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Flattery Bots: The New Paid Blog Networks?

Fastidious respond in return of this difficulty with genuine arguments
and explaining the whole thing regarding that.

~ Comment I just removed as spam from this blog’s “pending comments” box this morning. The username included a link back to what looks like a linkbuilding site in Germany (I didn’t check).

wow, I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I’ve recommended this post to all my followers!

~ Comment from someone with a link pointing back to a vast student essay slush site (where students can buy a paper to turn in and pretend it’s their own work).

Remarkable lens.

~ Comment I received from a new lensmaster on a page comprising a few word search and crossword puzzles. Fun? I hope so. Useful study aid? Sure. “Remarkable?” Hardly.

Sometimes, the comments are genuine. I’ve made some good lenses, and commenters are kind enough to say so.

But for the past month, I’ve had my ego stroked by a vast influx of generic flattering comments. The common thread in all of them is that they seem not to fit the lens very well, and there is nothing in the comment that matches the lens content. They remind me of the worst-case generic rejection letter my aunt parodied when trying to get a short story published:

Thank you for your thing. We are not accepting things at this time. Please do not send us any more of your things.

Nobody likes rejection letters. But everyone likes flattery. Therefore, if you’re looking to build up backlinks, design a bot that leaves human-sounding compliments plus a link back to your site. Or, if you’re trying to build up a social network, create a bunch of fake accounts on social sites and have the bots go around schmoozing up the locals, building up a social following and getting a percentage of the members on that site to check out the account that flattered them (including the link one wants to promote in the profile).

The timing of this flood of flattery is suspicious: it started up in April 2012 right after Google jettisoned links built by BuildMyRank and other paid blog networks (creating automated fake content on fake blogs, planting links in the posts to the websites of paying customers). Links from spam sites are no longer a way to get your site listed. So paid linkbuilders are now trying to Trojan Horse their links onto reputable sites that still have good standing in Google. Flattery is even more effective than a horse-shaped sculpture on wheels!

I don’t know for certain, but I think the paid linkbuilders are now using the Flattery Gambit to get their backlinks on your webpages. If the comment could apply to any written piece of material whatsoever (“this is really insightful”), I’m suspicious. Doubly so if it’s written in English as a second language, as was the comment I quoted at the start of this post.

On Squidoo, there’s an additional, insidious use of  flattery behavior: reciprocal visits and “likes” can boost lensrank, leading to high payouts. So why not build a bot that leaves friendly comments on thousands of lenses in order to get your lens to tier one within a week of starting on Squidoo, as Tipi just reported?  Or, even if you don’t have access to a bot, why not scramble around leaving short comments on everyone’s lenses to get lots and lots of reciprocal likes, boosting your Squidpoints and payout rank? (I’ve just had one lensmaster leave about 20 lame comments like “who are the girls?” on a long article reviewing a video game with female leads: it’s obvious from his comments that he’s just looking at the lens title and graphic. But at least he’s actually commenting on specific lens content, unlike the majority of the comments I’m talking about).

Unfortunately, the upshot of all of this is that the bots and vague flatterers are making me less appreciative than I should be of genuine, sincere, friendly comments which someone thoughtfully took the time to make! I now delete most variants of “nice lens,” unless there’s some clue in the comment to tell me the person read the article. On some days, I hit the point of saying to myself, “If the comment isn’t useful to my readers, and it’s just directed at me, there doesn’t need to be a public record of it. The message was received, after all.” Doubtless, when I’m in that frame of mind, some real comments get caught up in the lawnmower blades. I’m inconsistent in my comment moderation, letting some stand and removing others.

If I’ve pulled up one of your comments during an attack of weeding, I apologize. It’s easy to pull up a flower by accident! Thank you for your comment — really! I’m sorry the bad behavior of some people is making me cynical regarding genuine forms of human courtesy. (Or, more likely, I haven’t actually deleted your comment; my comment backlog may have swelled to 50+, at which point I fail to keep up with moderation for a while.)

Backlink Seekers Target Squidoo For Pagerank

Pagerank is a measurement Google came up with in the late 1990s to help it decided how highly to rank webpages, based on which webpages linked to that page (backlinks) and which pages it linked to. Nowadays, Pagerank is only one of 200+ factors that Google uses to decide how high up to list a webpage in its search results. Google has come up with many ways to detect relevance to a particular search query, making Pagerank somewhat obsolete. (See this post by Google spokespundit Matt Cutts for an explanation of Pagerank). Nevertheless, many old-time backlinkers are convinced that Pagerank is still the number one factor in making webpages rank well in Google, so they keep trying to find webpages with pagerank on which to plant backlinks.

Squidoo is a target for these pagerank-seekers. It’s six years old, and many of its older articles have good pagerank. (Many of my older lenses are pagerank 3 to 5, which isn’t bad).

Squidoo is a web 2.0 website with multiple opportunities for visitors to leave links: guestbooks and link plexos and duels. If you leave a guestbook or link plexo unmoderated — and even if you don’t — link spammers will hit your lenses, trying to exploit your pagerank to boost their own rankings. Linkspam is not harmless. If your webpage links to poor neighborhoods, to sites that engage in shady linking practices, or to a lot of non-relevant content, those links could lower the quality, trustworthiness and relevance of your article in Google’s eyes.

Link spam has always been a problem on Squidoo, but two events within the past year have made it more of a target. First, it has been largely unaffected by Google’s Panda algorithm updates, which demoted a huge number of other websites. Second, on March 19, 2012, Google did a major algorithm tweak which de-indexed (removed from Google results) a batch of paid blog networks and other websites whose sole purpose was to publish thin, computer-generated content which appeared to be real articles, and which contained links to sites that paid them to feature those links. People were paying linkbuilding services to create backlinks for them in this way. Now, suddenly, those backlink sites are worthless, and some paid linkbuilding services like “BuildMyRank” have actually shut down.

All the sites which those backlinks pointed to have now lost standing in Google search results.  They’re now searching for new places to plant backlinks in order to replace those they lost. Any blog, guestbook, or “submit your links here” widget is a target, especially on websites that still have some pagerank.

These link droppers are getting ever more clever about trying to disguise what they’re doing so that you let their link through. Today I deleted two comments left on this blog saying it was a very well-written blog, asking me if I coded it from scratch, or saying that the person liked my blog so much he tweeted it to all his followers. It sounded like real humans had written these comments. However, the generic reference to “your blog” without any reference to the subject matter of the blog was a dead giveaway that they were cut-and-paste comments being dropped on any old blog. Their usernames included backlinks to their websites. They were using not only flattery, but one of the “six persuaders“:  reciprocity. If someone does something for you, it’s human nature to feel you should return the favor in some fashion. (The “I tweeted this to all my followers” ploy, which I’ve seen on several link drops lately).

I’ve also received a flood of emails from people offering to pay me to put a link to their sites on my lenses.

Don’t be fooled. Google just dropped or demoted a whole bunch of domains these link droppers used to try and make their own sites rank better. You don’t want your blog, lens or website to be showcasing links to the very people Google just penalized for shady backlinking practices and shallow content. Your lens could get hit by the same algorithm filter that demoted the sites they were using for backlinks before.

Your sole criteria for allowing a link onto your page should be the benefit it gives your readers. Is the site it links to useful, helpful, interesting, and strongly relevant to your subject matter? Will your readers be interested in it? Then approve it. Is it off-topic, or would readers who clicked on it be disappointed? Reject it.

By making sure your lenses only link to good, relevant content that is useful to your readers, you’ll not only make that particular article looks good to Google. You’ll help keep Squidoo from looking like “a place for spammers post their links.”  By keeping our own lenses spam-free, we ensure that Squidoo continues to be ranked well by Google and doesn’t get hit with a Panda penalty (which would cause a traffic drop for all pages on Squidoo).

Bing Still Uses the Meta Keywords Tag!

Uh, oh! Bing still uses the META keywords tag!

META tags. Gotta love ‘em. They are pesky bits of HTML code hidden on (some) webpages to give information about each page. Ten years ago, search engines consulted META tags to help them learn what search phrases each page was relevant for. Then people started manipulating META tags to try and convince search engines their pages were the best pages for particular topics by virtue of their META tags saying so. Search engines wised up to this elementary trick (or went bust).

Not that META tags are completely, utterly, totally dead. On rare occasions, Google still uses the META description tag as the page excerpt it quotes in search results. That is, if there’s not a better and more appropriate quote that fits the search query better.

The META keywords tag, however, was buried several years ago, when even Yahoo/Bing apparently had abandoned it. Keywords as in…

<META name=”keywords” content=”spam, spam and eggs, spam and bacon, spam spam spam and bacon, and oh hey bing this is the greatest webpage ever on spam, so let me repeat the word spam a few more times, spam spam, spam, spammity spam”>

Squidoo fills in the META keywords tag on each lens with your Squidoo tags, by the way. It’s quaint that way.

However — wait! Stop the presses! Our old friend Danny Sullivan has checked with Bing and discovered that Bing still uses the META keywords tag as a signal! 

 

Woo!

 

Whee!

 

Ha!

(more…)

Google Panda/Farmer Update Cont’d

I thought I’d check back in on Squidoo and Hubpages now that the Google Farmer Update (Panda update) has had some time to work. Short-term results can suggest major upheavals, but it’s the long-term stats that really mean something.

Here’s today’s traffic charts from Quantcast, showing that Hubpages traffic has stabilized:

Google Panda Update Impact on Hubpages and Squidoo

Keep in mind that the update was only for Google’s US search engine. It hasn’t yet been unleashed globally. The drop in U.S. users is included in “global” as well as “local” results.

My prediction, based on what I’m seeing, is that after this change, Hubpages’ traffic is going to be nearly the same as Squidoo’s. It already is within the US.

The Spam’s the Thing?

Jennifer Ledbetter of Potpiegirl.com made a mini study of specific spam phrases confirming by the numbers my guess in my last post on the Farmer Update: Squidoo’s ongoing spam crackdown means it has fewer (but alas, still some) pages on the most spammy topics than Hubpages and several other sites. This DOES explain why ehow.com didn’t lose places in the SERPs: it has even fewer pages matching these spam phrases.

Jennifer didn’t test this, but we both also argued — in different ways — that Hubpages’ much, much stricter policy on outbound links may be causing it some trouble. She pointed out that links on Hubs are nofollowed until you’ve reached a certain status. I related my experience of having all my hubs locked for having one link on each of them to cite the source of my photos. Squidoo’s got a nine outbound link per domain limit, instead, and it nofollows affiliate links in its merchant modules.

Various other ideas have been thrown out to explain the change. Another thing I pointed out is the significantly lower bounce rate of Squidoo compared to Hubpages, ezinearticles, and (of course) mahalo.

There’s just one problem.

The Quantcast traffic charts show Hubpages U.S. traffic simply dropped back to Squidoo’s levels.

If my explanations and Potpiegirl’s  guess about outbound links were correct, Squidoo should now be outperforming Hubpages. But it’s not. They’re now about the same.

Jennifer’s spam study shows that Squidoo has fewer pages than Hubpages on the spammy topics she chose to test, but not all that much less. The last phrase she checked (“tv for pc”) actually had more pages on Squidoo than Hubpages. (It really shouldn’t be filtered as spam; how to watch television on a PC is a reasonable query. It’s just gotten targeted by a lot of spammers trying to cash in on a popular search).

So my vote is on the spam being the deciding factor — as it should be — about how Google’s picking “quality” sites.  Let’s keep reporting and flagging it when we see it, folks, and for goodness’ sake don’t write on a Squiddont topic! Also, don’t give up on Hubpages. It’s gotten humbled, but it’s no worse off than Squidoo. And keeping eggs in different baskets is always a good practice.