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How Expedia Buys Its Way To The Top Of Google (nenadseo.com)
494 points by jmarbach on Dec 28, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 155 comments


Im an Expedia employee (inbound marketing director, covering SEO), although Im currently at the end of my notice period. (Im leaving in two weeks).

Also, I worked in the B2B division, nothing to do with the consumer side that this article references.

The author of the post linked above contacted me a couple of days before publishing it, to warn me that he would publish (quote: "damning evidence of expedia spam").

HOWEVER: If I wanted him to not publish it, he would "sell the post to the highest bidder".

That was what prompted me to post this on my personal blog: http://webmarketingschool.com/big-brand-seo-spam/ and for the record, I told him to sling his hook reference to extorting money out of anyone in exchange for not posting stuff about their backlinks.

No doubt that is why I got singled out in the article. You'll notice that at the top I get mentioned as being in charge of this stuff, then right down at the bottom, he mentions that in fact Ive got nothing to do with it.

I'll let you all draw your own conclusions.

Conclusion: You guys are having some he-said-she-said issue that's kinda cute but doesn't change thing about the questionable Expedia tactics.

Which is in no way relevant to me, other than I worked for a different division of the same company.

The only reason I got mentioned, was that I refused to pay money to not have it published, and told the author that blackmail wasnt a great idea.

If someone had attempted to extort you, and were now using your name in this fashion, wouldnt you want to respond?

They singled out Abby for writing paid blog posts with targeted links. Who owns Nenad SEO? Nenad and Karine.

"Here are some of the most useful websites to help you find your ideal retreat."

"<a>Yoga instructor training</a> courses are incredibly varied and there are plenty of courses on offer, so you will need to decide what kind of course is best for you."

"I’m an app review consultant and I wanted to know if your current version of ‘insert name of the app here’ has the capability to handle an extra 250-400 app downloads per day? Let me know so that I can begin downloading them at your convenience."

"Outsource your downloads (google it, there are several providers). Rinse and Repeat, as all the fake Guru’s like to say."

For example, you might have started looking at <a>houses for sale in Sudan</a> because you love the hospitality of the area, but find that flights from your usual home are prohibitively expensive, which would limit your use of it."

These tweets by you were enlightening too: https://twitter.com/searchmartin/status/417260215453876224

And of course the intro to the very post:

"After receiving a manual penalty by Google for 2 small sites (for gaming the Google PR system".

I would not touch this entire fiasco with a 10-foot pole and I do not envy all involved or dragged into this.

Call the police and probably record the call :-)

> I'll let you all draw your own conclusions.

I'll draw my conclusion among other things from statements such as:

Sure, there are some skeletons in SEO-closets, but thats the same for every single major site that has existed for a decade or longer, bar none.

Not only do you attempt to drag the whole web business through the mud after being caught with your pants down, you also personally insult people who have been opposed to these kinds of practices and still ran major sites for a long time.

If I were you, I'd keep quiet and seek a position somewhere unrelated to SEO and not taint Expedia's reputation even more by invoking the "everyone else is doing it" defense, which most people in the web business know is just plain wrong.

Also, I'd now expect people to scrutinize Wikipedia more, looking for spammy Expedia links. Thanks for the hint.

Martin, if what you're saying is true, that's very shady behavior on his part. However, it does not have any impact on what he's saying. Your post seems to say "yes big brands are doing it and can do it because they are brands, suck it up"

I don't think we should accept that same behavior should have different implications depending on who is doing it.

I totally agree there should be one set of rules and thats it.

Thing is, there IS one set of rules already - and thats governed by the google organic results algo which looks at a sites backlink profile as a whole.

If its mainly crap links with no authority then the site will get banned. If its a big brand site with authority and reputation, its really tough from Google's perspective to simply ban that site and all its pages because there are some links of questionable authority pointed at it.

IF they did that, the search results would be a pretty lonely place, and it would be super easy to remove sites positioned above yours in the results!

Google does NOT only use the algorithm, and manually bans sits algorithm may have misses as it was in the case of RapGenius. I don't buy the argument that search results would be lonely, if Google somewhat punished Expedia for this, it would force them to change behavior. They would fall inline as well as others that may be using these questionable methods.

His point is what proof does Google have that this was done by Expedia and not some competitor doing negative SEO?

This doesn't justify the spam, it just makes it much more difficult for Google to detect and penalize due to the mostly natural link profile that Expedia has earned legitimately by building a household brand.

If you had 99% signals saying this is a strong brand worth ranking high, or even only 85% of the signals are positive, and you have a few shady backlinks, wouldn't you give them the benefit of the doubt? Even if you wouldn't can you risk penalizing them without a smoking gun and proof of spam?

The only real question here is why Expedia even bothers with these efforts...Most big brands can get more than enough natural backlinks by launching new programs and services and having all the press pick up the story.

Thats absolutely true - Google do have the power, and often use it, to make human decisions on the quality of websites and often ban those that break they TOS. As for whether Google should take action against any particular website, its not for me to say.

I would trust this post if you could at the very least provide some evidence that he did contact you and that you are leaving because to me, it seems like you're just a employee trying to pin the blame on him and do a little damage control.

The fact that you're the Marketing Director at Expedia makes it even worse (if you are lying).

EDIT: Okay, I just did some research and this person's company is extremely fishy but I would still like to see some evidence.

Proof Im leaving? Check the date on this post on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mogmartin/posts/10151730878862337

As for pinning blame on the author?


Im not debating anything he said, other than calling my name out.

Its not my place to deny OR corroborate any claims against a division that I NEVER worked for, of a company that I no longer work for! ;)

Proof or not, his point is sound. Why was he referenced in the article about Expedia if he has nothing to do with the allegations presented?

Your allegation is a strong one. Plus considering that your personal reputation is being impugned against by Nenad, I wonder why you don't publish his email where he said he would "sell the post to the highest bidder"?

Because I turned down the offer and gave him advice before he published his story.

I took the decision then not to out the behaviour - however given that Im targeted in the article I've since slackened my ethics on how to treat the situation.

this perplexes me, last time i checked extortion is a crime. If ethics were at play, wouldn't you be duty bound to press charges and keep a criminal from extorting others?

Just a few emails I usually get from Expedia.

"In fact, the article can be about any topic related to your blog, just mentioning at some point something like “find coupon codes for Expedia”, “get some deals in Expedia”.. Do you think that would fit in? Doesn’t have to look very spammy (we don’t want that either). What do you think?

About the price, how much would it be a post like this with maybe 2 links? "


"I’m looking to place a link this week on the homepage, but can I ask when the link for expedia.co.uk expires on your site?"

These are just two examples. There are plenty of these. BUT it does appear that they are now hiring quality bloggers to write on their own blog so perhaps things have changed.

Isn't this very similar to what RapGenius just got penalized for? Only difference seems to be Expedia is not providing anything in exchange for the crappy linkbit like RG was offering to.

Yes, this is similar but more sophisticated. With RapGenius, taking action was easy because the company admitted what they were doing and all the evidence was in the open. Also, the links were clearly spammy.

With these examples, the links are clearly spammy to a human but a little less detectable by a bot. And -- this is crucial -- there is no evidence yet linking these bloggers back to Expedia. Google will have to do a little more digging to figure out the nexus and analyze the quality of Expedia's backlink profile before they can slap a penalty. My guesstimate is that there's a 1 in 3 chance there will be a penalty and a 1 in 10 chance the penalty will be public.

It's no secret that a lot of Google's reviews are manual[1] and popular websites like Expedia and RapGenius aren't reviewed by bots. This post and the one about RapGenius shows it's too easy for them to influence the algorithm. Like you said RapGenius got a manual penalty because they were openly flaunting their spam and giving Google a bad name in the process. Expedia does it more descretely and spends millions on Adwords so they won't have to worry.


If this is accurate it is a very poor seo and Expedia needs to hire better folks. Why place two links? Google will barely count a second link on the same page to the same URL...

I did notice that they give the blogger discretion on the link placement and anchor text so its somewhat natural...although still clearly link spam worth penalizing!

Every email I've gotten from Expedia has been from a different SEO company too.

How much were they willing to pay?

They have gone from $10 to $100 per sponsored post.

It is sad that an article with actual content towards the end has so much filler to start with. I think this post would be a lot more impactful if it started out as

"Hey, you want to know who else pays bloggers to link to their site? Expedia.com, here is some proof:"

I can understand the author's frustration, and he brings good points to the table, but the first quarter or so of the article is neigh unreadable.

I personally enjoy the 'squeeze page' aesthetic used.

I see no proof or mention of paying bloggers for links.

Do you honestly think they are not paying bloggers? They've paid PLENTY of bloggers. I get these emails all the time.

Why did they do it then? The links weren't topical and they weren't affiliate links. Is it that hard to figure out the motive?

Edit: Are they using http referrers so reward the correct affiliate?

Unlikely and besides it wouldn't even work because they're guest posting on other domains than the one they own or would have registered.

This just adds to the list of why to hate Google.

Basically if you are either a big brand or a spammy company or have a nimble operation, you can afford to do grey & black seo. If you are a small business/ up and coming company white seo practices are the safe choice.

Even if you use nothing but white-hat and above-board SEO strategies, you're at risk of your page getting penalized or delisted. This happens to people every day. Only unlike Rap Genius, there is literally zero way to communicate with somebody at Google unless you manage to get a popular thread going at HN.

I'm happy this Rap Genius incident happened because it's driven some attention to how Google's business actually operates, how poor their algorithms actually are, how arbitrary their search engine actually is, how poor their customer service practices are, and many other similar ideas.

Granted, these are monumentally hard problems to solve and Google still does it better than anybody else, but it's good that some attention is directed here because there are numerous problems with how ranking in Google currently works.

> Even if you use nothing but white-hat and above-board SEO strategies, you're at risk of your page getting penalized or delisted

This rather suggests that what you're calling "white hat" is a slightly less white shade than you may think. After all, who exactly is defining what "above board" is here?

You're talking as though Google has some kind of responsibility to you. They don't. You are not their customer. Their customer is the searcher, and they have every right to do whatever they like with their results to give what they think is the best result for the searcher.

I'm getting pretty tired of this attitude (generally among "SEO" people) that Google is some sort of public property.

>> Even if you use nothing but white-hat and above-board SEO strategies, you're at risk of your page getting penalized or delisted

> This rather suggests that what you're calling "white hat" is a slightly less white shade than you may think. After all, who exactly is defining what "above board" is here?

We've had a lot of proof by vigerous assertion in this thread. I particularly like the protestation of lily-white innocence by marketers writing "great content" in "guest posts".

A thousand words on "10 things to bring on your next business trip", or "5 things to ask when choosing an online university" isn't exactly Woodword & Bernstein on Watergate, Joyce's Dubliners, or even Michelin's Guide to Paris restaurants.

1. The searcher is not the customer, the AdWords buyer is. For example, Expedia.

2. Once a company reaches monopoly status the government can regulate it for the public good.

1. This oversimplifies the relationship. The ultimate transaction is from the AdWords customer to Google but in most cases a lot of that money will have come from Google searchers wallets.

2. Well, that's not quite right. The government can limit the actions of a monopoly to prevent abuse, but demanding arbitrary shit isn't really something that's in the statute books.

One thing's for certain, the "white hat" "SEO"ers paying bloggers to write thin articles about them to increase their organic search ranking are certainly not Google's customer and they have no obligation to please them.

Google had a monopoly and exerts market power over the internet. They legally do have a responsibility to the public.

I'm getting pretty tired of the attitude that they have no responsibility to anyone other than those who buy advertising from them since it's blatantly false.

> Google had a monopoly and exerts market power over the internet. They legally do have a responsibility to the public.

Not really. Certainly not a responsibility to abide by the whims of random people who want their content ranked higher.

And if we decide to burden them with "responsibilities", what about their responsibility to keep my search results free of spa^W SEOers' crap?

All monopolies with market power have a responsibility to the public. It's a matter of policy and law.

You're right that they don't have a responsibility to abide by the whims of random spammers, but they also don't have carte Blanche to use their power to regulate the internet as they see fit.

The 'it's their product so they can do what they like' line is simply not correct. When they take action like this they need to be scrutinized carefully and we as the public most certainly should debate the merits of their actions and their effect on the internet.

I don't think you're using the word monopoly correctly here.

Google clearly does not have a monopoly on search.

Google certainly has a monopoly on search, which is why it is being investigated for its practices by the EU. If I am using the word incorrectly, then so is the EU, but since the term is defined by policy, that isn't possible.

If you think the word monopoly means that there is precisely zero competition, then you are not using the word as it is used by economists, governments, and the law.

Monopoly is defined by effective competition, barriers to entry and market power. Google qualifies.

While I agree that it is necessarily difficult to create a search engine ranking algorithm that isn't gamed, customer service isn't something that should be lumped in with the 'difficult problems'. Google has been notoriously terrible at customer service for years and it's amazing that they've been so successful despite this.

This. What I despise the most is their hypocrisy and the clean face their Head Hypocrite Matt Cutts always wears when answering those SEO questions. So you have the biggest search engine in the world and all the transparency you can think of consists on putting a man in front of a camera like a country preacher, always saying things that leave open spaces of interpretation?

Because, what? You expect Cutts to be on the phone handling calls from irate webmasters instead?

If Google sells me ad-space - or a Nexus - and then doesn't respond when I have a problem, that's bad. But if your pages drop in the search result rankings, suck it up and maybe pay a bit more attention to the spirit of that preaching - Google owes you ZERO customer support if all you're paying for is snake-oil from some 3rd-party SEO "expert".

It's odd that you talk about snake-oil in a thread where it's already mentioned that Google will just as easily ban you even if you follow their rules. Expedia and RapGenius are the two latest examples of how easy it is to cheat the system.

Meanwhile the world commerce is moving towards the Internet and Google controls 70% of that. But you don't want to come off as "spammy" so better to risk your company and follow the rules of an unresponsive search company that might or might not punish you for it.

...it's already mentioned that Google will just as easily ban you even if you follow their rules.

Are there examples of sites that have done no SEO, and can still point to a banning-type event in their search result ranking history? Obviously this wouldn't be a big site; it might just be a random business the marketing of which is mostly offline.

Meanwhile the world commerce is moving towards the Internet and Google controls 70% of that.

...so you gotta do what it takes to get ahead, even if that means abusing the system and everyone else who depends on it? That's been the spammer's argument from Day 1, and it's just as crap now as it was twenty years ago.

No one owes you a successful business. If the only way you can find to make money involves dumping on others, then you shouldn't be surprised when there are consequences - even if you're following the "letter of the law" while doing so.

What exact system are people 'abusing'?

Google is already a cultural monopoly. They get to decide what people see and how and when they see it. That is why this One Man Show is bullshit. It looks hypocrite or at least it shows that they take their incredible responsibility very lightly. You choose.

The most hilarious example I know for black hat seo is in japan, where expired domains for congressional candidates get bought up by these spammy companies for their link quality.

(The Japanese govt pages have high page quality, and link directly to these candidate domains, thus giving these candidate pages high link quality status in google's eyes. The candidate pages become info-spam-blog pages that peddle things like cosmetics and link to the mother payload pages to impose so rank.)

google resets PageRank on expired domains.

I just found this recent thread on this topic, specifically related to Google penalties on domains that expired.


It seems like old bad links can hurt an expired domains rankings.

Correct me if I am wrong, but if the govt pages continue to link to these newly reborn link spam pages, certainly these expired domains have higher link value than a brand new fresh domain?

you are mistaken. This was the case until about 2008 or so... here is a quote from matt cutts.

"On expired domains, Matt said Google tries to reset pagerank/links for all expired domains to zero when they are registered by someone new. They don’t try to penalize the expired domain, but they also don’t want to give credit for the previous owner’s links."


This is actually a major selling point for WHOIS privacy services (for SEO) these days, if you maintain the domain with the same registrar and continue to use their domain privacy service, the records won't change and Google won't cancel your rankings. So, if you're thinking of selling a well-ranked domain, add the privacy services, because they typically boost the sale price.

I could be wrong about this, but I think I remember reading that Google became a registrar in part to get info behind the privacy services.

The keyword there would be "tries", I'd wager...

Thanks for the correction! :)

how would that work? I mean, the old links would still point to it so the juice would still flow in that direction. What if the content stays the same but the owner is different?

By discounting all links from before the date it expired.

People used to snatch up expired domains and use the internet archives to put back up the same content and than slowly add links to their sites...

Because of this spam, Google just ignores links to a domain that expired that are from before it went live if the new registrant is a different person I presume but don't know.

Note that the worst content farms either evolved from or bought second and third tier search engines (About.com, AOL) because they could sue Google in an antitrust lawsuit if they ever got burned for their crappy content and linking schemes.

That's pretty interesting if true - do you have any evidence?

It's not true. First, it's wrong on liability under federal antitrust law. Second, just look at (ick) Demand Media, home to eHow.com and Cracked.com, which operates no search engines.

> If you are a small business/ up and coming company white seo practices are the safe choice.

Not (entirely) true. Here's a 'small business' sans any big-brand protection that is obviously spamming the heck out of electrician/plumber niches and has been succeeding for years. If you're near one of the relevant areas and Google "[area] plumber" you'll see a few of their sites on page 1. Not one or two. Maybe five. My fiancee got an electrician in from one of those sites and he was so clueless he claimed that his people were building an oven element (rather than buying it for $20 and just installing it.)


See two pages with the same layout, and if you click around you'll see they're barely trying to hide it.


This is 90's stuff. Google's being gamed badly by the most unsophisticated techniques. The guys who actually work in those areas and provide relevant services must be going crazy.

I know a really good restaurant with a non specific name that has made a point to have landing pages at many different sites so if you search for them the top 20 or so results are all about them

> This just adds to the list of why to hate Google.

Aren't all search engines susceptible to the same practices? How would you like to see them fixed?

You could rank #1 for Viagra in Bing and get maybe two visits a day.

You gotta rank high for V14GR4! then you'd get more visits. That's apparently how the kids spell it these days...

The problem being for any competitive keyword you're almost assured not to rank with completely white hat practices.

I read the article, and obviously Google isn’t as good at filtering out overly optimized anchors as they claim. But I don't understand how this favors big brands over little ones (other then the fact that big brands probably have more money to throw at people to write the overly optimized anchors in the first place)?

> You know all those bloggers/SEOs at MOZ giving webmasters tips and tricks on how to rank higher? Well, they never said: “Guys, you gotta do basic on-page SEO, buy quality links and you will rank higher, that’s all you need to know.” Instead they keep selling stories how their clients rank using “white hat” SEO.

GrantTree is ranked pretty high against our competitors on several keywords that are important to us. This was all entirely through whitehat SEO within about a year of setting out to do it. We've just written lots of high-quality content on our blog, and then contributed genuine, original articles to other sides and got them to include a link to GrantTree or to one of our topic sub-pages (like http://granttree.co.uk/tax_credits ) in the byline. We've never bought links, nor will we ever buy links.

Now, GrantTree's context is not super-competitive like, say, Expedia or RapGenius... but we do have competitors. So competing with good, well-structured content and genuine contributions to other sites does work - at least in some contexts.

Also, I'm frequently on the receiving end of these "your blog/site/whatever is awesome and we'd love to publish a high-quality article on your blog and we'll even pay you for it" emails, and as far as I'm concerned they are spam. I never even bother replying to them.

I'll be happy if Google nails those spammy bastards to the wall - both the paymasters and the so-called bloggers.

(Note: this makes no judgement on the claim that Expedia is partaking in this)

Curious: Would you still write the article if the link was nofollow? And what links are you requiring in the byline? I'm very suspicious of any company asking to "guest post".

> Would you still write the article if the link was nofollow?

Typically I've written the article before passing it on to someone, so in those cases, obviously the question doesn't apply. In the latter case, if someone asks for me to e.g. write about tax credits for their site, then it's only polite for them to allow us to include a byline without nofollow.

> And what links are you requiring in the byline?

Hah, whatever I can get :-) Depends on the site, obviously, but if I can get links to some of our topic pages with the right text, I'll go for that! (e.g. http://www.ec1capital.com/blog/rd-tax-credits-explained).

We don't "ask to guest post" as a company, though I've offered to write some good original content on occasion, but only in person and with no pressure.

So you want people who need grants to buy your service. Instead of convincing Google that your website is the best place for grants, you write a bunch of (good!) articles about grants and then place house ads for your paid service.

Observations: 1. As a product search experience, that is still horribly broken.

2. It is still good for the web, incentivizing you to create quality content.

I'm not sure where the "place house ads for your paid service" idea is coming from? We haven't paid for advertising.

That's what a house ad is: and ad for yourself in your own product.

So you get other sites to publish your articles, but when other sites want to do the same to you, you call that spam?

No. People I meet on and offline ask me to write an article for them. I don't approach them.

Occasionally I have written a full blown article and suddenly realised it would be better suited for another site (eg techcrunch) and approached the editor there to ask if they would like to publish that specific article, but I don't do blanket "can I write something for you". That would be highly hypocritical!

I used to own and run two popular travel sites and have been contacted by a third party to place Expedia links for under $400/year on both sites.

Even though the third party had nothing to do with Expedia (besides emailing me the particular anchor text and URL), the fact that I was only ever contacted to put Expedia links and no other sites in the 5 years I've been running them made me think that they were Expedia shills.

(this is obviously a throw away account)

Funny how Matt Cutts was all over the Rap Genius article on HN right after it came out and he's nowhere to be found here. Must be the millions Expedia spends on Adwords, or my cynicism, one of the two.

So an SEO "firm" (around since 2010, but their domain was registered in November?) is exposing secrets of SEO, which they imply is the secret sauce to getting to the top. What's the end game?

Matt Cutts has said Google is trying to break Blackhat SEO's spirits. That tactic appears to be working and this post is a result of that. The author is not trying to build their brand or position themselves. Rather they are sad and angry. To them the situation feels unfair and they want to make the big abusers feel the same pain they've experienced.

I think it's awesome that Google busts as many blackhats as they can. I don't want blackhat seo to be what I need to engage in in order to be successful. I'm reckon I'm better at creating value than I am at link building, so it suits me.

That said, Google are not doing a very comprehensive job of busting blackhats. Even some of the cases that an algorithm should be able to easily detect are not being punished in the same way that RapGenius was. This essentially leaves everyone in an awkward situation. You can't compete using whitehat methods because your competitors are using blackhat methods and Google is turning a blind eye. You end up with two options; (a) lower your standards and start using blackhat methods, or (b) hope that Google will eventually punish your dodgy competitors and buy traffic from Google in the interim.

This is probably the best argument in favor of that "break the spirit" strategy then: if you've little-to-no hope of actually putting a dent in the shear volume of abuse by way of penalties, making the existence of penalties (and the behaviors that lead to them) as notorious as possible might be the next best thing... Make associating with such SEO tactics appear too risky for any valuable brand, and cut off the funding for them with FUD.

Establish themselves as an expert and increase potential consulting business revenue

It seems though that they're not disputing the ethics of the thing, and they even acknowledge they were busted by Google for unethical tactics. Not exactly confidence inspiring.

The next question to ask then would be, "do marketing managers who would hire these guys care about the ethics, or simply the perceived competence of the shop?"

I am a bit confused about the argument about Expedia not being penalized because they are spending on AdWords, wouldn't great organic rankings reduce their paid budget? And if Google penalizes them for legitimate reasons I doubt they would cut their AdWords budget.

I am sure Matt will provide more info soon especially after what happened to RapGenius.

Google did research that shows having organic rankings and paid ads, boosts your click rate significantly. So, it would be a mistake to stop advertising if you rank well organically. http://www.google.com/think/infographics/organic-impact-on-p...

This is nothing compared to what RapGenius did. This is a low quality, but legit link building tactic.

The author claims the articles are poor quality, but they aren't. The only red flag is commercial keywords as anchor text, which Penguin today does a good job of discounting.

Why is this legit? It seems bullshit to me, as an outsider, just another way if gaming the system.

Yeah, I don't understand how a company essentially paying bloggers to create links to their site is a legitimate method of ranking in a search engine. That sounds fundamentally broken and far from 'organic'.

Well, if the n-th useless top ten blog post about travel is "quality content" I'm seriously scared by the brainwash that the google-cutts philosophy of great content has already performed upon us.

I am aware of the study, even so, where does the Expedia AdWords spend come into play as an argument? So they get penalized - they won't cut AdWords obviously, they might even up it. They do not get penalized, they either cut their AdWords budget or it remains the same. Again, where is the incentive for Google to not penalize Expedia? Because the AdWords argument doesn't hold.

This kind of SEO hack seems hard to fix with an algo. One way might be to target "content" creators like Abby and Jennifer as they probably use Google+ (and probably other social networks) to promote their work. By targeting the writers and giving some penalty to everything they write as well as the site where the article is published, these sites will need to verify how good the writers are before accepting the guest post.

I believe avoiding targeting the big brands is for the better since giving bad reputation to the brand linked on these articles would backfire with false articles against competitors.

This is what Google was hoping too accomplish with AuthorRank.

Penguin is also discounting many of these links that have commercial keywords as anchor text. (I wonder if these links even help them.)

Does this all lead to Google+? It sure would help Google if more content was produced inside their walled garden where they have pretty good grasp on who is producing it.

Ignore all links from pages with "Top #" in them. Or in paragraphs below emphasized/numbered headlines.

That'd really stick it to sites like Cracked.

It's weird when you realize how much stuff that seems organic is really just a massive ploy/effort by a company or PR firm. I think even Paul Graham had an article about PR firms related to the comeback of the 'suit' haha.

One wonders how safe HN will be from this. Inevitably if something can generate views or $$ then someone will have an interest in gaming it.

The article you are referring to is "The Submarine"


This is and always has been the nature of Business. Long before search engines or the internet came into being. People will do whatever they can to get exposure, publicity, and a competitive edge.

All marketing is a Ploy if you really think about it, and businesses for intents and purposes is just an investment vehicle and marketing is how your turn over that investment.

Heck news media a ploy for corporations.

Someone has to Pay the Bills and Keep The Lights On

It wasn't too long ago that calling someone a "corporate shill" meant you were parodying tinfoil hatters. It's funny how quickly things change.

It was always a valid point and has been going on for a very long time. There was a concerted effort awhile back by PR companies to attack anyone calling out their corporate shill accounts, mostly done heavily by Microsoft on engadget and slashdot among others. Popular industry blogs like communities-dominate have also been a historical hotbed for shill accounts. It's nothing new and generally any furious backlash you see against people calling it out is more of the same.

Once you start giving penalties for this kind of behavior, then you open up the possibility for really black hat people using this against their competition.

It seems that this is an awful thing that google is doing, but I really couldn't get very far in the article before getting tired of the author's unintentional schtick - the following is where I stopped:

"They don’t buy links? They don’t bribe bloggers? They don’t sell links on MOZ? Yes, you’re reading right. SEOs sell links on MOZ. But we all know this. It is so obvious. But MOZ is not the topic of this article.

And this is not going to be an article; I would like to look at it as a report. We will make a report about huge companies (we will start with one company), ranking for tens of thousands of keywords using black hat tactics. "

I almost stopped there, but the examples afterwards are pretty much spot on

Looking forward to see how Cutts spins this.

This isn't paid linking-- it's an affiliate/referral program. Expedia isn't paying for the link, they're paying for the conversions generated by the link. Every OTA does this, and it's how the mass of travel sites that aren't OTAs make all their money.

This is all Google's fault. Most travel sites used to try to generate good content, and then buy SEM to their content and use OTA search widgets to monetize via affiliate programs. But Google decided this was search arbitrage, and stopped approving SEM landing pages that were monetized by affiliate search, so people have had to resort to text links, in the hope that someone will click and they can drop their cookie and get paid.

NB: I used to work for a site that was at the time owned by Expedia.

This is definitely paid linking. I own a very popular travel website and friends with other popular travel related sites. I can confirm that Expedia has contacted us to purchase links. It's not really news and very well known in the travel community. Often their pay is as low as $10 for a link.

This is what always frustrates me about these discussions. There will be a long, article citing many sources and someone will simply say "thats not true" without seeming to have any knowledge at all of what they are talking about. Later on, someone like you, with actual facts, contradicts the other person and I wonder why someone who had no idea what they were talking about definitively shot down a well thought out point in the first place at all...?

Paid links and paying for conversion can be different pricing structures, but the fact is they are either paying someone in house or for contract to create links to the website through blog. This is common, as blogging, especially if the blogger can get the article on a legitimate website it has value. They can pay in many set rates by volume of work to performance of the links.

Another thing is the website owners can be paid to add new content to the blog via an in-house SEO grunt, who has to add a number of links and space them out based on expected. I.e. one link per blog. They will edit over or add to the actual bloggers content.

Would love to see proof. Care to share the email?

These are direct links, not affiliate links, and there are no hidden iframes stuffing cookies as you suggested later. These links aren't part of any referral program.

I didn't believe that until it occurred to me that they could be using the http referrer to reward the affiliates. The links themselves don't seem to contain an affiliate identifier. Is that the case?

There's no major affiliate/referral program that uses HTTP referrers to assign commissions. No affiliate would agree to such a system as they'd not be paid for tons of valid referrals.

Usually there is an iframe that drops a cookie on Expedia's (or whoever's) domain. The usual deal is the partner gets paid on any conversions within 30 days of dropping the cookie, with the newest affiliate winning, but there are also more complicated source attribution schemes out there.

That's not "usual" at all. That kind of cookie stuffing is banned by every major affiliate network. A couple people are in federal prison for doing it with the eBay affiliate program.


Cookies should only be dropped on an action/click/whatever, dropping attribution cookies on every visitor (and hoping they convert by chance) is fraud

Good Point. There are services like viglink, skimlinks, and others that will dynamically insert links after the content was written.

I have to wonder though if these specific posts were linkbuilding posts, because of the location of the Authors. (i.e. Tampa - where copypress is, and blueglass was.)

Google is a goverment of internet. To be a good citizen is to pay taxes. You pay taxes - you have a chance.

You try to avoid taxes - you get squished.

This is why i don't follow what Google say about "correct" SEO. I just do what i know works for me.

SEO articles often leave me with the same feeling I get when I realize I've stepped in dog poop.

I'd really like to have a place where we can report those dubious "SEO companies" who are sending spam e-mails to website owners offering to write "guest posts", so they and their practices can be scrutinized better by the community and perhaps search engines.

For example, slap-up-media.net spammed us today, offering to pay us to publish guest posts written by them. I'd really like to know who their clients are (but would not risk accepting their offer out of curiosity).

A friend of mine used to work for one of these paid content agencies. Her job was to set up a few Wordpress blogs a day while writers filled them with content. Apparently, among their clients were lots of large companies. It seems, though, that after Google's crackdown on duplicate/fake content etc. they had to take a massive hit in revenues. They've since let most of their employees go and have - so far not very successfully - been looking for a new business model.

As Google moves away from relying on pagerank, it will make such schemes less effective, and people will need to try harder to game Google.

I think most SEOs agree that as long as links are what connects the internet, they will be an important ranking factor.

This and the Rap Genius stories go on to show why algorithmic search (aka Google search) is not going to last another ten years. It probably already does, but more and more Google algorithms will include lots of ifs and buts.

There is definitely some room for fresh approaches to content discovery, knowledge indexing, and finding answers. New startup(s) or Google rediscovering itself?

I see no smoking gun here or evidence of paid linking, or even link schemes. I just see legit guest posts, that could just as easily be meant to drive referral traffic.

Ironically, Tampa is where BlueGlass was located before they went bellyup.

Personally, I think articles likes these are fine for SEO. The articles are NOT PAID FOR and while the links might not be totally organic, you could certainly argue it adds some value to the post. (i.e. expedia's app is a good app for finding cheap airfare.)

Google has announced several times that they are going to crack down on poor quality guest posting, and I think expedia should be a little more progressive in their anchor text (i.e. linking with a brand name, url or even not linking... but just mentioning the brand name could help their rankings.)

Bottom line, Good offsite SEO today is a more polished version of this...

Step 1: Create Linkable, shareable, emotionally charged content.

Step 2: distribute your content socially.

Step 3: Do outreach to bloggers and journalists to get exposure to their audience, and perhaps attract links...

That being said, aside from the overly optimized anchor text, this is legitimate link acquisition and its what all SEOs do today... They create content and try to get distribution far and wide.

These links and posts could just as easily be traffic generation strategies, not SEO strategies.

I smell bacon.

"A little about me... I am a search marketing consultant,and I love everything about marketing and emerging technology. Growth Hacking is my strongest skillset, especially when leveraging search engines."

While I'm not sure that what you're doing is technically astroturfing, it's still equally as dishonest.

First, none of the links described in TFA match your "guidelines" to "Good offsite SEO", so even by your own admission this is not "Good offsite SEO".

Second, there is no such thing as "Good offsite SEO", since any "offsite SEO" is by definition either link farming or gaming the system. The entire point of the Penguin update (if I'm not mistaken) was to prevent quite literally all "offsite SEO" so google can rank your page according to your content, and so they can reliably weight incoming links. If an incoming link (that is not on your site!) has been SEO'd then by definition it is not an organic, quality incoming link.

Third, you state "this is legitimate link acquisition and its what all SEOs do today", which undermines the entirety of your post since link acquisition is by definition not organic, nor does it produce "quality" inbound links.

But hey, since "its what all SEOs do today" it must be kosher.

Edit: Just to address your last point (not to pile on or anything, but I feel like it's important), I'm pretty sure this is a willful conflation of two totally separate concepts. Since, you know, everyone who's ever done any sort of SEO knows that if you want to drive traffic, but not pay the penalties for link farming, you use rel="nofollow". Which Expedia/ the blogger did not do.

"While I'm not sure what your doing is astroturning, its equally dishonest"

I don't even know what that means. But, that was written close to two years ago... I have since moved on to content development and traffic strategy. Still, Whats wrong with being a search marketer and knowing about link building strategies that are legit. Why is building a site that inherently attracts links, not both legit to google, and a growth hack?

I think your understanding of Penguin, or Offsite SEO are misinformed. Creating great content and proactively seeking exposure to that content is perfectly white hat and within Googles guidelines. Using No Follow is for PAID placements, advertising and advertorials. These posts were none of the above. Blogger outreach without incentive (i.e. content they chose to feature because it adds value to their audience.) is a bedrock of content marketing and inbound marketing, and traffic generation, and I would do these things even if Google and Search Engines never existed.

Bottom Line, distributing quality content through outreach is a legitimate practice that all GOOD seo's engage in, and whether you like it or not, its in Googles best interest as well for content creators to be incentivized to create more content, which comes about through growing an audience, which comes from exposure to other publishers audience, and search engines.

If you really don't want to take my word for it, Google explicitly states how the links that TFA addressed are clearly in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines:


"Here are a few common examples of unnatural links that violate our guidelines..." (3rd bullet point)

I dont see any evidence that this was a large scale effort.

As another poster pointed out as well, these might be affiliate links dropped by a widget like skimlinks,etc...

If only there was a way to check and see if these links were generated by a widget and not actually part of the article's HTML.

Oh wait... there is!

Viewing the source from the "6 of the Most Enjoyable Theme Parks in the Nation" [1] article referenced in the parent article shows that the phrase "guaranteed best price on airfare" indeed is a straight link to Expedia.

[1] - http://www.cheaptravelblog.net/6-of-the-most-enjoyable-theme...

[2] - http://i.imgur.com/gGoo9jL.png

you can use NerdyData to search links like those directly on the sites source code: http://d.vncs.me/T864 [short link, HN mess the full link]

Wow, NerdyData seems like it can be very useful sometimes, thanks for sharing!

So you used to claim "Growth Hacking is my strongest skillset, especially when leveraging search engines." Now you do "content development and traffic strategy." More concisely, you've been a web spammer the whole time.

StackedMidgets: You've been banned for about 6 months.

stackedmidgets 3 hours ago | link [dead]

You're hilariously wrong, due to your ignorance. As someone who has written thousands of black hat articles just like these, even in the same vertical as discussed in the article, except more specific (certain niche European destinations) -- well written, for what I was paid -- I can say that articles like these are paid for, and violate Google's guidelines.

There's on article that I'm particularly proud of that involved inventing all sorts of fictional romantic adventures on an island off the coast of Spain that included specific anchor text about cheap hotels for that destination. Creative? Sure! It was almost as good as a print ad, even though it's likely that few real readers actually read the thing. Violating Google's guidelines? Fuck yes!!

Google has no access to the bank accounts of these writers to verify that the links were paid for. The search quality team can't plum the e-mail accounts of everyone involved to see that said articles were commissioned to include specific anchor text.

It's quite difficult to establish objectively whether or not the writers were paid for this. However, I can say that whenever black hatters write these kinds of articles, we're instructed by the client to include certain anchor text types, and to vary the anchor text for different articles in the same campaign.

Further, botted traffic adds another ugly layer to gaming SEO. The publisher just has to 'look' legitimate. The traffic can even be semi-botted by offices full of Indians using software for that purpose.

No. These "guest posts" are not quality articles. Typically they are written from third world countries to pump out as many articles as possible. They are tricking bloggers pretending it's a guest post but in reality it's being used for link bait.

These links and posts could just as easily be traffic generation strategies, not SEO strategies.

Are these not essentially the same thing? I understand that in the SEO business this has all been carefully nuanced, but in the general world the idea behind pagerank was that it made the web a democracy of sorts[1], where authentic, honest links organically demonstrate resources that users find most useful. That is the antithesis of "whoever can pay the most to have the most pages full of rote text created with paid links tops".

[1] - I should mention that organic linking is virtually dead, so perhaps it really doesn't matter. Blogs are, by and large, dead (and the few that persist engage in a circle-link pattern that is intended to essentially keep it in the family), and they (and personal websites) accounted for the overwhelming majority of legitimately organic links. Outside of that source of links, sites like Reddit and even probably HN are overwhelmingly gamed and manipulated, because the majority of users simply don't "vote" at all, leaving the manipulators an easy course to ply.

The web has been bought and paid for for several years now.

> Are these not essentially the same thing?

Not quite. SEO is about optimizing PageRank, which is a false proxy for a website's popularity. "Traffic generation" means actually increasing the site's popularity, for real users.

I thought this was understood across the board. I'm interested to see how the conversation plays out though.

Martin MacDonald's thoughts on this subject (Big Brand SEO Spam): http://webmarketingschool.com/big-brand-seo-spam/

How is it any different from offline world of business? Seems like big businesses with resources always go that extra mile to compete with other big businesses. The small businesses are usually the collateral damage.

how bout we look into nenad who looks like they are really active on a "blackhat SEO forum" and gets tons of links from there. seems legit.

I'm nearly halfway through and I must say this is being a very good read. Great piece of investigative journalism.

Looks like Google might have reacted, I googled 'cheap flights' and Expedia is not on the front page.

I can demonstrate that Microsoft sells links.

Go on then.

It is very simple: Expedia is paying over a billion $ annually for ads, Google is giving them a buy one, get one free deal.

Google is only having "SEO scheme" problems with freeloaders, like RapGenius.

To site Wikipedia: "Don't be evil" was the informal corporate motto (or slogan) of Google. Key word here is was.

This is what you get when you take the shortcut of moving away from a strict algorithmic ranking: obvious abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

Because of its large inventory of information

brb gonna declare bankruptcy (google ads are reallly expensive and lots of bot/garbage clicks)

Since you joined just 3 days ago, just want to let you know that this isn't Reddit. Comments like this^ will be downvoted by most people here.

I wish there were a way to delete since now i'm gonna get negged to death and I will probably need to make a new account

There is for a short time. If your account is only 3 days old I guess nothing of value is lost :-)

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