Mahalo Caught Spamming Google With PageRank Funneling Link Scheme

Feb 17th

Jason "SEO is dead" Calacanas, founder of Mahalo, used "SEO is dead" as a publicity stunt to help launch his made for AdSense scraper website. In the past we have noted how he was caught ranking pages without any original content - in clear violation of Google's guidelines. And now he has taken his spam strategy one step further, by creating a widget that bloggers can embed on their blogs.

The following link list looks like something you would find on an autogenerated spam website, but was actually on Hack A Day, a well respected technology blog with lots of PageRank.

  • Note that the links are not delivered in Javascript and do not use nofollow.
  • The links are repetitive and spammy.
  • The links have no contextual relevance.

This activity is in stark contrast to Google's webmaster guidelines:

Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site's ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank


The above links not only appear on hackaday, but Mahalo is actually creating a "Mahalo Blog Network" that cross links to other Mahalo promoting blogs and exists for the purpose of flowing PageRank into high paying Mahalo pages.

Back around the last time Jason was calling SEO spam, he was promoting Weblogs Inc., and his blog revenues relied heavily on selling PageRank from his blogs to casino websites.

Do the venture capitalists that invested in Mahalo support such Google gaming and PageRank selling strategies? When will Google act on this blatant violation of their guidelines? Jason has a clear history of operating outside the spirit of their guidelines, and if Google lets this slide then many other people are going to start spamming them too. Google has an obligation to protect searchers from such devious behavior, lest they let it slide and promote the creation of more spam.

Update: This Looks Worse Than I Originally Thought!

While leveraging blog sidebars to pump PageRank and anchor text is pretty bad, at least it was not in the editorial content of blog posts. But it looks like many Mahalo employees not only put links in their sidebars, but they publish posts that consist of little but a link laundry list pointing at various seasonally hot parts of the Mahalo site.





The above is just a small sample of such posts promoting Mahalo. There are probably hundreds or thousands of suchs posts floating around the web. What makes that strategy any better than the "evil" Pay Per Post strategy that Jason Calacanis was allegedly against? I guess it is only bad when someone else is profiting from it.

Published: February 17, 2009

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Comments

February 17, 2009 - 4:11pm

Thank you for being the one blogger not taken in by Calacanis' charm. The guy seems to get a pass on everything. I suppose I should wait and his army of flunkies will be hear defending his every action. Who knows if Google will actually get wise to Mahalo?

February 17, 2009 - 4:40pm

Nice to see examples like this outed. Maybe it's sour-grapes (would love to have Mahalo's traffic)...

My question is, what incentive (financial or otherwise) is there for someone to load the spam-widget onto their blog? Are all the external blogs owned by Calacanis himself?

February 17, 2009 - 4:53pm

I only mentioned it because he claimed that all SEO is spam and that SEO is pointless and that his content ranks well because it is the best. If he makes such claims and then uses fairly spammy/aggressive SEO techniques, it should be highlighted such that people know he is a lying charlatan.

I certainly am not envious of his traffic...he took VC funding, has a bunch of employees, has a low value generic site, which has stalled, and is only getting about 3x the traffic this tiny niche SEO blog is http://siteanalytics.compete.com/seobook.com+mahalo.com/?metric=uv

Add in our other sites and we are crushing him on the traffic front, most likely on the profits front, we took no investment money, and have way fewer employees.

Some of those blogs are owned by him or the parent company, and I think some of them might be employees. You are right though...other than financial or nepotistic reasons there is absolutely 0 reason why anyone would load up their sidebar sitewide with repetitive, off-topic, and spammy Mahalo links.

February 18, 2009 - 12:39am

Aaron, all excellent points.

I just wanted to be clear that the "sour-grapes" comment was meant to be directed at myself, not you in anyway. I can see looking back how it could be misconstrued.

February 17, 2009 - 8:05pm

The same thing with wikipedia... sometimes wikipedia outranks really great sites with good content... I think that inside Google there is a really strong "fraction" that wants to kick out websites that sell anything, even just to promote MFA websites just to get some more revenue thru adsense/adwords...

For example, they would rather keep Wiki+MFA+affiliate sites in tourism, aggregators and other crap before original sellers in tourism niche... type in original hotel names and you will see (example: "hotel bristol in vienna", "hotel pical in rabac")

Google goes only for its profits, and they should change to reflect real human needs, they have gone far away from "do no evil"

Calacanis here just exploits known errors from Google. It would be about time for G to kick him out.

February 18, 2009 - 2:13am

My understanding from folks at the search engines was the cross marketing your content on various blogs was allowable.... did something change I'm not aware of?

Seriously, look at

www.engadget.com
www.joystiq.com
www.autoblog.com

and all the weblogs, inc. blog... we cross promoted all the time. The same is true of Gawker's blogs and countless other blog networks. Is there something wrong with cross-promotion because I was actually told this was ok and search engines only passed on the page rank once or so per blog.

Also, that other issue with the classifieds was something we fixed immediatly, as did a ton of blogs who had them, when someone explained to me what nofollow was (i had actually not heard of the term before then).

Anyway, thanks for all the great education on SEO Aaron... I love your site.

best,

jason

ps - it's Calacanis, I think you misspelled it above.

February 18, 2009 - 2:17am

oh yes, you may want to check out Quantcast for more accurate traffic numbers. Compete.com is nice, but it's sample based (and only the USA).

Quantcast shows our proper number of unique visitors (5m+). Actually, it underreports about 3-8% due to people not having javascript on (or not loading the javascript pixel sometimes).

http://www.quantcast.com/mahalo.com

The Mahalo Answers product is becoming a direct traffic machine. The SEO stuff is fantastic to start a brand, and I've learned a lot reading your blog Aaron, but I think you need to ultimately convert that search traffic to direct traffic... and Answers has a been a MACHINE for that!

Speaking of which, do you have a Mahalo answers account Aaron? If not sign up and tell me your account name and I'll put M$20 in the for you spend. I'm sure you would love it... as you know, these Q&A services are amazing not only for users, but they do a nice job with SEO.

Answers is already getting 10-15k people a day from search engines.... perhaps we can hire you to help us add a zero?

all the best and hope to see you soon,

Jason "Master SEO" Calacanis

February 18, 2009 - 4:02am

I think publicly you act naive about SEO because it allows you to be more aggressive than you would otherwise be able to get away with.

Ironically, I do view you as a "master SEO" ... one that heavily leverages public relations to achieve your end goals (it doesn't hurt that SEO is heading in that direction anyhow). If you didn't crap on the field of SEO then I wouldn't have cared about your promotional techniques.

I probably would not benefit from promoting your site because client work does not scale as well as owning your own sites does, and everything I teach you will end up working against me on some of the search queries we compete for ;)

No hard feelings really...I just think you owe the SEO industry an apology for crapping on it without need. Your good enough at public relations that you could have took a different path and been just as successful (or perhaps moreso).

February 18, 2009 - 4:20pm

Aaron,

Good find! But something that I have a problem with is the fact that this goes against your previous public statements against "SEO Outing". I personally think that as an industry we should support a public dialog on seo bad tactics and examples of each. But in the past when I have brought this up others have been against the idea entirely. Including yourself.

You actually cited one of your reasons for not outing as the fact that these are real businesses, and outing can affect people's livelihood. An argument that I agree with, and is the reason I reconsidered my view. If VC funding is scaled back at Mahalo and someone has to take a pay cut or lose a job, will it really matter if Calacanis talked trash about SEO?

All I want to see is an industry that is open and honest with how we discuss these issues, not one that uses double standards.

February 18, 2009 - 6:37pm

I generally have a distaste for outing.

Jason tried to affect people's livelihood when he lied about the whole of the SEO industry to promote his site. I just want to it to be on record that his marketing included lying for self-promotion, and that at the core his site is SEO driven - a pure play SEO website.

Google won't act on Mahalo because of their VC backing. Simple as that, really.

February 18, 2009 - 4:57pm

Outing! Boooo! Boooo!

February 18, 2009 - 5:59pm

Actually Aaron, I explained my position on SEO after being educated as to the difference between white, black, gray, etc.

1. When I first made the comment in like 2005 that "SEO is bs" it was during a Q&A when someone asked me how we did our SEO. At that time my impression of SEO was the oily SEO salesmen who tried to get us to sign $10,000 monthly contracts for Engadget/Autoblog/Joystiq/etc. We never understood it and our traffic was growing so we ignored it.

2. After getting a massive backlash I listened to folks and said something along the lines of although most of the SEOs i've met are just polluting the internet some are doing good work like helping folks with website design, site maps and creating compelling content. Those last things don't even feel like "SEO" as much as editorial and site design.

3. I said repeatedly if you're a white-hat SEO I don't have a problem with it.

4. In your blog post above you're trying to spin me into some link buying machine. We own Hackaday and cross promote. At weblogsinc we had a footer and a blogroll. We talked to search engines about this and they said it was absolutely no problem. So, I think you're kind of making up this issue to try and stir the pot... which only makes SEO and SEOs look worse. You don't think the search guys know that I'm a target? Do you think that they're going to kick me out of the search index or something? That doesn't make much sense when we spend a LOT of money making highly original content. Our How To articles cost $30 to $250 to make each--much more than ehow or other folks pay. If we get lucky enough to get a good spot we've really earned it.

Also, my style is to create brands that help people. Autoblog, Engadget, Mahalo, Mahalo Answers and TechCrunch50 all have a common theme: high production value, pro-sumor and VERY helpful.

My secret to brand building is NOT SEO but rather making highly helpful services.

Again, I'm BEGGING you to try Mahalo Answers or do a study where you show someone a google result for Bob Dyaln and our SERP for Bob Dylan. you'll soon find out we got good product.

all the best,

Jason

February 18, 2009 - 6:44pm

Those last things don't even feel like "SEO" as much as editorial and site design.

You can try to relabel the field of SEO by using a straw man that describes other stuff, but cross linking to deep posts with targeted anchor text IS an SEO strategy.

I would love to see you write an "X ways I used SEO to grow Mahalo" blog post. Until you do that you still have no adequately apologized for espousing that ignorant position back in 2005.

all the best, :)
Aaron

February 18, 2009 - 6:46pm

if it weren't for blog drama i would have never heard of mahalo. it has never shown up in search engines for anything i have searched for. ever.

February 18, 2009 - 7:25pm

According to our competitive research tool they rank in Google's top 20 results for 175,152 out of the 30 million keywords in the database. Within a year that could be them being in the top 20 for over 10% of the high volume valuable keywords in the English language.

February 18, 2009 - 7:44pm

Nice article, I forwarded it on the Google webspam team.

February 18, 2009 - 8:10pm

Aaron,

I remember when you accused Rand from SeoMoz for doing the exact thing that you are doing now. So what are your parameters to know when outing is good or bad.

February 18, 2009 - 8:38pm

It was not the exact same thing. It was nowhere remotely close to being the same thing. Rand was picking on a smaller and weaker competitor in a hopes of damaging their rankings (as he had done many times in the past). I was highlighting what a hypocritical piece of crap Jason Calacanas is for denouncing the field of SEO, then building his business upon the very thing he claimed to be of no value or substance.

Fantomaster is much better with words than I am:

Now while we generally don’t condone outing fellow SEOs no matter the cause, a practice that, in our view, will merely prop a fascistoid culture of denunciation, terror and debasement, this case is quite different for the very reason that Mr Calacanis has never been on record for being anything but dismissive of search engine optimization and its exponents, making it unequivocally clear that he himself is definitely “not one of those”.

(And sorry, no: that tweet of his is anything but a retraction - not in view of the fact that his utterly hypocritical stance had just been revealed for what it really is.)

Makes one wonder what it is with Mahalo making him so desperate to resort to means he has always claimed were absolute bs propagated by a class of greedy and clueless industry insiders to hoodwink innocent consumers and quite unnecessary to boot…

February 18, 2009 - 11:09pm

Hi Aaron - long time no talk - I hope you are well.

The only thing worse than bad PR is no PR (as in public relations).

I don't think Jason expected as many folks to get upset as did. Jason is a smart marketer and I'm sure he realized there would be an element of shock factor that would come from such statements.

That said, in my view Mahalo is a good site. It's legit, and deserves trust and preferential treatment based on its content.

Cross-linking is fine. This is evident not only on large blogs, but many other large groups like IAC, EW Scripps, CBS, etc. It's a legit practice.

Clearly, the example of linkbait shown above is very irrelevant. I'm a little surprised to see something like that rolled out to be honest.

I'm assuming the Mahalo team will want to maintain this tool, but to be above board the group would be smart to improve the relevancy of the links...

I don't usually chime in, but this one was just too juicy.

February 19, 2009 - 1:42pm

I said repeatedly if you're a white-hat SEO I don't have a problem with it.

Well, if a small blogger or SEO will do the cross-linking Mahalo has been practicing, it is very likely that those sites will get penalized by Google and perhaps other Search Engines. Spam sites are not considered white-hat. They are spam! Some SEOs don't like black-hat or spam, and unfortunately this smells like that.

That doesn't make much sense when we spend a LOT of money making highly original content. Our How To articles cost $30 to $250 to make each

Oh sure, highly original content that gets copied, repackaged or scraped from others that were the original creators. For what? $30 a piece. We paid more for research-based information than the low wages Mahalo is offering to starving people, which ultimately is used to create a page of "high quality original content". The worst part is that that $30 original page is making you thousands of dollars and ultimately benefiting Mahalos' interest without sharing a penny with the creators of the original content or funding research...So where is the glorious creation humanity has ever seen BS other than the same spam sites we all are used to?...But perhaps you are paying $200 to Phd's and MD's for a well-researched, well-written piece of information on Legg-Calve-Perthes disease that took them years to study and research.

What a genius ideas and easy ways to make money I have to admit.

February 19, 2009 - 3:05am

Jason Calacanis has apologized profusely for bad-mouthing SEOs, allowed you to have several do-follow links from Mahalo.com, and even said that he "loves your blog" despite all your jabs. He also revealed that he owns Hack a Day, (making this story a non-story), and just to please you, he even removed all the Mahalo links from HackaDay.com.

What more do you want him to do? What would be an appropriate apology in your book?

If Calacanis is truly as devious as you think he is, then why are there people wondering aloud whether a statue of him should be built?

http://www.mahalo.com/answers/mahalo-answers-community/would-you-pay-to-...

If you knew the truth about Mahalo and Jason Calacanis' final goal, you'd be shocked to the bone. Calacanis has a secret endgame that he can't discuss publicly. Everything is a means to an end. Sometimes in order to achieve great things, you have to crack a few eggs.

You might be under the impression that all he wants to eventually do is sell Mahalo for several million and buy a bigger mansion in Brentwood, but if you think that, you couldn't be more wrong. He wants to use the money from the sale of Mahalo to build the most glorious creation humanity has ever seen, and when you find out what it is, I guarantee you that--like most of the planet--you'll be shocked with an indescribable sense of wonder. If you're highly skeptical, wait till 2011-2012ish.

February 19, 2009 - 4:39pm

All I can see is that you should read this John Andrews comment:

Jason dissed SEOs in public, at a keynote, on purpose, and then learned a bit so he wasn't quite so ignorant of SEO any more, and is now working the SERPs as a black hat SEO. Jason dissed affiliates in public, at a keynote, on purpose, and then learned a bit so he's not as ignorant of affiliate marketing as he was before, and now Mahaoloo has embedded (inline) affiliate links (take a look.. added since Affiliate Summit).

That sort of strategy is not "cracking a few eggs" it is "acting like a hypocritical ________."

February 19, 2009 - 5:18pm

Aaron,

thanks again for bringing up the thought provoking stuff you normally do on your wonderful site SEOBook. A large percentage of the team at Mahalo reads SEOBook on a daily/weekly basis and we're all fans. We've learned a lot about White hat seo from you, and for that we thank you!

That's all honest and real stuff... I'm not joking!

Couple of simple facts:

1. We own HackADay
2. We syndicate our best headlines between our sites
3. CBS, NYTimes, WeblogsInc, CNN, Gawker and even you and your clients (I've started to get a list from people!) syndicate headlines between sites.
4. I'm not going to sit here and "out" your clients or the major brands that are doing the same thing--I'm not trying to give everyone in the industry a hard time.
5. We've removed the links just to be certain we don't have any issues.
6. We spend thousands of dollars a month building those How to articles and video game walkthoughts and they are AMAZING!!! Look at them here:

http://www.mahalo.com/Category:Video_Game_Walkthroughs
http://www.mahalo.com/How_to

7. I've apologized over and over to *white* hat SEOs. I love them all and I've been told over and over that I am, in fact, the greatest White hat SEO that has ever lived second only to you and About.com's guy. :-)

8. Mahalo Answers is the real growth part of our business. With 5,000,000 uniques a month we're really not looking to grow from SEO but rather by helping people get great answers (and make a little money) in Mahalo Answers.

9. IF you, or any of the readers here, open a Mahalo Answers account and twitter me I will send you five Mahalo Dollars to play with the system. Once you play with the system you will see that *direct* traffic is really out model now. http://www.mahalo.com/answers

10. What will it cost to put you on retainer? I'd much rather have you working for us than against us!

Much Mahalo and love,

Jason

February 20, 2009 - 1:01am

1 & 2 & 3...it is not just syndicating content...but posting a laundry list of links to blog entries that consist of nothing but link lists that are irrelevant to the sites they are published on. If I have a site about technology and then link over to "buy viagra online" & "2 girls 1 cup" & "buy zoloft cheap" (without the links being in any relevant context) then that would be seen as spammy.

I would be surprised to think your employees read this blog regularly, with so many of them participating in link dumping practices.

4...I love that you would hunt for a list of our clients. That would be quite hard to build since most of our projects are confidential, and most of our client work is of the one-off variety. You could guess, but it would be hard to be certain who are clients are except for ones that gave me permission to mention them...like PBS.org. Their site is white as snow. :)

And none of our other current or past clients would be acting under our guidance if they did irrelevant cross site link dumping like Mahalo was doing.

5...great news!

6...I never said all of your content was bad. I was simply mentioning that you were operating outside the Google guidelines in order to help push it up higher than it deserved to rank organically.

You and I both realize that some amount of push marketing is needed to launch a new site. But if push marketing gets too aggressive then it might be seen as being outside of Google's guidelines.

7...About.com does have some great SEO. I wouldn't put myself at the top though...guys like Greg Boser and David Naylor deserve that distinction...and maybe Jimmy Wales!

8...will be cool to see it take off. One of the problems with the web is that everything is supposed to be free. If people get used to paying for information that will be great for all serious online publishers. Best of luck with that!

9...I may give it a try sometime.

10...I am not looking for any more client work at this point. Thanks for the offer though!

February 19, 2009 - 8:02pm

Hi Jason,

Just curious, who told you that you were the third greatest White Hat SEO guy. As i said in the twitter message, this is like PETA fighting KFC which makes KFC more sales. Outings are the best PR ever for anyone. Aaron is giving you more PR than you can ever buy if you kept him in a retainer. And Jason, I don't think you need Aaron on retainer (and not that he would accept it) if you are that great. By the way Aaron, I think Jason has a way to locate your clients/sites from what I read above. Jason you are a good SEO, you just market yourself as 100% pure white which is the wrong part of this whole thing.

March 2, 2009 - 5:33pm

You guys both make great points. I've gotta give it up a little to Jason though for at least chiming in, and participating in the discussion. More than a lot of people would bother to do. I'm not saying I agree with him, but at least his comments are more respectful than ryanair's. :)

March 6, 2009 - 7:31pm

Regarding the Mahalo Blog Network: I don't know how recent that screenshot is, but it's amusing to see the blogs of several people who have either left the company or were laid off last October, when half the in-house editorial staff (including myself) was purged.

For the record, Matthew Wayne Selznick is no longer associated with Mahalo.com. However, if Mahalo wants to keep trickling one or two referral visits to my own site by continuing to include me in their blogroll, so be it!

When I was working for Mahalo, staff were strongly encouraged to get blogs if we didn't have them and blog about Mahalo whenever there was a high-traffic opportunity like an awards show, sports or political event.

Since I've had a blog since 2003 and it represents my personal brand, I never participated in linking for linking's sake. I wrote about and linked to Mahalo when we had job openings or something interesting was worth mentioning. Occasionally I'd link to a Mahalo SeRP if it was in context and was a useful link... especially if I'd written the SeRP myself.

I unsubscribe from the blogs of my former co-workers when the majority of their posts are Mahalo link parades, just as I unsubscribe from any blog when it becomes a mouthpiece.

Consequently, I have unfortunately unsubscribed from the majority of my former co-workers' blogs. If they have something of value to share about their lives, they know where and how to find me.

March 6, 2009 - 7:42pm

Thanks for the update Matthew :)

November 13, 2009 - 12:29pm

As a follow up to this post. Have a look at Mahalo's traffic since then... it seems that it started going up right after this post... I don't know what they changed to their strategy, but it seems that Google still doesn't consider them as Spam...

November 13, 2009 - 5:48pm

I think some Google engineers probably view Mahalo as spam (much like Demand Media's bulk content churn is). Mahalo pulls in and re-purposes content from Twitter + Youtube + Fickr + other sources, promotes recycling other people's answers content, etc etc etc.

Why did their traffic keep going up? Around the time of this post their site started passing through many age-based trust tresholds, all those spammy links they were doing started kicking in, and they started promoting answer spam.

Lots of links + lots of content + old site = SEO win.

The key is that if you wrap spam in brand + public relations hype + VC funding Google tends not to care. Do the same thing without the VC funding + PR and it would be dead in the water.

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