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AMA: My job was to game Digg using infographics (reddit.com)
78 points by thibaut_barrere on Aug 31, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

This isn't surprising at all. In fact, I met and worked with someone on an unrelated contract who ran a small shop that did just this. It made me happy I stopped using digg years ago.

Digg could have solved a lot of these problems early on by introducing a couple very simple features: first, allow users to block domains, and second, allow users to block users. I can't remember how many times cracked.com or holytaco.com would show up on the frontpage and make me cringe. Reddit is starting to suffer from the same thing.

The fundamental problem with Digg and also with Reddit somewhat is that nobody wants to sit and curate the upcoming stories, and upcoming stories require far too many votes to catch steam and have a chance at hitting the front page. So it falls to a small handful of power users who have a network of friends built up who are willing to vote on their stories.

Digg essentially became an aggregator of cheap, popcorn content; the kind of stuff non-tech savvy people forward around on email.

Hacker News is still good because it's a small niche of highly tech-savvy people, but if it gets to popular it will run into the exact same issues.

I think the new Digg is actually a good step in the right direction. The truly best way to get good content is to decide yourself where it comes from. I get my best links from Twitter because I follow people who are interested in the same stuff I am. If I could define my network, the content would remain relavent. I think it would take around 500-5000 people to really generate great content, provided those people are all people you align with well.

Digg's main problem is it left the technology niche and became mainstream. The same thing has happened with lots of forums I used to frequent - for example, one broadened their focus from a highly technical media broadcasting community, to a TV entertainment and gossip portal. The traffic increased dramatically, yet the quality of the posts dropped.

Hacker News will be fine so long as they keep things controlled and avoid the pull of the mainstream.

If this is true (and it rings truthy to me), then (a) this AMA is a service to humanity, and (b) we should start aggressively flagging these things off the site.

I say this mostly because I hate those stupid infographics; chartjunk!

I like an observation I ran across (http://www.bogost.com/blog/information_is_beautiful.shtml):

  The problem is this: infographics like this may be beautiful, but they are not
  necessarily informative. Specifically, pretty charts often fail to synthesize the 
  meaning, relevance, and impact of information as it pertains to decision making.
I think they're fine in the same way that comics can be fine: Dilbert is funny because you recognize things in it, not because it's giving you important new information about business. It can be nice to see something you're already familiar with presented in an eye-catching, aesthetically pleasing way, and it might even make a nice poster for the office or something. But as ways of conveying information, the vast majority I run across aren't that good. Often a boring old two-axis scatterplot would be more informative than the flashy infographics (especially if it had usefully labeled axes and quoted its data source).

If you haven't read VDQI:


I highly recommend it. It was written decades ago and presages all of this; it tears into this USA Today chartjunky design style with a satisfying fervor.

In this case, while the crappiness of the design may be what sets me off, the license to complain about it comes from the fact that it's apparently all part of a huge SEO scam.

This is an anonymous account for obvious reasons. I also did the same job as the AMA OP, used this linkbaiting technique for over a year.

Posting as I think HN would be interested in the results.

Tens of thousands of optimised backlinks, Quality trusted links from major news publishers (almost all of them), Search traffic up from 30k a month to 200k, 800k to 1mill visitors a month.

The infographics game is almost up for linkbaiting. Most of the people using this technique are now moving on, including myself.

Expect some interesting innovations in this space.

I couldn't quite understand how it works. Was the idea as simple as just creating the infographic, then putting it somewhere on the site you want to juice up? (There were details about links I couldn't really follow on Reddit...)

Expect innovations from Google and other search engines too.

And his response is (aggressively paraphrased): "it's probably spammy, but so what? they're my friends, they're a small shop, and the guy pointing it out is probably a competitor."

Not very compelling.

His response is horrendous. I've enjoyed a couple of his entries (although they get a little formulaic), but that response had him dropping several notches.

I don't see how this is spam, and I am surprised that people are offended that the authors of these info graphics are trying to make money.

They drew up an info graphic that you thought was entertaining. In exchange you show your friends by linking that site. This is no different than any other type of link bait, be it an inflammatory article or some sort of interactive map you would see on the New Your Times website.

Spam is different. Spam is junk blog comments with a link to another website. Those comments bring no value and diminish the value of the site. You would never link to one of those comments to show your friends like you link to these info graphics.

Not complicated! They are asking you to repay the favor of creating the infographic by lying to Google and claiming that a site that paid them is the best resource on the internet for mesothelioma or college textbooks or whatnot.

Is this distinguishable from a startup creating OSS, which will cause people to "lie to Google" when citing the OSS, and if so how? (I happen to know two reasons how: they're much, much cheaper to crank out at scale than OSS is, and they're typically backed by an outsourced promotion team. These do not strike me as having ethical significance.)

Are we maybe leading with our geek brains here? The geek brain that maybe isn't quite 100% onboard with "it is ethical to attempt to market $FILL_IN_BLANK , even in ways which are effective"?

Edited to add: I do not often ask myself, after typing in A HREF, "Am I being true in my thoughts and deeds to my primary reason for all linking activity, which is to preserve the sanctity of Google's link graph?" Should I? Really?

Who creates OSS and uses it to market "scholarships" for online colleges by scrambling Google's notion of what the best site for online colleges is?

SEO schemes that get people to cite your OSS to improve your OSS's position: just peachy.

SEO schemes that get people to cite your OSS to improve someone's IRS settlement site: not OK.

I believe patio11 did something similar. Made an A/B testing framework to sell bingo cards. He advises doing this http://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/01/24/startup-seo/

I think it's a brilliant idea and plan to copy it (y'know sometime...)

Are you promoting IRS payment sites, structured settlements, mesothelioma suits, online colleges or college loans? No? Then go with my blessing!

This is no different than a startup paying an SEO company. In the end, both places researched and surfaced something that the end user will find interesting. I dont see anything wrong with that.

I think it's Google's job to decide what is relevant or not in the search result. Personally for me, I am waiting for the day when Google decides to de-list sites like eHow.

PS. sorry mattmiller, I accidently down-arrowed you, and I can't undo it. I meant to up-arrow you.

I don't think Google will do that. I think one of two things will happen:

-A lot of smaller vertical search sites will pop up. MedicalInfoSearch.com will not show entertainment or economics info, and its ranking will not be based on backlinks from entertainment or economics sites. I think we are seeing the beginnings of this with Blekko.

-Or, and I say this at the risk of sounding like one of those social media people, the link graph will start to give more and more weight to Facebook Likes and link sharing and twitter sharing and any future social network sharing. If you think about it, this was the reason Google went with the backlink strategy to begin with. Back then they had no social networks, so they only way someone could vote for a site was by putting a link to it on their website. If you did not have a website you did not get a vote. Now almost everyone has the capacity to vote on a websites quality, but for some reason only website owners are allowed to. Social networks love info graphics, in this future you are going to see a lot of them.

trouble with the social graph is that it's even easier to game. Click "like" to reveal discount code offer...

I see what you mean, but I would call that moderately unethical. The reality is there are probably less than 5 legitimate mesothelioma websites (FDA, Wikipedia, maybe some charities...) and the rest are all junk put up to get ad-sense dollars and leads for lawyers. Every single one of the hundreds of thousands of other sites is doing much less ethical link building.

Torches and pitchforks: no.

Flag with extreme prejudice: yes.

When it's possible to make it a business model like this, churned out on a routine basis, it makes me think it's more exploiting a sort of brain-hack than providing useful services. They've found a formula for baiting digg/reddit/etc. users into clicking on chartjunk, and are selling that formula to anyone who will pay: if your college-textbooks site needs some SEO, we'll whip up an infographic about bottled water that you can get linked everywhere. Because we want to inform people about bottled water, are doing serious research on the subject to present a well-thought-out position, because it's even relevant to your site at all, etc.? No, just because it gets clicks, and we'll decide what to put in the chart 100% based on what will get the most clicks, not based on what is actually true about bottled water or anything (I imagine they don't go out of their way to make up stuff, but clearly an interest in bottled water is not their motivator).

I agree that linkbait in general has many of those features, but I'd consider most linkbait to be at least a cousin of spam. This is somewhat notable just because it's so openly cynical about it.

I think you have touched on something here. As you mentioned as well, what ultimately frustrated the individual who posted IAMA, is not that the content was hastily put together or is even inaccurate, in fact it was very carefully crafted with the intention of being interesting. As such, infographics have become a viable medium that people like and share, and the sum of the message/information is easily shareable on blogs (which is why most on the web are long and skinny)...most people wouldn't grab an entire article to repost on their tumblr or whatever, but a whole graphic looks cool on their site. Like you mentioned, this is the simple formula, but in itself isn't malicious anymore than realizing that people like big photos and funny videos and link to controversial/inciteful headlines.

That said, these campaigns have been tremendously successful even using completely irrelevant topics to gain links back to sites for very important keywords, and the content is not showing them to be an authority in their niche, be it financial or insurance or travel or gambling...they have shown that they can attract attention very well, that they are VERY good at SEO, and that they can (some of the time at least) design decent looking content.

I do agree with the individual answering the IAMA that it is an example of the internet being broken, and I found myself wondering if/hoping that somehow Matt Cutts would have a dream that would allow him to teach the Google bots to crawl a .png file to determine if the content in the graphic was relevant to the term in the links (or hello, at least the freaking title?). I am a co-founder of a company that creates infographics along with written content as part of an overall social media strategy and we spend a great deal of time finding the balance for each client between content that has mass appeal and content that relates to their core customer base/readership. You have to bring in new people somehow, but as many people have learned, irrelevant content doesn't convert, which is why so many people either craft content with no intention of converting and simply say 'social media traffic doesn't convert' or rank sites to sell them to someone who knows how to monetize them down the road (assuming these SEO rankings hold up).

Finally though - if it builds a site's reputation for being a relevant resource for interesting and useful content that does do the job of educating, it is ok if it looks pretty and does it with chart junk no matter how many purists out there say they would rather just pop open the .csv

"I don't see how this is spam, and I am surprised that people are offended that the authors of these info graphics are trying to make money."

They're doing so dishonestly. Dishonesty on the tubes is why so many of us are jaded and believe nothing.

Few of the examples said "Here's a professional infographic pandering to the current pop meme, surrounded by some monetizing ads", but instead it was "HERE IS MY FIRST INFOGRAPHIC!" (always ad free because that's a part of the bait-and-switch meme approach), and once it got boosted the URL turned to a 301 permanent PageRank forward to some spam factory, polluting search engines with garbage.

Meme herding itself is really the root cause, though: Once Digg showed a propensity for top N lists, the web became awash with vapid top N lists for everything, humorlessly produced by SEO drones.

Not all content follows this shallow, deceptive practice.

There is a dating site -- I honestly can't remember which one right now, and am not suppressing their name on purpose -- that keeps releasing compelling analysis data, predictably boosting them to the tops of all of the social news sites. In return for producing interesting content, they get lots of incoming hits and page rank goodness. Their motives are clear as day for everyone, and there is no surreptitious BS.

Sidenote: 99% of infographics are terrible.

The dating site is OkCupid (http://www.okcupid.com/) and their data analysis can be found on OkTrends (http://blog.okcupid.com/).

People will always try to game the system. I think it's merely a matter of elegance on how you do it. Your style will decide whether you will be called a spammer.

For example dropbox.com became a huge success because Drew Houston started serving Digg-"Easter Eggs" inside of dropbox to the Digg crowd that in turn gladly upvoted him. I find his approach very smart (they came out of nowhere) and I think dropbox would have not taken off without it.

It's always the same. When you think it's spam, it's spam. It is like in that youtube video that was passed around some time ago: It's only sexual harassment when you aren't attractive. Otherwise it's charming.

This graphic, mentioned in the comments (but not created by the OP), is a pretty good example:


Note url and anchor text.

http://www.pzhipzf.pl Zwierzęta Futerkowe - Skórki wiązane są po przesortowaniu, tzw. loty (np. http://www.pzhipzf.pl/pl/norki-dziko-zyjace-w-polsce norek po 100-120 sztuk, http://www.pzhipzf.pl/pl/dzikie-i-hodowlane-zwierzeta-gospod... lisów po 20-25 sztuk), zakupowane są na pokrywanie potrzeb krajowych i na eksport. Obrót handlowy skupia się międzynarodowych targach, tzw. aukcjach futrzarskich, organizowanych raz lub dwa razy do roku w Nowym Jorku, Londynie, Helsinkach, Petersburgu, Lipsku, Sztokholmie, Oslo i w innych miastach. Dystrybucja odbywa się wg ustalonego planu, na rzecz zakładów pracy oraz instytucji handlowych. Zakupione partie skór przekazywane są do dalszej obróbki, tzn. wyprawiania, barwienia oraz obróbki maszynowej (strzyżenie, czesanie, epilowanie i inne).

Interesting and inflammatory, but I want to see some Wagg-Ed refugee admit that they've had a special office full of people baiting slashdot, groklaw and other sites.

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