Oh My GAWD is O'Reilly a Huge Search Spammer? ...

Late to the Party:
I thought about posting on this earlier, but I like Nick so much that I decided not to really voice my opinion until now.

Well Known Tech Sites Get Noticed:
I sorta agree with Phil's take, that the cuban cigar ads are a bit spammy for high PageRank tech heavy sites.

Not that my opinion of search spam in any way matters, but when you think of the web on the whole, how often do you see link popularity naturally flow like this:

huge open source projects -> sitewide links to open source directory -> sitewide links to Cuban Cigars

Generally it doesn't.

I am not saying that I am morally opposed to manipulating search results (as that would make me a twit), but the cuban cigars ads are high risk.

It's Search Spam, Only Because the Engineers Discounted it:
O'Reilly is WELL KNOWN and odds are search engineers surf their sites often, and aim to de weight those off topic links, as noted by Google engineer Matt Cutts on the thread:

Tim points out that these these links have been sold for over two years. That's true. I've known about these O'Reilly links since at least 9/3/2003, and parts of perl.com, xml.com, etc. have not been trusted in terms of linkage for months and months. Remember that just because a site shows up for a "link:" command on Google does not mean that it passes PageRank, reputation, or anchortext.

While In the Neighborhood:
After the search engineers de weight those links they may be interested in taking a closer look to WHAT ELSE those advertised sites are doing. For that reason those types of ads add risk to both the cigar sites and the other sites advertising there.

In the past I have got a number of links that later turned out into pages which got a bit spammed out. Inevitably if they price of advertising is below value the market will usually find it's way to the page, especially if you have a high ranking site. If the page has limited or non existent editorial policies you can bet that your investment, at least as far as SEO goes, will eventually lose it's value.

Risk vs Reward:
Hence it is an issue of risk vs reward.

If you are that far off topic (open source to cuban cigars), the direct traffic is probably not going to pay for the ad. If search engines are going to de weight the activity for off topic ads then buying the ad adds more risk than reward.

The SPAM is Elsewhere I Say:
I also find it humorous that Tim O'Reilly, perhaps the single most respected technology publisher calls one of the directories that he sold ads to spam because one of my affiliates had a link to my site on it:

The ads do in fact point to sites that provide the advertised service. (The one exception that I found in clicking through on the links was one to a site that was labeled Web Directory, and on first click appeared to be a directory, but on second click down into any category, simply contained ads for a book on search engine optimization. That one I'm clear about: it's a deceptive ad, and needs to come off the site right away. Another so-called Web Directory is indeed a directory, but the only content when you get to the bottom of each category is a set of Google Adsense advertisements for the category.

Most General Directories Are Garbage:
O'Reilly doesn't probably realize it, but he really nails the issue with most directories, most of them are devoid of legitimate useful content. However for him to call something deceptive because it has a footer link to a somewhat related site is naive for a person in his position.

What does that make an open source site linking through to cuban cigars? MUCH MORE DECEPTIVE. But that is just my opinion, which counts for little or nothing.

Whiter than White...or Maybe Not?
Then you got Matt Mickiewicz over at Sitepoint stating the following on the Sitepoint site:

At SitePoint, we’ve made the concicious decision to reject all PageRank based advertising, because it looks tacky, unprofessional and adds no value to our Website.

while offering Sitepoint text ads to things like Cheap Domain Registrations in the page footer. For some reason Matt missed the memo about the nofollow attribute, because he isn't using it when he sells / trades PageRank amongst various sites.

Deflection of Problems & Competitive Business Models:
Everyone likes to deflect the issue, not taking care of their own gardens first. It is not really the publishers fault though, they need to stay competitive, and it is an economy that Google created.

Most Content IS Garbage:
Tim stated that they need that text link ad revenue to fund the free content they create and that Google AdSense and other contextual programs were not paying enough. To me that seems to be the inherent problem with Google's current business model:

  • most content is not of amazing quality
  • only about 15% of search clicks are on the paid ads, and that means there is a market 5 times that size available for those who naturally deserve it or manipulate their way to the top of the regular listings
  • the programs Google created to encourage producing great content (like Google AdSense) usually are more effectively integrated into mass automated content production than in quality original content, further marginalizing the original content creators

The Semantics of Relevancy: All Links are Paid:
Some companies will pay $28,000 for a grill cheese Sandwich to get press coverage, some will have world class content that merits links, some will have strong business partnerships with large companies, some will leverage the power of their network of sites (as SourceForge recently was doing), some will list their sites in a million directories, some will write 1,000's of press releases or articles, some will buy expensive off topic links, others will buy links from within their community.

And then you have the occasional blogger who outs someone like O'Reilly for something they have BEEN DOING FOR YEARS and gets coverage on ThreadWatch, SearchBlog, SEW, BoingBoing, O'Reilly Radar, Sitepoint, etc etc etc.

Some bloggers play both sides of the fence, both whining about search engines talking to spammers, and then whining about people outing potential spam, playing both sides of the fence just so they can have something to talk about and have an excuse for other naive new blogpuppies (stole Nick's word there) to LINK TO THEIR SITE.

When you play both sides of the fence intent is obvious.

What makes one method of promotion legitimate and another illegitimate? Above I mentioned that I thought the cuban cigar ad was spam, and the reason I stated that was it was obvious that search engines would want to de weight it and there was a good chance they would find it. Surely I have some search spam out there which has been de weighted as well, as most any good site does.

Look at SlashDot, they have a supporters page that will link to poker sites. I link to off topic sites that mirror some of the tools I have made. Off topic links are common, especially when relevancy is the eye of the beholder.

They Make Money off Your Content, Why Shouldn't You?
Is it wrong to work your way to the top of the search results? Probably not if it is ok for Google to make billions of dollars a year serving ads next to CONTENT LIKE YOURSTM without giving you a cent.

Until Google gives premium publishers some payment for their content or Google AdSense is competitive enough to pay more than direct ad sales people will cut Google out of the loop. As they should.

Tim's post continues, asking the boundaries of SEO:

Where are the boundaries between legitimate "search engine optimization" to help people find stuff that they will appreciate, and "search engine gaming", to inflate the rank of sites that are less useful? Whose responsibility is it to solve this problem? Should web sites turn away advertisers just because they are performing arbitrage on Google and other search engines? Or is it the search engine's responsibility to adjust their heuristics to counteract any attempts to game the system? Or both?

Links Hold the Web Together:
Surely search engines do work to de weight some portions of link buying, but they probably can't and do not want to de weight all of it. Human review and links are what help give relevance to their vast bodies of unstructured data stuck in Google's data centers.

In some industries the known link sellers are considered the useful sites. Look at the legal field. You have the established sites like FindLaw (which rank for everything under the sun) and then you have a bunch of smaller individual sites that try to claw their way to the top using every kind of search spam imaginable (I just did some research on legal sites, so that's why the field is so fresh in my head - after looking at about a dozen sites I saw bad cloaking, bogus cross linking, invisible miniature text, etc etc etc). Real estate is also similar to legal. Most sites are unoriginal garbage offering the same stuff offered on other sites, with limited creativity or thought put into designing the site or improving the user experience.

Why Should I Defend Google's Business Model?
I find it fascinating how many webmasters, bloggers, etc believe it is their job to police search spam activities though. The blame does not always make sense either. Heck, Tim O'Reilly's network was selling Cuban cigar links and now my site gets tarnished as being part of a deceptive advertising scheme because one of my affiliates bought a link off his network? How bogus is that, Tim.

Why is a sitewide ad on someone else's site wrong if you can advertise Cuban cigars sitewide?

Haves vs Have Nots: Blame Pushing 101:
The web is a huge social medium, and it is an easy story to spread about how pure you are, how great your content is, and how impure some other group is. Almost every time someone with good social connectivity (PageRank) gets caught leveraging that they push it off on the evil people who bought the ads, or the evil firm that contacted them. Of course the search business model created the problem.

Is it wrong to work your way to the top of the search results? Probably not if it is ok for Google to make billions of dollars a year serving ads next to CONTENT LIKE YOURSTM without giving you a cent.

Good SEO Companies Stay Relevant:
The main reason many bloggers and web developers LOVE to talk down to SEOs is because they think that no matter what the SEOs are doing they want to annoy people with Cuban cigars. That is not how many of the smart ones work though. Some of the better link brokers, such as Text Link Ads, have long ago stopped selling ads based on PageRank metrics, and now focus their ads on relevancy. Sure occasionally some ads might not have a 100% relevancy match, but AdSense is the same way. You try to get as close as you can.

Sucessful Businesses do Not Let Other Businesses Arbitrarily Control Them:
Publishers looking to increase the quality and profitability of their content will continue to push the boundaries of profiting from their content. When legitimate publishers get caught doing things they would call blatantly disgusting if someone else was doing it they state how what they are doing is pure, and that SEOs will stop at nothing to be shown as relevant even where they do not belong.

You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you don't like the idea of people manipulating the search results then don't sell your votes. Don't link to advertisers.

In life & in business some people will be exceptionally successful while others fail. Search services would like to make it to where the only legitimate ad is one bought or sold through their network, and will base their policies around things that drive toward that goal. If you close mindedly stick to that philosophy you may find yourself as one of the pure content providers who can no longer afford to create content. In that scenario nobody wins.

Even Search Companies Buy Links:
If buying and selling text links is so bad, then why have some companies which own search engines (like Yahoo!) been buying links which manipulate their own results? Why do the sell links as well? What makes them an approved ad buyer or ad seller?

Staying Below Radar:
Successful sites need visitors and links, and those links have to come from somewhere. The more time we spend analyzing stuff like this the less time we have to go out and get links. Even though he was absolutely out to lunch with his timing the story was great for Phil Ringnalda, as it got him a bunch of link popularity. Also in an ironic twist, all the examples that Tim referenced got free links, but I would say those sites, like Tim's ad space, are on Radar, and may be worth less than some would have hoped. You want to be aggressive, but you do not want to be seen as being far more aggressive than your competitors. That is how you get above radar & penalized.

Published: August 25, 2005 by Aaron Wall in internet


August 26, 2005 - 1:20am

Just to clarify, the "Cheap Domain Registrations" link that we have on SitePoint.com (and the linke to Editize, SitePoint.com.au, and our hosting company) are all services that we use and/or own. None of these are paid links - and I hope, that they are all relevant to what our Website offers.

August 26, 2005 - 1:33am

But they are not nofollow, and some have anchor text with intent to manipulate search relevancy.

What makes selling or renting a link worse than just hooking up a buddy or business partner? Where do you draw the line? If you do business with them you probably are getting something in return for links you said you could otherwise be making 10s of thousands of dollars off of.

August 26, 2005 - 9:09am

I read the article in question and think it's blown way out of proportion. Since when is advertising bad? The article also talks about two directories web10 and site shift. I thought site shift was a good directory with many listings on every page and seems on-topic to xml.com.

August 28, 2005 - 10:45pm


I would like to point out that my SitePoint SEM blog did not cover the "hey look at me, I outed someone" blog post by whoever it was. So please don't lump me in with the "Springer marketing" crowd, OK?

What I covered, and what's more important, were Matt Cutts' comments on the O'Reilly network's untrusted status in particular, and the general topic of link rentals.

I'm not sure what your beef is with Matt Mickiewicz of SitePoint. As far as I know, what he said is true - they made an editorial decision that the ads on SitePoint have to be relevant to the audience. Web developers are definitely interested in domain name registration, especially when they can get a cheap reseller deal like DomainGuru offers.

August 29, 2005 - 3:40am

Hi Dan
as you well know, I have a ton of respect for you, and do not view you in any way as part of the Springer marketing crowd ;)

but for Phil, even if you linked at the O'Reilly page that page still links through to the one from Phil, and some people from SitePoint still read the post and probably made their own posts linking through to Phil.

I don't know Matt very well, I just thought it sounded hypocritical to use keyword rich anchor text to boost business partner sites rankings and then condemn the activity when it occurs elsewhere due to different terms of payments, etc.

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