Click Fraud: Why I’ve Always Emphasized Search Engine Ranking Position

The PC Week headline reads: 7 Charged with Using Malware to Rack Up $14M in Fake Ad Revenue

The Department of Justice has indicted seven people for allegedly hijacking millions of computers, manipulating traffic on popular websites, and generating more than $14 million in fraudulent advertising revenue.

The defendants — six Estonians and one Russian — allegedly hijacked more than 4 million computers using malware that rerouted Internet traffic to websites where they would get a cut of the ad revenue. Infected computers with users looking for popular websites such as Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes were rerouted to webpages that featured the defendants’ ads.

Can you prove that you haven’t paid for fraudulent clicks?

Hits and clicks are metrics that can be artificially inflated. Search engine ranking positions (aka SERPs) are hardly sexy but they are quantifiable and probably the fairest SEO metric. You can have a spectacular billboard in your driveway, on a main street in your city, or visible from a highway. Clearly the highway is the best position for prospective views of your billboard.

Remember the three rules of real estate: location, location and location. It applies to search engine marketing at least as much.

Dilbert on “Black Hat” SEO

Dilbert on Black Hat SEO

I’ve had clients and employers ask me for “quick” results and I’ve repeatedly reminded them that doing SEO right ALWAYS accomplishes what they really want.

How would your company management or stockholders feel about a New York Times headline?

February 12, 2011
The Dirty Little Secrets of Search
By DAVID SEGAL

PRETEND for a moment that you are Google’s search engine.

Someone types the word “dresses” and hits enter. What will be the very first result?

There are, of course, a lot of possibilities. Macy’s comes to mind. Maybe a specialty chain, like J. Crew or the Gap. Perhaps a Wikipedia entry on the history of hemlines.

O.K., how about the word “bedding”? Bed Bath & Beyond seems a candidate. Or Wal-Mart, or perhaps the bedding section of Amazon.com.

“Area rugs”? Crate & Barrel is a possibility. Home Depot, too, and Sears, Pier 1 or any of those Web sites with “area rug” in the name, like arearugs.com.

You could imagine a dozen contenders for each of these searches. But in the last several months, one name turned up, with uncanny regularity, in the No. 1 spot for each and every term:

J. C. Penney.

The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite.com.

With more than 1,100 stores and $17.8 billion in total revenue in 2010, Penney is certainly a major player in American retailing. But Google’s stated goal is to sift through every corner of the Internet and find the most important, relevant Web sites.

Does the collective wisdom of the Web really say that Penney has the most essential site when it comes to dresses? And bedding? And area rugs? And dozens of other words and phrases?

The New York Times asked an expert in online search, Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media in New York, to study this question, as well as Penney’s astoundingly strong search-term performance in recent months. What he found suggests that the digital age’s most mundane act, the Google search, often represents layer upon layer of intrigue. And the intrigue starts in the sprawling, subterranean world of “black hat” optimization, the dark art of raising the profile of a Web site with methods that Google considers tantamount to cheating.

Despite the cowboy outlaw connotations, black-hat services are not illegal, but trafficking in them risks the wrath of Google. The company draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and “white hat” approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site’s visibility. Penney’s results were derived from methods on the wrong side of that line, says Mr. Pierce. He described the optimization as the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen.

What happened? When discovered, Google MANUALLY punished J.C. Penney, undoing all the search engine results.

Someone at J.C. Penney simply did not ask their SEO vendor or anyone within their own marketing team to ask about the methods used.

Not just J.C. Penney:

Often drastically. In 2006, Google announced that it had caught BMW using a black-hat strategy to bolster the company’s German Web site, BMW.de. That site was temporarily given what the BBC at the time called “the death penalty,” stating that it was “removed from search results.”

I know that I have investigated my client’s competition to determine if they are cheating and I ALWAYS report them if they are. I’ve had sites removed from Google for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I had one site, ranked #1, pushed to #2 with the competitor unashamedly copying the home page text of my client… verbatim. I submitted a report to Google and within a few days, the competitor was gone. Not on the first page, not on the first 20 pages. Gone.

Your cheating will inevitably provoke an honest competitor learning about you. And reporting you. It’s this easy.

Don’t be a technically clueless pointy-haired boss who looks for shortcuts. Good honest SEO will produce lasting results.

Cartoon from Dilbert: 23 June 2010

To Live and Die by Google Places

The recent bias by Google on elevating local search “above the fold” has had some of my clients begging for Google Places prominence.

It’s a two-edged sword which can open up an unintended consequence and resources will need to be budgeted for defense.

Money quote from the article:  “many business owners have no recourse with negative reviews.”

Be prepared. Between Google Places and Yelp, anticipate budgeting for “spin control”.