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Monday, August 13, 2007

Gaming Google - It Really Is That Easy...

Lance Loveday is founder and CEO of Closed Loop Marketing and has been helping companies with online marketing efforts for the past 10 years. He’s interested in user psychology, economics, usability and design.


I gave a talk at Web Design World in Seattle last month on Balancing Design, Usability & SEO. While doing some research on that presentation, I was trying to find some examples of sites that were strong in only one of these areas. As I’ve done some work in the printer ink space and knew there were plenty of well-optimized but really ugly and unusable sites there, I did a search on ‘ink cartridge’ and hit the jackpot on the first result.

This site was perfect for my needs: A #1 ranking for an insanely competitive keyword, ugly as hell, and horrifically unusable. Score!

Then I did a link: lookup command on Google to get a sense for the link pop this page has, certain that they must have engaged in some serious link-building to get this result. Little did I know...

As I scanned the results of the link query, I was struck by how many unrelated sites seemed to be linking to InkandStuff.

I figured they could be paid links, but many of the sites listed didn’t seem like the kind you would normally associate with posting paid links. So when I saw a listing for the World Islamic Forum Foundation, I clicked through to figure out why in the world this site was linking to InkandStuff. This is where things get interesting... because I couldn’t find a link on this page.

Now I was REALLY intrigued. Google was seeing the link, so it had to be there, right...? So I did a View Source to check out the code and figure out where the link was, and saw this:

What the...? Google is attributing link popularity to sites who have embedded invisible sponsored links in free stat counters? Apparently so... How else is this awful UK site ranking #1 on for “ink cartridge"?

So next I figured I’d check out MyWebStats to see what they were all about. Sure enough, on their FAQ page they state (my emphasis):

If this service is so good, how can it be free?
We are lucky to have sponsors who cover the complete cost of running this service. To show our appreciation we accompany your counter with a small link to one of these sponsors.

“To show our appreciation” – I love that.

SO – That apparently is the secret to gaming Google. All of Google’s tough talk about paid links and how they’re so proactive about making sure people can’t spam their way to the top is apparently just that – talk. This should be SO easy for Google to detect and act upon, but they haven’t... If they had, InkandStuff and/or MyWebStats would’ve been penalized, right?

I was one of those people who looked down on buying links for a long time. It just seemed wrong – and surely the brain trust at Google would clamp down at some point. I just couldn’t believe that buying your way to the top of the organic results could A) be SO easy, or B) yield sustainable results. That was three years ago.

This scheme of embedding links in free stat counters in order to juice link pop has been around for at least that long – and should be among the easiest for Google to detect. It should be a big yellow flag when a site gets lots of inbound links from totally unrelated sites over a short time period. And it should be really easy to detect the code pattern like the one shown above for those inbound links (it even says “invisible" for God’s sake!). Finally, it is pretty irregular to have a UK page show up at the top of the results for a competitive term like this on It seems like that might have thrown a flag somewhere along the line as well. The patterns are easy to spot. But Google is either oblivious to all of these issues or they’ve decided not to do anything about it. I’m not sure which is worse.

People will point out that Google may already be aware of this and not be flowing PageRank from these links, per Matt Cutt’s post. And maybe InkandStuff has enough link pop from other sources that are driving them to the #1 spot for “ink cartridge.” But I really doubt it. And that argument misses the point. InkandStuff is clearly trying to game Google with this and other activities (or at least they’ve unknowingly invested in a service which is). And they are doing so quite successfully – to the detriment of searchers and their less-savvy competitors. Bottom line: Google is letting these guys blatantly spam their engine and get away with it.

Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz (on whom one of my team members has what she calls an “SEO crush”) wrote an excellent post on this topic a while back: Paid Links – Can’t Be a White Hat With ‘em, Can’t Rank Without ‘em. (Rand – If you want to know the identity of your secret admirer, slip me a $20 while we’re on stage at SES. Just my way of trying to spice up the otherwise sedate SEM Pricing Models discussion)

But I digress...

It makes it really hard to be white hat SEO practitioners when we see things like this happening. Sadly, this is the second time I’ve run across this exact same scenario (an invisible sponsored link embedded within a different free stat counter) in the past few months while trying to figure out why a really crappy site was ranking so well for a competitive term. So count me among the growing legions of grey hats now, I guess... Given the competitive environment and the fact that “everyone is doing it” now – and it’s working – it no longer serves my clients’ best interests to advise against buying links. I hate saying that, but don’t feel like I have a choice any more. It’s the price of entry if you want top rankings on any competitive terms these days.

I happen to be a big fan and promoter of Google’s. But they risk killing (or at least injuring) the goose that laid their big golden egg if they don’t get more serious about cleaning up their results. Granted much of this may be beyond their control. I don’t expect them to be able to singlehandedly solve this problem for good. But it seems like they could be putting up more of a fight and at least making someone have to work to game their engine. As is, it’s just too easy.

I’m going to report this as a paid link. But their bluster aside, I’m not going to hold my breath hoping it will do any good. I first saw this result two months ago, and as of today, MyWebStats shows a PR6, and InkandStuff a PR7.


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