Blogs and other social media tools have changed the publishing landscape over the past few years, making it easier than ever to share information with the world. The ease of use and focused attention of the medium has also helped create new opportunities for spammers to automatically generate content, buy links, and get noticed by search engines and other points of aggregation. In this post I will break down the operations of one spam network utilizing social media technologies such as WordPress, Digg, del.icio.us, and more to climb the search results and generate revenue through ads and affiliate programs.
Last weekend I noticed a Digg submission about weight loss tips had climbed the site’s front page, earning a covetous position in the top 5 technology stories of the moment. The 13 sure-fire tips were authored by “Dental Geek” and posted to the “Discount Dental Plan” category on his WordPress blog. Scanning the sidebar links and adjacent content it was obvious this content was out of place on a page optimized for dental insurance. The webmaster of i-dentalresources.com had inserted some Digg bait, seeded a few social bookmarking services, and waited for links and page views to roll in, creating a new node in a spam farm fueled by high-paying affiliate programs and identity collection for resale.
The spammer’s domain is managed by eBizzSol, a company with fake domain registration information including the address block of a Christian church in Fullerton, California. The dental site is registered to an address in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Based on the broken English I’ve found on the network’s sites an offshore base of operations would not surprise me. eBizzSol mentions about 200 sites in its portfolio, including real estate, mortgage, casinos, and more. They even advertise a content generation service for SEOs offering six blog posts a month for $75 optimized for specific keywords, including guarantees for blog directory and ping submissions. There are other sources of content generation available for hire online, creating a flow of content republished across a target category optimized for specific terms.
Follow the money
Why would someone want to create a site optimized for dental services? A search engine such as Google or Yahoo! discovers the site, indexes its pages, and starts including its content in search results for targeted keywords. Web searchers associate search engine rank with authority on a subject such as lowering an insurance premium or mortgage and generate a large amount of money per action. This particular site is collecting $40 or more per dental plan sold through a dental plan reseller and targeting specific keywords of value and boasts search engine index inclusion of “just a few hours” on its pages.
The dental terms targeted cost up to $18 a click, offering incentives for top organic search conversion. Below is a price estimate from Google for keyword targeting in the United States.
|Search term||CPC ($)|
|discount dental plans||5.93|
This webmaster bought links from the Yahoo! directory, the Microsoft Small Business Directory, Business.com, and a few others, placing a link to their site within targeted categories. They are cheaper than the $1000 links purchased on sites such as the W3C, but these listings are often just as spammy.
The article link was submitted to Digg by a user who joined Digg last month yet is already ranked in the top 150. The story received over 900 Diggs and is currently buried. A newly minted user posted to Reddit, posted to Newsvine, and posted to del.icio.us using the same name on each service. Seeding and voting up the content worked, as the blog post made its way to the top story listings on each social news service.
As of this evening the spam site has 353 inlinks from 212 external pages, mostly due to its viral marketing efforts on social networks. Some social bookmarking users include their bookmarked links in their blog sidebar, creating additional direct links throughout their entire site in addition to the original bookmarking service location. The spam network had successfully spread a piece of content throughout multiple user communities, and onto individual blogs in the process.
Certain topics are especially well suited for baiting the technology-oriented crowds of social news and bookmarking sites. Stories focused on Apple, Firefox, Google, Nintendo, history of computers, top X lists, or the target social site itself are common baiting practices used to attract attention and place a new content node on the map. Opportunists will continue to jump into new networks of influence and promote their own sites, gathering search engine juice even when the brief blip of attention has passed and the crowd moves on to another story of the moment.
I believe social media accounts are currently available for rent or for sale, rewarding active users with paid placements or account resells in much the same way as a World of Warcraft character might be resold on eBay. Social media sites and search engines need to stay on top of this new form of content creation, continually analyzing data and scrubbing out the dirt. Sites overrun with web spam quickly lose their utility and might be banned from search engines.
Social media sites continue to change the way we interact with data but expect more activity and content shaping in the future from marketers targeting the social media space for a quick link injection.