Getting Granular With User Generated Content

The stock market had a flash crash today after someone hacked the AP account & made a fake announcement about bombs going off at the White House. Recently Twitter's search functionality has grown so inundated with spam that I don't even look at the brand related searches much anymore. While you can block individual users, it doesn't block them from showing up in search results, so there are various affiliate bots that spam just about any semi-branded search.

Of course, for as spammy as the service is now, it was worse during the explosive growth period, when Twitter had fewer than 10 employees fighting spam:

Twitter says its "spammy" tweet rate of 1.5% in 2010 was down from 11% in 2009.

If you want to show growth by any means necessary, engagement by a spam bot is still engagement & still lifts the valuation of the company.

Many of the social sites make no effort to police spam & only combat it after users flag it. Consider Eric Schmidt's interview with Julian Assange, where Eric Schmidt stated:

  • "We [YouTube] can't review every submission, so basically the crowd marks it if it is a problem post publication."
  • "You have a different model, right. You require human editors." on Wikileaks vs YouTube

We would post editorial content more often, but we are sort of debating opening up a social platform so that we can focus on the user without having to bear any editorial costs until after the fact. Profit margins are apparently better that way.

As Google drives smaller sites out of the index & ranks junk content based on no factor other than it being on a trusted site, they create the incentive for spammers to ride on the social platforms.

All aboard. And try not to step on any toes!

When I do some product related searches (eg: brand name & shoe model) almost the whole result set for the first 5 or 10 pages is garbage.

  • subdomains
  • subdomains
  • YouTube accounts
  • Google+ accounts
  • subdomains
  • Facebook Notes & pages
  • Tweets
  • Slideshare
  • LinkedIn
  • subdomains off of various other free hosts

It comes without surprise that Eric Schmidt fundamentally believes that "disinformation becomes so easy to generate because of, because complexity overwhelms knowledge, that it is in the people's interest, if you will over the next decade, to build disinformation generating systems, this is true for corporations, for marketing, for governments and so on."

Of course he made no mention in Google's role in the above problem. When they are not issuing threats & penalties to smaller independent webmasters, they are just a passive omniscient observer.

With all these business models, there is a core model of building up a solid stream of usage data & then tricking users or looking the other way when things get out of hand. Consider Google's Lane Shackleton's tips on YouTube:

  • "Search is a way for a user to explicitly call out the content that they want. If a friend told me about an Audi ad, then I might go seek that out through search. It’s a strong signal of intent, and it’s a strong signal that someone found out about that content in some way."
  • "you blur the lines between advertising and content. That’s really what we’ve been advocating our advertisers to do."
  • "you’re making thoughtful content for a purpose. So if you want something to get shared a lot, you may skew towards doing something like a prank"

Harlem Shake & Idiocracy: the innovative way forward to improve humanity.

Life is a prank.

This "spam is fine, so long as it is user generated" stuff has gotten so out of hand that Google is now implementing granular page-level penalties. When those granular penalties hit major sites Google suggests that those sites may receive clear advice on what to fix, just by contacting Google:

Hubert said that if people file a reconsideration request, they should “get a clear answer” about what’s wrong. There’s a bit of a Catch-22 there. How can you file a reconsideration request showing you’ve removed the bad stuff, if the only way you can get a clear answer about the bad stuff to remove is to file a reconsideration request?

The answer is that technically, you can request reconsideration without removing anything. The form doesn’t actually require you to remove bad stuff. That’s just the general advice you’ll often hear Google say, when it comes to making such a request. That’s also good advice if you do know what’s wrong.

But if you’re confused and need more advice, you can file the form asking for specifics about what needs to be removed. Then have patience

In the past I referenced that there is no difference between a formal white list & overly-aggressive penalties coupled with loose exemptions for select parties.

The moral of the story is that if you are going to spam, you should make it look like a user of your site did it, that way you

  • are above judgement
  • receive only a limited granular penalty
  • get explicit & direct feedback on what to fix
Published: April 24, 2013 by Aaron Wall in publishing & media


April 24, 2013 - 12:16am

...but didn't know how to fit in...

Is Google intentionally poisoning competing sites by encouraging that sort of user generated content spam, such that they can later justify penalizing anyone at any time for some odd reason? Or do they go easy on competing social sites in part because they want to run their own social layers fast & loose?

April 25, 2013 - 6:51am

Great post, Aaron! I doubt they're doing it just to have an ace up their sleeve so they can penalize at will later. But I can easily believe they've given thought to the fact that if they hammer Twitter and other social platforms, they might quickly appear to be the sloppiest show in town if they don't police their own yard first. Since they've already shown how (un)willing they are to do that, selected granular penalties make sense for them.

April 24, 2013 - 10:55pm

What worries me the most about "the state of the web" is how the general zeitgeist is simply rolling over and accepting all of the changes made by Google. Go to and the discussion there is how to look like a brand, and if you argue against that philosophy, you're seen as an amateur. That is a classic example of groupthink and webmasters in awe of a might corporation. It's all about "what works best for Google no matter what". And that's one forum I truly used to respect. The other forums I used to frequent long sold their soul to Google. The whole webmaster community (if there is such a thing) is such a soul-less dead place now - it's truly horrible - it's about reading FAQs about the link disavow tool and reconsideration requests, obsessive interpretations of Matt Cutts videos, businesses spending hours emailing websites asking them to remove links, all these garbage "toxic links" detector-type services. Google is like a black hole sucking up productivity. What the hell are people doing with their time that's actually useful these days? We all bow before the mighty Google.

April 25, 2013 - 4:57pm

If Google gives these sites traffic and traffic pays the bills then webmasters (seem) right to do all they can to stand in line with Google - be that branding signals/links/social/giving google free content/whatever else they read about on some SEO blog.

So you think most webmasters/SEOs way overdo it with the Google nonsense? And instead should spend time on production/whatever else instead of worrying about silly Google preferences?

I'm just curious as to what alternatives you'd propose.

April 26, 2013 - 6:04pm

If you rely on Google so much, then I think you need really think hard about what would happen when the next algo update cuts 90%+ of your traffic and your business dies overnight. You'll just be another company on the large scrapheap of companies that relied too heavily on Google. Google do not pay my bills - my customers do. I look after them first and foremost. I make sure my site content is built for serving my prospective and actual customers first and foremost, not Google. I'm not new to this game - I've been around since 1995, and my original comment just reflects how badly webmasters have their priorities wrong these days, and how much they lack imagination with bringing in new traffic to their sites and their customers' sites. They are willing to make wholesale changes to content just because they imagine Google are penalising it somehow - their top priority is that Google "approve" their content more than their target market.

I'm just curious as to what alternatives you'd propose.

You're asking this question 12 months after the first Penguin update? I work in website development. I pick up the phone, I meet people, I use social networks, I use forums - I network. Nearly all my business comes in from these methods, and the great thing about it is that I have control over it. You offer a service? Then go to your market rather than passively wait for them to stumble on your site, and if they do - great, treat that traffic as a bonus. For products, I can tell you that success is more about specialising in particular products, offline marketing, networking (aforementioned methods), distribution through resellers etc. If you sell a commodity product, you simply shouldn't. There's no great revelation to my advice, but it works - it just takes some graft which people seem to be very averse to - and it very much helps to have a good service or product to sell too, instead of peddling that generic commodity item that so many people seem to do.

May 25, 2013 - 5:12pm

People are conditioned to believe that almost everyone is a "good" person and government and corporations have their best interests at heart. Some never throw off that conditioning in spite of overwhelming proof to the contrary. You can't wake up the people who can look right at the evidence and totally ignore it. They can't even tell you HOW they can ignore it. (Intelligent people can not hold two beliefs that are mutually exclusive at the same time - but conditioned people do it all the time.)

Google rules by FUD. And it works. Sites don't want to link to anything at all - just in case. Or they want to nofollow every link - just in case. "Small business" sites refuse to link to any small business. Every time a site loses traffic in a big way, they guess at the cause and then take actions that hurt small businesses and each other.

This last update cost some quality sites up 58% of their traffic as early as April 8 (when it appears the new Penguin was first tested on a subset of sites). Group blogs are now afraid to publish guest posts (which many think is now the "safe" SEO solution) because there is no way they can know whether the writer got paid to write that post or add that link or not. Their solution is to not link to any business that might benefit from that link.

We can NOT control what Google does. As Aaron so aptly quoted him years ago, Google's CEO has announced his intention to favor big brands. Every update proves that is what they are doing. Our solution can never be "roll over and play dead" or "keep kissing up to Google" because only "bad guys" lose traffic. That is ridiculous.

The solution is to stand up to Google. Your "competitors" in small business are NOT other small businesses. Your only "competitor" - or even enemy - is the wealthy elite who control almost all publicly traded corporations and the media. Stop avoiding linking to each other and start doing the right thing every time.

The more sites that do the right thing, the harder it is for Google to rule by fear. If they make examples of a lot of sites searchers like, the searchers will find other ways to get to them.

Google has a monopoly on search - both organic and paid. Nothing converts like search. Get over it. No, there is no one thing that can replace Google. There aren't ten things. You have to do dozens of things right to replace what they send you. That's how it is. Just deal. Do those dozens of things. Build a strong business slowly. Focus locally. And quit worrying about what Google may do. You'll sleep better at night.

April 27, 2013 - 12:21pm

Great stuff, Aaron. Considering that Google search is bascially made up of 99% user generated content, it gives them an out when the results get littered with garbage.

Too many content mill reslts? Boom. Panda.

Lots of awful content ranked with spammy link? Here's a Penguin for you.

They've done an amazing job of making webmasters look like the bad guys in all this. And they look like the white knight: "If there's terrible content on the front page, it's the spammer's fault, not ours."

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