles and keywords in your metadata that reflect your content.
  2. Use H headers that reflect your content
  3. Makes sure your content is updated regularly
  4. Submit a site map to google
  5. Have a valid robots file
  6. Use google analytics and track down any problems google reports
  7. Patch your CMS
  8. Kill spam links in comment (if you allow comments)
  9. Don't be an asshole.
    posted by cjorgensen at 8:37 AM on December 16, 2013 [76 favorites]


    Google Analytics no longer provides much keyword data; this information was a key component of SEO prior to September 2013.

    This is a good thing, because the lack of definitive keyword data means SEO'ers have to focus more on on-page natural language, rather than shoehorning in high volume keyword combinations.

    No El Cheapo SEO shop is going to be able to provide that sort of service.
    posted by KokuRyu at 8:38 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    I've gotten a couple of requests from companies to take down links lately. I am sure it's being driven by this, but could be wrong. I generally reply with a polite "Go fuck yourself," since my links are valid. I didn't accept anything for them for a link, and chances are my linking text is something like, "I find this company repugnant."
    posted by cjorgensen at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


    My joy at seeing spammers get their comeuppance is admittedly slightly tempered by the reminder of how totally Google controls the advertising economy, and can transform its landscape with a single executive decision here or there.
    posted by oliverburkeman at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


    Yup, 1 result!
    posted by Theta States at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


    I've gotten a few emails from these kind of guys asking for me to remove their spam comments from my blog. On the one hand, I would love to let them suffer and leave the harmful links there. On the other hand, thanks for letting me know about those spam comments that made it through the filter I guess.
    posted by Gordafarin at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013


    Fascinating cjorgensen, I'm waiting with bated breath to see if you're right! Do you know why google loves metafilter? I see from the article that they say it prioritizes 'good sites' but what makes us such a good site to love?
    posted by Carillon at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    My SEO rules are simple:

    You forgot one thing: social signals. Google now monitors whether or not your content is shared online. The most basic way is to examine referrals. If people are coming to your site via Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or (gasp) Google Plus (it happens; one of our resort clients is getting bookings from Google Plus), your search ranking compared to competitors will improve.
    posted by KokuRyu at 8:41 AM on December 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


    Good links and good content, updated frequently, and been around forever in internet years, Carillon.
    posted by Mister_A at 8:41 AM on December 16, 2013


    Thanks for the explanation, muddgirl; I'm not quite getting it either. How does it know that the web sites are unrelated?

    I doubt it's all that hard, given the quality of spam comments I've seen. Most of them have links in the author profile or disguised under an unrelated word, to stuff like sketchy online drugstores or other dubious merchant sites. A site like The Awl, which basically does wry New York-centric pop culture criticism, probably doesn't have all that many articles or incoming links on the subject of semi-legal male enhancement or where to buy subwoofers for your car.
    posted by Diablevert at 8:42 AM on December 16, 2013


    Good links and good content, updated frequently, and been around forever in internet years, Carillon.

    There was a dark few years where crap links, crap content, and created-and-abandoned flourished, however.
    posted by Theta States at 8:42 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Fascinating cjorgensen, I'm waiting with bated breath to see if you're right! Do you know why google loves metafilter? I see from the article that they say it prioritizes 'good sites' but what makes us such a good site to love?

    - A very old domain
    - Matt, PB, jessamyn and Josh have all played important parts in the development of the web
    - A ton of activity (50,000 users)
    - A ton of fresh content
    - A ton of links from a ton of different domains
    - Many of the links are from places like NYT, Boing Boing, etc
    - Because of this "quality" signal, Google is likely to index MF quickly
    - Because MF is quickly indexed, all the other stuff is reinforced
    posted by KokuRyu at 8:44 AM on December 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


    Theta States: Oh yeah, and people are going to try and exploit the updated algorithm, but it's (hopefully) getting to the point where folks are just going to throw their hands up in the air and figure if it's this much trouble they might as well just make good content.
    posted by Mister_A at 8:44 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Yup, 1 result!

    Huh. So when I clicked on cjorgensen's link above, there were zero results. This was maybe five minutes before you posted. I clicked again just now and yes, the result is there. So Google was able to index p00pstickz within about five minutes.

    Holy cow!
    posted by suetanvil at 8:46 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


    Yeah it's uncanny. I did a similar thing a few years ago with a nonsense string and there it was! I think the spider has a summer home here or something.
    posted by Mister_A at 8:50 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


    Fascinating Mister_A and KokuRyu. I know very little about SEO so pardon my ignorance. I had no idea that the age of the domain mattered either actually.

    I figured it was mainly dependent upon links to a site and wasn't thinking about all the rest of those factors. Would reddit be similarly loved for a lot of the same reasons?
    posted by Carillon at 8:50 AM on December 16, 2013


    In my experience, Reddit seems to take much longer to get results in search, not place as high, and not really give the most relevant results - I think it's just the sheer volume of noise posts.
    posted by jason_steakums at 8:53 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    And now I want to set up the sockpuppet account 'p00pstickz' on all of the Internet fora I frequent and I'm not even exactly sure why.
    posted by Fezboy! at 8:54 AM on December 16, 2013


    I'm gonna be famous...
    posted by p00pstickz at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2013 [68 favorites]


    d'oh! Shouldn't have announced my plans. Nice timing on the 11:00 birthpost too.
    posted by Fezboy! at 9:03 AM on December 16, 2013


    Sorry Fezboy! Couldn't resist. The timing was incidental, but fortuitous.
    posted by p00pstickz at 9:05 AM on December 16, 2013


    * Types "Upworthy" into Google. *

    Yeah - It's still not right.
    posted by zoo at 9:08 AM on December 16, 2013


    "How dare these spammers make money advertising on the Internet! That's our job!" - Google Ads
    posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:09 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


    I got a message a couple of weeks ago asking me if I'd delete a link I posted in a blog post (not a comment) years ago. It was a snarky blog post and I guess I linked the word bingo randomly to some online bingo site - I have no idea why I did it. The post was about 7 years old and the site still existed, so it seemed like a legitimate if dubious business enterprise. I did delete the link, because it's not like they did anything wrong. I put the link on my own blog, so it only seemed right to delete it if it was causing them a problem.
    posted by COD at 9:10 AM on December 16, 2013


    I have a Wordpress blog and use Akismet so these never got posted anyway. But it was a pain to have to constantly delete all the comments that were flagged. Then it just about stopped and I was wondering why. Now I know. Nice.
    posted by tommasz at 9:15 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I probably enjoyed that far more than I should.
    posted by Artw at 9:18 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Doesn't this Google algorithm create opportunities for adversarial SEO? If I want to screw a competitor's site, can I place bad obviously spammy links to my competitor on a bunch of blogs and Google demotes them?

    One thing I find fascinating about Google's current position is how much power they have over a few big content farm businesses. A spammy website like eHow or about.com makes tens of millions of dollars a year, largely because of Google search referrals. Then Google changes the algorithm and poof that business evaporates. It's a delicate thing and I think Google's search team tries to be fair and ethical in how they make changes, and AFAIK they never target a specific site or company. But it's an awful lot of power they have with a very indirect lever controlling it.
    posted by Nelson at 9:19 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Yeah, I'm caught in the middle of this crap. My personal website has been under attack from spammers for years. I get spam comments, tens of thousands of them. They were all traceable to China, they had long texts with URLs for sites selling fake luxury goods. My spam filter caught most of them, but I was tired of wasting time deleting thousands of spams from my comment filter. So I set up my site with .htaccess to deny from all IP addresses in China. This is apparently such a common problem that someone maintains a website with this list.

    Well that didn't stop them, although it cut down the spam quite a bit. Now the spam comments come from inside the US, presumably through compromised servers. I am beginning to think this should be dealt with by Homeland Security as a Persistent Advanced Threat. What the fuck are we spending billions of dollars on high tech surveillance for, if we can't use it to locate spammers and kill them with drone strikes?

    But it gets worse. One day I want to show a friend something on my website, so I googled it on my iPhone. Click the link, hey WTF that's a viagra-peddling scam site! Linked to MY site! When I get home and investigate, my MovableType site is hacked. If I access the site directly by URL, it loads fine. But if I search it from Google, it's hacked. mod_rewrite is set to redirect any incoming referral from Google or Yahoo to a spammer's site. And worse, it puts a stub in every directory next to my blog article that you searched for, so that any future links to that article will go to the spam site. It took me hours to clear out all that crap, update security and software versions, etc.

    And then I got hacked again. Cleaned it up again. And got hacked again. At this point, I am pretty pissed off at my webhost. I accused them of being hacked themselves. There is some internal security problem beyond the scope of my personal account, that is leaving me defenseless. They assured me that this sort of problem is always the fault of the user, running old, unsecure software. But they'll check into it and get back to me. Yeah right.

    So now it's time to renew my account and pay the annual fee. I go into the control panel for the first time in months, and there's a big blazing red warning "UPDATE YOUR PHP NOW." The version they are running is insecure and has known security holes. But I have no way to update PHP, only the admins can do that. Ah, they've finally patched it, but you have to change a setting to convert over to running the new version. Some users may find older software is incompatible with the new PHP version so they are keeping it available for now.

    Well I told them so. Users were running old PHP versions that allowed privilege escalation, and no doubt hackers got root of the server. And since they have not cut off the old PHP version, the security holes continue to exist. I can armor my site as best I can, but it is probably going to be insufficient to protect me from an attack by a hacker with high administrative privileges. And my webhost is one of the largest in the world, if there is any site targeted by a Chinese Advanced Persistent Threat, this is one of the high priorities.

    Well crap what am I supposed to do now? I have stuck with MovableType for ages, but it appears that development is basically dead and they can't provide timely updates to patch security holes. I am reluctantly going to move to Wordpress. But that has two major problems. Wordpress can respond quickly to patch holes, and they need to, since it is the #1 blog platform and there is a lot of effort directed to trying to break into it. Wordpress security problems can spread across the entire population like wildfire. So while WP is actively developed, you need to keep on top of updates constantly.

    Now the other problem is bigger: SEO. I did everything the right way. I wrote tons of good content, got links from authoritative sites, and hundreds of personal sites. I got "google juice" the hard way, I earned it. But if I convert the site to WP, all the articles will have new URLs. I will lose all my google juice. All of it. The only remedy is to set up a complex system of mod_rewrite so every hit on the old site gets a 301 Moved Permanently message, and then goes on to the new URL. I have only begun to investigate this but it looks like it's going to be a huge pain in the ass. If there is anyone out there who might be able to advise me how to set up this page referral system, drop me a note. I am going to migrate this week, and try to get everything converted by year end at latest, and if I have to burn it all to the ground and lose every drop of google juice in the process, so be it. I am sick of being hacked by spammers.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 9:19 AM on December 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


    SEO community

    This phrase really cracks me up.
    posted by the jam at 9:27 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


    I see the SEO community as a sort of lost boys type vampire gang.
    posted by Annika Cicada at 9:31 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


    My cousin made $7.25 / hour just by reading MetaFilter at work.
    posted by straight at 9:36 AM on December 16, 2013 [26 favorites]


    So does anyone know why those work at home spam posts are never written in the first person? They're always, "My cousin's best friend's next door neighbor makes $60 an hour on the internet."
    posted by octothorpe at 9:43 AM on December 16, 2013


    My sister's friend knows why there are in third person, octothorpe. This same friend can also offer you one weird trick for a flat cat.
    posted by Mister_A at 9:47 AM on December 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


    Well crap what am I supposed to do now?

    Sadly, probably do what most people did a while back: move to a hosted blog platform where somebody else manages all the backend infrastructure and you just type your blog entries into a webform and hit 'submit'. The Internet is not a nice place, if indeed it ever was; managing a website — particularly one running a CMS — is, if not a full time job, at least a really time-consuming hobby. It's the rare blogger who actually wants to do that anymore; you can quite easily end up spending much more time acting as a sysadmin than actually writing anything.

    I came to the conclusion a while back that for whatever reason, I despise content management systems. I've never found one that doesn't make me angry. I'd honestly rather write HTML+CSS in Emacs and stuff it onto a bare Apache server via FTP, than mess with some giant shitheap of code that requires a scripting language and a whole relational database just to run. Ugh.

    Interestingly, I'm apparently not the only one, because there's been a renaissance in static site generators, which are something that I thought fell out of favor years ago. I tend to wonder if that's not because everyone who wants an easy blogging experience has migrated to hosted solutions — Wordpress.com or better yet Blogger, or now everyone just seems to (ab)use Tumblr — leaving the few people who actually want to roll their own self-hosted blog as the same sort of people who think that static page generation is a cool idea.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 9:52 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


    My cousin said it was in case his boss reads MetaFilter.
    posted by straight at 9:52 AM on December 16, 2013


    >SEO community

    This phrase really cracks me up.


    Well, somebody actually has to market and sell products and services that pay the wages of the other people on staff, like developers etc.

    No customers = no jobs.
    posted by KokuRyu at 9:52 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


    You forgot one thing: social signals. Google now monitors whether or not your content is shared online. The most basic way is to examine referrals. If people are coming to your site via Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or (gasp) Google Plus (it happens; one of our resort clients is getting bookings from Google Plus), your search ranking compared to competitors will improve.

    I was going off things I have control over. I can't control who links to my site.

    I did forget one rule: Be polite. So learn how to make sure your images have proper alternative descriptions, write your code in a manner than makes sense to people and machines (and is clean). In general, follow "best practices."

    Do you know why google loves metafilter?

    KokuRyu has it above.

    One of the negative aspects of MF's "link juice" is that it makes for a tempting target. So you get SEO spammers in here trying to get links to their site. Again, since the moderators do such a good job of identifying these and changing their links to example.com google doesn't penalize MF for having crap links.

    At the end of the day I think you don't need SEO optimization. If you have a quality site and stick with it you'll land high in search results. It does take some effort, but if you have quality unique content that is actually relevant and of interest to people you'll be indexed.

    I was going to say 5 minutes in my example above, since I've witnessed this trick often enough, but I decided to give myself 17 minutes to be sure. I'm glad it worked.
    posted by cjorgensen at 9:54 AM on December 16, 2013


    I came to the conclusion a while back that for whatever reason, I despise content management systems. I've never found one that doesn't make me angry. I'd honestly rather write HTML+CSS in Emacs and stuff it onto a bare Apache server via FTP, than mess with some giant shitheap of code that requires a scripting language and a whole relational database just to run. Ugh.

    Yep. I've been thinking of going this route myself, but so I can spend more time with the writing, and for speed purposes than anything else. I also want to generate content once and use it in many places.
    posted by cjorgensen at 9:54 AM on December 16, 2013


    charlie don't surf: An alternative may be to leave your existing site as is, but turn off commenting and otherwise lock it down as best you can. That way you don't lose any existing Google juice. Then pick up with the new blog in a different sub-domain on the same URL. That is what I did. 11 years of Wordpress posts at example.com/blog - new blog at example.com/pelican.

    My understanding is that should not impact your SEO. It doesn't seem to have impacted my personal blog at all. Traffic is flat from the switchover.
    posted by COD at 9:57 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I like an instant git deployment setup for the "screw the CMS, just write it in an editor and push everything to the site" setup. It's at least a huge convenient step above the old push-to-FTP thing.

    For more complex sites, node.js is my faaavorite - nobody gets access to anything you don't want them to because you have to explicitly code your server to let people access what you want accessible, whitelisting instead of blacklisting by default like most other web servers.
    posted by jason_steakums at 10:00 AM on December 16, 2013


    charlie don't surf: I used a plugin called redirection to solve the link changing problem for me. If the MT and WP links have a pattern to them, meaning "/year/month/date/post_name" or somesuch, you can setup a common redirect that will send all of your traffic tot he old urls to the right place. It even keeps a log of how many redirects it's made and also if there are links that you may be missing. Excellent stuff.
    posted by Freen at 10:02 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


    " ... hired to be the Inbound Marketing Manager at MyCurrencyTransfer.com—tasked to protect the brand."
    I'm not the Inbound Marketing Manager at MyCurrencyTransfer.com. Sometimes life is good.
    posted by octobersurprise at 10:04 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


    But if I convert the site to WP, all the articles will have new URLs. I will lose all my google juice. All of it.

    I think you can force Wordpress to use the same permalink structure as MT.
    posted by anotherpanacea at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I had no idea that the age of the domain mattered either actually.

    It's only a factor. Let's say you create a blog about the history of the happy birthday song and copyright. Well, there are a lot of sites out there that have talked about this issue over the years, so your new blog doesn't even show in the first ten pages of results (and general consensus is that if you're not in the top three it might as well not exist), but you persist. You write quality content and conduct interviews, and gust blog about the song on other sites, and run a few google ads, and submit a site map, and do the other usual things, you will probably rise to the number one spot in a short period of time because you will be seen as the "definitive" site for the song.

    I figured it was mainly dependent upon links to a site and wasn't thinking about all the rest of those factors. Would reddit be similarly loved for a lot of the same reasons?

    It's sort of dependent on links. It's a lot of voodoo, but also a lot of common sense, and some amount of just following own rules. They aren't lying to people, they aren't hiding this stuff. In fact, I would suggest trying to game the system may work in the short term, but long term it's a really bad idea that will bite you in the SEO ass.
    posted by cjorgensen at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2013


    Blazecock Pileon: ""How dare these spammers make money advertising on the Internet! That's our job!" - Google Ad"

    I know you mean this sarcastically... but it's 100% accurate and straight to me.

    By analogy: I'd rather crack dealers didn't operate out of hospital lobbies, or even my street. I'm OK with Merck pushing them out of those places - even when I am not in the market for Merck drugs.
    posted by IAmBroom at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    But if I convert the site to WP, all the articles will have new URLs. I will lose all my google juice. All of it.

    Not if you do a proper .htaccess file (which is common curtesy regardless). (Note, I did not vet that link.)
    posted by cjorgensen at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2013


    On one hand, I'm constantly amused by the scammy SEO spam emails I get, because seriously, if I'm in the market for an SEO pro? I'm going to search for them to see how good their SEO practices are. On the other hand, way too many of the people I work with are ridiculously credulous about such things, and a few times a month I have to explain why this form email that never once names or shows any familiarity with our business maybe isn't exactly a trustworthy prospective business partner reaching out with an opportunity.
    posted by jason_steakums at 10:15 AM on December 16, 2013


    One of the other SEO aspects I should have mentioned is that the effort is seldom worth it. A comment link in metafilter, even if it's high in the comment order, will probably generate only a few hundred hits to your site (but that's not the point), and it's a singular link from a singular site. Fine, so you gamed metafilter and got an inbound link! Now you're off to fark and reddit and Facebook and twitter and wherever else you think needs to link. This is a lot of work! And some of these links get caught, so you decide to automate the process. You have scripts creating accounts and making posts and by good this content slips through and survives! Look at me climb! Then google catches on (like they did here) and you are scrambling to undo everything. Also, regardless of number of sites chances are you might have only budged your ranking by a tiny bit. Just not worth it.
    posted by cjorgensen at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2013


    Nelson,
    I've often wondered the same thing. To move yourself up the ranks of google search results, you can either:
    1 - Work really hard to make your site valuable to the internet with lots of unique content
    2- Knock your competitors down in the rankings (if not get them banned altogether) by launching a spam campaign for them

    Guess which one looks easier to me these days?

    It'll be interesting to see what Google does in response to #2. It seems their only recourse will be to ignore spam (it will neither hurt nor help a ranking).
    posted by Crash at 10:21 AM on December 16, 2013


    2- Knock your competitors down in the rankings (if not get them banned altogether) by launching a spam campaign for them.

    My understanding is that there's already a process for a company to declaim unusual links, and have them disregarded.
    posted by muddgirl at 10:25 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    "How dare these spammers make money advertising on the Internet! That's our job!" - Google Ads

    Your snark will be justified when Google stops offering useful services to go with those ads. Spammers, by definition, offer nothing.
    posted by Celsius1414 at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I kind of love how one of the unintentional side effects of Google's algorithms is to promote the dissemination of expert knowledge and quality content - since one of the standard, most effective bits of SEO advice for people running their own business is to blog about it on the site you're trying to promote, to give real, usable, expert content away for free. People will find your content and link to it, and your visibility grows. The end may be to game Google, but the means are a net positive, especially with junk content farms increasingly getting knocked down a few pegs. It fascinates me how intertwined the cynical and benevolent are in this world where Google is king.
    posted by jason_steakums at 10:30 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    So many laughs josher71 so excite I will follow this exellent blog form now on!
    p00pstickz
    posted by George_Spiggott at 10:35 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


    Well that URL certainly paints a few vivid pictures if nothing else...
    posted by jason_steakums at 10:39 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    It looks to me like the search team's ultimate goal is to make it easier to get a good ranking by generating good (useful, informative, entertaining, other values of good) than by generating crap content. Like clever teachers in school that make it easier to learn than to cheat.

    I have no idea if it is possible.
    posted by Doroteo Arango II at 10:40 AM on December 16, 2013


    Huh. So when I clicked on cjorgensen's link above, there were zero results. This was maybe five minutes before you posted. I clicked again just now and yes, the result is there. So Google was able to index p00pstickz within about five minutes.

    It's not that surprising or mysterious: Googlebot continually respiders the most actively updated pages on the web. This is a new, high-activity thread on the front page of Metafilter, which I suspect ranks through the roof for socially-contributed, high-currency content, so I've no doubt the spiders are hitting it with very high frequency.
    posted by George_Spiggott at 10:44 AM on December 16, 2013


    This is fascinating and everything in The Awl's story is what I've experienced over the last 2-3 years. Every morning, we get a couple emails to the contact form asking us to remove "unnatural" links to spammy sites.

    The funny thing is, we're super diligent about comment spam, we have the whole flagging system that rats people out very quickly, we have an admin backend page that scours new accounts for links they've dropped in comments on any old posts (almost always spam, cleared out every morning), and we ban several new users a week for spamming usually within minutes of them joining.

    So the real problem is that honest answers to Ask MeFi questions sometimes feature longtime users doing some Google searches to beef up their answer, and if a spammy site was the first result for say "carpet cleaning" on that particular day a couple years ago, someone might include that link.

    Time passes, Google changes algorithms and suddenly these companies that hired spammy consultants to goose their ranking with comment spam start emailing us like crazy. The funny part is we have the $5 new user fee, and in every case I've looked up, the links to sites were innocent and done by longtime members that have no history of spammy activity.

    I've told Google employees about this, knowing that I didn't want us to be seen as a link farm for jerks because we didn't remove their links. People at Google assured me it shouldn't affect us negatively, and for the first year or so we ignored all these emails. Later, Google added a "disavow links" feature for these spammers and I guess they could "report" a site that was ignoring their requests. At this point, I started adding rel=nofollow to all links people were requesting we remove, which I think is a fine compromise, but honestly, I hate this whole SEO industry that created their own problems by ruining the web and now that their business models are crumbling, they're fighty over email and adamant we need to remove every instance of their site from our totally honest helpful Q&A forum.

    My absolute favorite of the spammy people demanding removal are the idiots that made endless infographics a few years back. Infographics were shady SEO ways of getting lots of links and those morons used to email us every day announcing new juicy infographics we should link up, and now a couple years later the same people are demanding people take down links to things they built solely to garner attention online for.
    posted by mathowie at 10:44 AM on December 16, 2013 [28 favorites]


    The Inbound Marketing Manager for EXAMPLE.COM is going to have a coronary.
    posted by mrbill at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


    (yes, I know it's a reserved domain for exactly that purpose)
    posted by mrbill at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    I'm still aghast that someone spent $5 to register p00pstickz as an account. You know, it's pretty much worthless without the Facebook fan page, domain, and corresponding twitter, pintrest, tumblr, vine, and instagram accounts, right?
    posted by cjorgensen at 10:57 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


    My understanding is that there's already a process for a company to declaim unusual links

    Yeah, you're right, here's docs on it. Google will give you a list of sites that link to yours and allow you to upload a list of links that you wish to disavow. I wonder why that tool isn't working for the spammers and they are reduced to hassling the sites they've polluted?

    It's really eye opening talking to civilians who've heard just a little bit about SEO or Google ranking but are not Internet experts. Every hotel owner, restaurant proprietor, and artist with a website I've ever talked to has this sort of magical, confused understanding of how The Google does ranking. Mostly they're just terrified of it. It's easy to see how a scummy SEO can quickly make a buck off these poor folks.
    posted by Nelson at 11:04 AM on December 16, 2013


    Your snark will be justified when Google stops offering useful services to go with those ads. Spammers, by definition, offer nothing.

    I have no idea what services Google Ads offers me. I do know that I will, say, read a manual on a stereo receiver and then all of a sudden, I will get ads for that receiver on every web site I visit. Or I'll read about a tourist spot on a news site just out of curiosity and then I'll get tourism ads. I guess stalking me in a creepy way to try to make money off me is a kind of service, in a way. Not a service that's useful to me, but definitely useful to Google and its real customers.
    posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:05 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Oh, to answer my own question about the disavow tool, I just remembered the requests mentioned in the article aren't coming from the spammers, they're coming from the sites that are victim of spammy SEO. Setting up the Webmaster tool access is pretty challenging, I could imagine they can't figure it out.
    posted by Nelson at 11:06 AM on December 16, 2013


    I have no love for SEOs but the obvious issues here of course involve antitrust violations, with Google gaming its algorithms to favor its ad business. I wouldn't be surprised to see them in court over this.
    posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:07 AM on December 16, 2013


    It looks to me like the search team's ultimate goal is to make it easier to get a good ranking by generating good (useful, informative, entertaining, other values of good) than by generating crap content.

    "But what will you do when spammers train their bots to make automated constructive and helpful comments?"

    posted by straight at 11:12 AM on December 16, 2013


    The Awl article has some good comments:

    ForOnceIWishAwlHadKinja (#254,947)
    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.

    posted by medusa at 11:26 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


    About a year and a half ago, my blog was hacked by spammers. They didn't change the password to my site and it took me about a week to notice.

    I have over 5000 entries on my site dating back to 2001. What they did was they cherry-picked about 200 of those entries and added code with links at the end of the entry. In doing so, they broke all of the quotation marks (and some other punctuation) in the entries and in the titles (anyone whose done any coding probably knows exactly what the quotation marks looked like). I imagine it took them all of two or three keystrokes to do this.

    Since I'm fairly ignorant, I had no idea how to repair this quickly. I had to do a search for the code for a quotation mark (and, eventually, I found a piece of code that occurred in all of their spam that I used instead) and then manually alter 200+ entries. It took me several days. I am ignorant but I'm also stubborn.

    Until I read this link, I have never regretted deleting all that spam. Now, I wish I'd left it (but left it hidden) just to hurt their business. I could have just fixed all the broken punctuation.
    posted by Joey Michaels at 11:44 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    My favorite story like Blazecock's is the time I used "Praise Allah" in an email and got ads in Persian and Farsi for a month.
    posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:47 PM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


    I think a great justice would be in charging $10,000 per link removed.
    posted by rhizome at 1:20 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Can somebody explain what specifically changed in Google's algorithm between penguin 2.0 and 2.1 that provoked this SEO change of heart? The article does a really poor job of explaining it.

    Also, given how much Google seems to love Metafilter (which, who doesn't, am I right?), why would spammy SEO types email mathowie asking to have the links removed? Wouldn't that decrease their pagerank?
    posted by whir at 1:23 PM on December 16, 2013


    I have no idea what services Google Ads offers me. I do know that I will, say, read a manual on a stereo receiver and then all of a sudden, I will get ads for that receiver on every web site I visit.

    If this bothers you so much, stop griping and get an ad blocker. It's not like you need to see ads if you don't want to.
    posted by MartinWisse at 1:34 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Meanwhile Google has made life for SEO and other spammers even worse by now hosting all images in gmail on their own servers, so spammers don't get those references/data anymore either.
    posted by MartinWisse at 1:35 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Well, somebody actually has to market and sell products and services that pay the wages of the other people on staff, like developers etc.

    No customers = no jobs.


    Isn't SEO a pretty good example of a zero-sum game? Obviously, the company with better SEO might sell more than the company without, but SEO doesn't increase the total number of sales across the entire market. So aside from the SEO jobs themselves, I can't see how SEO increased the number of jobs available in any way.

    And that's leaving aside the argument that we need advertising (as in, the contemporary advertising industry) in order to sell more stuff, so that more people can make more money, in order to buy more stuff. That argument is a big part of where we go wrong as a society and why our political discourse so often fails.
    posted by ssg at 1:46 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Meanwhile Google has made life for SEO and other spammers even worse by now hosting all images in gmail on their own servers

    Wired is reporting that the same change will make it easier for marketers to know you've opened their messages. After doing some research, ArsTechnica posted a followup article which agrees.
    posted by ceribus peribus at 1:57 PM on December 16, 2013


    I'm still aghast that someone spent $5 to register p00pstickz as an account. You know, it's pretty much worthless without the Facebook fan page, domain, and corresponding twitter, pintrest, tumblr, vine, and instagram accounts, right?
    posted by cjorgensen at 10:57 AM on December 16 [1 favorite +] [!]

    I'll leave the other accounts to Fezboy! It was his idea after all.
    My sockpuppet budget can stretch to $5 from time to time because Matt gets the money.
    And I got more favourites than my real account ever did... how does that work?
    posted by p00pstickz at 2:28 PM on December 16, 2013


    Someone mentioned something about some kind of anti-trust lawsuit above, however I think that's both premature, and does not hold any standing, seeing as there are multiple competing search engines still available, and while google is arguably "the best" and most widely known or used, due to the nature of the service, unless they were to buy out Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as all the other search engines that are still operating on the web, the case against google would not hold water.

    It would be one thing if the SEO companies had some kind of contract with google. However, it seems that this is generally not the case, and since there is no contractual obligation on the part of google to maintain a method for these companies to exploit search rankings, then there really isn't much of a case to be made.
    posted by daq at 2:46 PM on December 16, 2013


    Hey thanks guys, your suggestions on migration from MT to WP are more useful than anything I've seen so far.

    Oddly enough, I upgraded and cleaned up my blog's file structure when I did a major version update a few years back. I left the old directory structure intact, since it was so heavily linked to Google. But I created a new, cleaner structure which I figured would eventually replace the old links in Google ranking. But they haven't.

    I must have had crazy Google juice. Just as an example, in 2004 I blogged my Mom's recipe for pumpkin pie, I scanned her old handwritten recipe page with food stains all over it, apparently people thought it was cute and it was linked heavily. For a while, it was the #1 Google hit for Pumpkin Pie. The rank changed over time, but for quite a few years, it was in the top 3. Then Google decided to completely re-index anything with a recipe, giving higher ranking to sites that used a complex recipe metadata structure (defined by Google of course). Now Cooks.com and tons of other commercial websites pushed me down off the top pages of results. This kind of thing pisses me off. I don't really care about SEO, I just care that Google decided to skew their algorithm towards commercial enterprises, which de-ranked some of the most popular web pages that persisted for years.

    Now the odd thing about that page is that if you go to google and search for it, it will return the old page from my old directory structure, the one I linked to here. It has my distinctive old green theme rather than my recent red one. So now I essentially have to deal with migrating TWO directory structures to WP. I would just as soon completely erase the old directories and just do it with .htaccess or mod_rewrite, but I am only now investigating those techniques suggested by you guys.

    And now that I think about it, I sometimes (but not too often) link to my own blog, just to save time rewriting something I already wrote about, or to show some photo I posted. Of course MeFi has a policy against self-links, I contacted mods about this long ago, they told me this is more a concern for FPPs, rather than comments, but don't do it too often, to the point it becomes spammy. Now I wonder if I am inadvertently scamming MeFi for Google juice. It is not my intention to use MeFi for SEO tricks for my own benefit, so if the rules have changed, and Matt or anyone else wants to chime in here about this issue, I'd like to hear it. Perhaps the ground rules have changed due to SEO tricks like in this FPP.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 3:01 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Man I was just looking for a pumpkin pie recipe / thanksgiving dessert recipe / pumpkin custard pie recipe / spicy pumpkin colored girlfriend / delicious pumpkin pie recipe. Thanks!

    My little home blog used to have enormous Google juice because it was linked at one point from the official Google blog. Sadly that was many years ago, the effect wore off, and Google subsequent ranking algorithms have somewhat lost interest in old school hand written blogs. I don't think Google's deliberately favoring commercial sites, it's more just those sites have good updated content and a dedicated team making sure they are very well indexed. Although Cooks.com brings with it a cloaking issue, isn't most of their content behind a paywall?
    posted by Nelson at 3:16 PM on December 16, 2013


    Blazecock Pileon: "Your snark will be justified when Google stops offering useful services to go with those ads. Spammers, by definition, offer nothing.

    I have no idea what services Google Ads offers me.
    "

    The services Google offers include websearches, but also email (Gmail), calendar/appointments, and cloud-based storage.

    I'm surprised you haven't heard of these.
    posted by IAmBroom at 3:48 PM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


    SEO shenanigans with comments sections is mostly for bullshit companies with no real product, so no tears there.
    posted by Artw at 4:19 PM on December 16, 2013


    Eh, thanks Google, for dismantling a system that was largely of your own making. Some of the scammiest, thinnest, spammiest sites out there were content-less Blogger blogs. Blogger was also the source for a lot of scraper sites that would republish my content, the bastids. And let's not even talk about the Google ad network... one of my clients had ads enabled not just on google but on the ad network. The network performed terribly so I did some exploring one day -- tons and tons of ad driven, thin content-less sites over-stuffed with Google ads, it was like turning over a rock and finding a universe of creepy crawlies. Google was complicit until enough people screamed loudly about the content farms, remember?

    I used to wonder who the freaking guppies were who kept the spammers in business - someone has to buy the snake oil to make it worth their while, right? I now know exactly who the spam market is: all the CEOs in every company in the world. At least, all the ones I have ever worked with.

    In the olden days, secretaries opened and filtered CEO mail, but in the age of email, CEOs all read their own email and they all fall for every baited slimy pitch. Every CEO I know has entertained a phone conversation or a visit from some SEO huckster and every one of these conversations started with spam. I recently asked a client about a new firm they wanted me to investigate. Me: "Where did you hear about them?" Client: From a spam email." Me: *bangs head against wall repeatedly*

    Don't get me wrong - it is the slimy, unethical turds that gave SEO a terrible name. There is nothing inherently wrong with building and strategizing a commercial site to best practices for showing up well in searches and strategizing ways to make a site more search engine friendly. People like KokuRyu and cjorgensen -- and I would like to put myself in that white hat clan -- have helped small businesses to compete. I've worked with small businesses to develop deep, content-intensive niche blogs that have helped level the playing field with large national companies -- but all done with hard work, consistency, and strong content. No tricksy stuff.

    Here's the latest creepy seo gambit. I get dozens of ostensibly helpful letters from people who love my niche business blog (Beware of strangers who effusively compliment your blog). Lo and behold, in reading my fascinating content from an 8-year-old blog post, they stumbled on a broken link -- such a shame to sully such good content with a broken link, but, oh, aha -- they just happen to have a useful link at hand that I could use instead. Cue church lady.

    I'm pretty liberal in almost every way, but I pretty much favor the death penalty for spammers. (Too harsh?) As for the spam enablers, they need re-education camps.
    posted by madamjujujive at 5:05 PM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


    I came to metafilter when an askmefi page cropped up on a google search. Then I was intrigued and signed up.

    I never really contemplated the behind-the-scenes battle against forces that would have directed me to ehow.com or some other superficial garbage.

    Maybe the reason nobody really "surfs" the internet anymore is because it is less surfing and more like flotsam, drifting at the mercy of Google's lunar tides.
    posted by cacofonie at 6:57 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


    I don't really care about SEO, I just care that Google decided to skew their algorithm towards commercial enterprises

    That's not really the case. Google skewed their algorithm towards metadata and a particular formatting convention. Google loves metadata and especially loves machine-readable (or at least parsable) content.

    It's not hard to see why they decided to privilege recipes that are formatted the way they like: it lets them do searches like, "recipes for pumpkin pie without eggs" or "what can I make with x, y, and z". You can't easily do that if a recipe is just freeform text (you can try to parse it, but not as reliably), or worse yet a scanned image.

    Sites / authors who make life easy for Google go up in the rankings, and sites that are harder for Google to crawl or understand go down in the rankings. That's why so much legitimate or "whitehat" SEO basically amounts to making your site easier for Google to comprehend.

    It is unfortunate that it is mostly commercial sites that can afford to rewrite things to conform to Google's preferences, but I don't think it's an actual bias towards commercial sites per se. My guess, since I don't think the people at Google are ignorant of these things, is that they realize that small sites are going to get clobbered but it's not especially important to them. The success or failure of content creators isn't relevant compared to producing useful search results. If an algorithm change results in all the top results coming from BigCookCo.com, but user satisfaction (as measured by clickthroughs and nonreturns to search results and all the other metrics Google uses to determine a "successful" search) is higher, that's a win for the searcher and Google. It's hard to see them behaving any other way.

    As a user of their search engine, I'm appreciative of the whole fiat justitia ruat caelum attitude that they seem to have when it comes to search results. I suspect it sucks to try and operate a website, but also suspect it would suck more without Google filtering out the real dregs of the web.

    In my fantasy universe, the head of Google's search group has a quarterly conf call from a Star Chamber-like room, where they hand out irrevocable Internet Search Death Penalties to low-grade content farms. They also wear plague doctor masks, for some reason.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


    And depsite all this, I still get spam calls on my telephone.
    posted by Theta States at 12:06 PM on December 17, 2013


    Kadin2048: " I'm apparently not the only one, because there's been a renaissance in static site generators, which are something that I thought fell out of favor years ago."

    I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when some big hosting exploit hit the news in relation to a new company website I'm going to be setting up. I don't have any need for anything scripting gives me. Just a few static pages (who what where of the company) and something to serve blog posts that could be written entirely by hand. I was wondering if there were offlines tools to help one manage that (you know stick in navigation links, that sort of thing). Sounds like there is. I'll have to investigate when I've got more time in a few weeks.

    Blazecock Pileon: "I have no love for SEOs but the obvious issues here of course involve antitrust violations, with Google gaming its algorithms to favor its ad business. I wouldn't be surprised to see them in court over this."

    Don't you need to have some sort of monopoly or be in a cartel to be subject to antitrust legislation? Google is neither in either search or advertising.
    posted by Mitheral at 8:12 PM on December 17, 2013


    Mitheral: If you do go the static-offline-generation route, the suggestion by jason_steakums upthread, of using git to handle the actual deployment of the generated HTML+CSS+etc. to the production server, is a really good idea. I've never done it, but next time I have to set up a website I think I will. There are many good tutorials though.

    You need to have a webhost that allows you to have SSH access and git installed, which could be a problem with some budget hosting plans though. Works fine if you use NearlyFreeSpeech, thankfully, which is what I use for my one-off jokey projects.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 9:57 PM on December 17, 2013


    Ya, I'm using NFS for my stuff so that'll work. Thanks for the links.
    posted by Mitheral at 3:09 PM on December 20, 2013


    Well, somebody actually has to market and sell products and services that pay the wages...

    If the products and services are good, people will write and link to it because they like it. The internet is incredibly good at helping great stuff rise to the top. To the extent that it has trouble doing that, a lot of the blame goes to people trying "optimize" their way to the top and burying the things that real people are naturally posting about.
    posted by the jam at 10:59 AM on December 25, 2013


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