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”.

Google Hates When You Don’t Pay Them

Google wants to steer all traffic through pay-per-click and is making things increasingly difficult for those (like me) who enable websites to rank highly.  Recently Google decided that they would no longer allow full access to their keyword statistics. Keywords must be “commercial” in nature according to Google’s algorithm before you can view search statistics for that keyword.

Keyword research on the word “Facebook” stats was suppressed… for a while.

If you’re selling objects, maybe PPC has value. But if you’re selling a service where a long-term relationship with your company is going to be important:

…search engine users experience a much different cognitive reaction to PPC ads than organic search results. With a PPC ad, visitors expect that they are being sold something. But organic results do not necessarily imply that.

For instance, I tend to have a humanistic (emotional) type of personality profile, and will never click on a PPC ad, regardless of whether I’m actually looking for that service/product or not. That’s because humanistic people don’t want to feel as if they are being sold something; instead, I want to develop a relationship on my own terms. The only time a PPC ad will be effective on someone like me is via an accidental click, when I don’t realize that I just clicked an ad.

So, by choosing to only do PPC or only do SEO, you are also choosing to neglect some potential customers and definitely neglecting certain consumer modalities.

Money quotes:

  • “Google does not want people to have success with organic SEO, so that they will continue to spend on PPC.”
  • “Google’s profits grow the most when their users spend on PPC.”

So be a tool for Google… or contact me.

September 2010 Search Engine Rankings [Wall Street Journal]

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Google Sites led the U.S. explicit core search market in September with 66.1 percent market share, followed by Yahoo! Sites with 16.7 percent and Microsoft sites with 11.2 percent. Ask Network captured 3.7 percent of explicit core searches, followed by AOL LLC Network with 2.3 percent.

Two-thirds of search is Google. Five-sixths of search is Google plus Yahoo. 94% is Google plus Yahoo plus Microsoft’s Bing.

Why spend any effort or money outside those three?

Paying for Traffic? 20% of Clicks are Fraud. [NY Times]

The New York Times reports:

More than 20 percent of clicks on pay-per-click (PPC) ads in the third quarter were unintended or malicious, resulting in wasted marketing money that drew website visitors with no interest on the product or service advertised and no intention to buy.

At 22.3 percent, the incidence of this problem, known as click fraud, increased more than 8 percentage points compared with 2009’s third quarter, according to a study released Wednesday by Click Forensics, a provider of click-fraud detection services and products.

Click fraud affects the effectiveness of PPC ad campaigns, in which advertisers pay a fee every time their ads are clicked. PPC ads are typically short, text-based and linked to advertisers’ websites. PPC ads usually run alongside search engine results and on regular Web pages related to their topic.

PPC ads are the most popular online ad format, accounting typically for between 45 percent and 50 percent of online spending by advertisers. Google is the world’s leading seller and distributor of PPC ads, from which the company generates most of its revenue.

Are you satisfied knowing that 20% of what you’re paying for is bogus?

Unlimited clicks for first- or second-page Google natural rankings cost a fraction.