Someone tells you they have the opportunity of a lifetime for you. A way to make money by becoming an independent business owner through Quixtar. You’re not sure about Quixtar and want to learn more, so you consult your favorite Internet search engine — Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves — and type in the word “Quixtar.”
What you see next are search results, and most likely you’ll just check out the first page or two of links. But the first result you see in Google is a Weblog called Quixtar Blog, and in fact, the official Quixtar site, Quixtar.com, doesn’t even appear on the first page of results. What’s going on here? How could Google rank an independent blog that is not even affiliated with Quixtar as the top result?
The answer isn’t a simple one and can’t be answered directly as Google and other search engines will not spell out exactly how their top secret algorithms work. But after reading through Quixtar Blog, the picture becomes clearer: The company, a revamped online version of Amway, has had trouble with critics online and decided to fight them by unloading an arsenal of search engine optimization (SEO) techniques that go against accepted marketing techniques and into the muddy world of Web page spam, also known as link farms and Google bombing.
To put it simply, Quixtar enlisted various people to help create dozens of Weblogs that linked to each other and were filled with positive stories and key words. The idea is to help put these newer blogs at the top of search results for phrases such as “Quixtar success” and “Quixtar opportunity,” while more critical sites such as Quixtar Blog and Amquix.info would drop down.
But Quixtar is not alone. Every major company, non-profit and religious group now has to worry about their Web reputation and has to pay very close attention to that first page of search results.
“Managing brand credibility and press exposure is nothing new,” said Nan Dawkins, co-founder of Red Boots Consulting, which focuses on SEO for non-profits. “The only new wrinkle here is the medium [Internet/search engines] and the tactics used to get visibility in that medium. The reality is that search engines are VERY IMPORTANT to an organization’s brand. Search engines are where people look for answers to their questions, and there are a lot of different takes on those answers. Your side of the story may appear, but it is a certainty that it will appear alongside other, varying opinions. If you don’t manage it, it may manage you.”
The Google bomb has been around for years and has mainly been for jokes such as a search for “miserable failure” bringing up the White House bio for George W. Bush. Even the entry for Google bomb in Wikipedia — which has a large section on Quixtar/Amway’s tactics — has been the target of tampering by a Quixtar marketing operative, according to one blogger’s account.
These are not illegal tactics, but they raise the hackles of search engines, who stake their business on the quality of natural search results (we’re not talking about paid search ads). Search engines are constantly changing their algorithms, making many of these tactics less successful. In fact, Quixtar has had much better success bringing up positive results for top people in its organization such as Fred Harteis or Jody Victor, rather than searches for Quixtar or Amway.
Peter Norvig is director of search quality and director of research for Google. He told me that the search engine just wants to fairly reflect what’s on the Web and tries to tally varying opinions as “votes.” So if someone sets up link farms on various blogs, Google will only count that as one vote. Norvig says that it’s much easier to push up positive results for more specific search terms, such as a person’s name, rather than for a larger company.
“When you do searches on Amway and Quixtar, you see both sides, and we think that’s fine,” Norvig said. “The places where it’s easier to manipulate are on the much more specialized queries. For a particular person’s name, there may not be that much interest and not that much published. So there it’s much easier for a consortium of people to get together and get near the top. But it’s pretty hard for a group of people — whether it’s 20 or 100 people — to get to the top with Amway, because the rest of the world is so large, and there’s so much information from so many sources. It’s hard to beat that.”
Quixtar Blog rises
Eric Janssen is the driving force behind Quixtar Blog and became interested in the company when his wife became an independent business owner (IBO). Janssen is also a longtime journalist and online creative manager for the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Web site, so when he was pitched to join Quixtar, he was curious why no one would directly answer his questions. He found that unbiased online information on Quixtar was scarce — with most sites being strongly for or against the company’s practices as a multi-level marketing organization for energy drinks and cosmetics.
Janssen refused to join, and his wife was pressured to quit unless he shut his blog down. Later, Janssen started online forums on his site so people on both sides could discuss Quixtar, and he started to cultivate inside sources. He uncovered scoop after scoop, including extensive information on Quixtar’s Web Initiative, including “adoration blogs,” “character assassination blogs” and even fake news outlets such as eSource-News.com. Janssen connected the dots to Margaret S. Ross, one of the writers on eSource-News.com who specializes in “Web Reputation” and was hired to help lead Quixtar’s Web Initiative.
“I don’t have any problem with search engine optimization, and businesses have every right to do it,” Janssen told me. “But my complaint is that this is something that you don’t want everybody to know about, because you know that it’s deceitful, and it’s not about providing value for people. It’s not about providing a great information resource that will be the #1 site on the Web. It’s about flooding the Web with crap, and in that sewage, [they're] going to bury everyone else. That’s my main concern. The implications go across to other businesses like Scientology.”
Quixtar manager of public relations Robin Luymes told me that while critics called its tactics Google bombing, he wasn’t sure the company’s efforts could be classified that way. He sent along a statement explaining the company’s stance on Web marketing.
“To ensure the public receives accurate information about Quixtar’s products, opportunity, and Independent Business Owners, the company has created numerous Web sites about different topics of interest,” the statement read. “It is the company’s desire that these Web sites appear highly in Web user searches on various search engines, just as it is any advertiser’s desire to place ads where their target audiences will see them. To this end, the company employs best practices in the development of its Web sites, which involves a highly navigable site architecture and the appropriate use of headlines, keywords, metadata, and consistent terminology.
“If Quixtar inadvertently breaks rules established by search engines, it is our expectation that providers like Google, Yahoo, and MSN would alert the company so that appropriate corrections can be made. Quixtar has never knowingly broken guidelines established by the top search engines and, on the few occasions it has discovered practices that did not follow these guidelines, it has taken the necessary corrective steps.”
Luymes said that Margaret Ross was a Quixtar IBO and had a relationship with the IBO Association International. Ross would not return my repeated phone calls.
One Quixtar IBO who is at the Platinum level and has worked within the Quixtar system for 10 years, talked to me on the condition of anonymity. This person believes in the Quixtar system, but was dismayed to hear one Quixtar leader last fall tell a meeting of 5,000 people that they were employing Google bombing techniques to defeat negative sites.
“As a Quixtar IBO that’s trying to build an honest business, and as a person who’s a regular Internet surfer, to come across these [Google bomb] Web sites that make no sense at all is embarrassing to me,” the person told me. “When I’m trying to refer people to Quixtar, and then they find these sites and say to me, what’s up with these Web sites? … I wish they would not use this strategy, because it hurts my business personally. The people I come across are very Web savvy and know there’s something going on. Most people might not know they’re for Google bombing, but when they see them they know there’s something wrong. The majority of them don’t make any sense.”
Luymes said that Quixtar invites its IBOs to give feedback on what they see on the Web, so they can improve content. “We continue to communicate with Independent Business Owners and others to promote a better understanding of best practices on the Internet,” he said. “We invite IBOs to share input about what they are seeing on the Web directly with Quixtar so that appropriate steps can be taken.”
Janssen helped his own cause by continuing to shed light on the Web Initiative, and listing the various Google bomb blogs on his blog. He’s had to put up with threats from Quixtar over his ownership of the Quixtarblog.com domain and was even briefly delisted from Yahoo’s search index.
“I have reason to believe that a Quixtar employee contacted Yahoo and asked them to delist my site, claiming that it was in violation of their guidelines,” Janssen said. “I use Quixtarblog.com as a forwarded domain, and I guess Yahoo doesn’t like forwarded domains, even though they’re common. Yahoo apparently took it down without checking on it first, and so I contacted Yahoo and my site was relisted again within a week. It seems to be an effort by Quixtar to impact my site and get it delisted.”
While Quixtar and its lineage through Amway put it in a heavily controversial light online, there are plenty of other image-conscious companies that have their eye on search results. And because blogs are well suited to rise in search results due to heavy linking, marketers have been focusing like a laser on ways to get positive information on their products or companies into blog posts.
As you might expect, many of these efforts have backfired. In one case, someone posted about new shows on CNN Headline News to various blogs, including a gobbledygook of keywords: “+CNN +BLOG +HEADLINE TONIGHT +CNN +BLOG +BLOG +CNN +BLOG +CNN +BLOG +CNN,” etc.
One blogger, Nick Lewis, believed that CNN or someone doing Web marketing on CNN’s behalf might be behind the comments. His worry was that the “keyword stuffing” would end up doing SEO in reverse for his blog. In other words, if Google saw this tactic as a way to boost search results, it would penalize his post, which was critical of CNN Headline News.
“Regardless of whether this was CNN or a smear artist,” Lewis wrote in an extensive blog post, “allowing these guerrilla marketing campaigns to continue could result in our blogs — left-wing and right-wing alike — to become the battlefield in the ratings war between two of the largest media giants, [Fox and CNN].”
While bloggers fighting comment spam can try tactics such as shutting off HTML in comments, or forcing people to register first, this tactic of stuffing keywords into blog comments is trickier.
“Keyword stuffing is perhaps the easiest way to pull off a quick censoring of a post,” Lewis told me via e-mail. “Unlike, cloaking [setting font-color to white, and repeating a term over and over again so that is visible to search engines but not the human eye], you can’t protect yourself by limiting the HTML tags that a commenter can use [i.e. do not let commenters use any style tags]. The only way you can protect yourself from stuffed keywords is to have some way of knowing when someone comments on any post of yours.”
CNN has denied any wrongdoing. “There is absolutely no truth to any speculation that CNN was involved in blog spam,” CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson told me via e-mail. Programmer/blogger Seth Finkelstein theorizes that the person spamming the blogs was more likely trying to help get noticed by search engines by doing amateurish keyword stuffing, rather than an elaborate anti-optimization attack.
“The Net is filled with people who go around and spam blogs to get their message heard, with various degrees of skill at it,” Finkelstein wrote on his Infothought blog. “So by the saying ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses before zebras,’ when you see weird spam, think marginal people before elaborate PR campaigns. It’s a much better fit.”
Google’s Norvig says that bloggers worried about these types of tactics can also use “no follow” tags in their blog comments, which will tell the search crawlers not to read anything in comments. Of course that would devalue the good blog comments in search results.
Danny Sullivan, founder and editor of Search Engine Watch, says that blogs have to be careful when considering how their posts rank in search results.
“Blogs are transient,” Sullivan told me via e-mail. “When you blogged against Company A, you have a link to your article on your home page. Your home page is important and transmits that importance to things you link. In addition, lots of other blogs may have linked to you from their important home pages. That’s a big factor in getting you that short-term rise for Company A’s name. Some time goes by and all those home page links disappear. That has an impact on ranking. Maybe you drop out because of it. It wasn’t a conspiracy. That’s just how the links get counted. Then you blast them again and make enough ruckus, and others start linking to you again. The cycle continues.”
The never-ending battle
While PR people and SEO companies look for ways to boost search results for their clients, the search engines have to continually fight various dirty tactics. For each new update of the search engine’s algorithm, SEO folks go back to the drawing board to see how to rig results again.
“The fact is that Black Hats will aggressively look for any hole, and they will attack that hole with everything at their disposal,” said Greg Jarboe, president and co-founder of SEO-PR. “This means that legitimate ways to gain search visibility are soon exploited by the Black Hats, forcing search engines in many cases to close down legitimate and useful opportunities for both users and advertisers.
“We know that search marketing is a real estate game, and there’s nothing wrong with aggressively looking for new opportunities to gain territory on the page by looking at things like shopping feeds and news engines. That’s just smart search marketing. But the line is crossed when the Black Hats aggressively subvert the rules and use those new channels to artificially build links or boost their visibility at the expense of the user experience.”
A Microsoft Research team recently put out a report called “Spam, Damn Spam, and Statistics,” which includes a statistical analysis of Web spam.
“The basic insight of this paper is that many automatically generated pages differ in one way or another from Web pages authored by a human,” the report concludes. “Some of these differences are due to the fact that many automatically generated pages are too ‘templatic,’ that is, they have little variance in word count or even actual content. Other differences are more intrinsic to the goal of the optimizers: pages that are ranked highly by a search engine must, by definition, differ from average pages. For example, effective link-spam requires pages to have a high in-degree, while effective keyword spam requires pages to contain many popular terms.”
Norvig says the search engine rivals are working together to combat Web spam and sharing research with each other.
“We have a shared hatred of spammers,” Norvig said. “We don’t go into all the secrets of what we do, but we talk about general approaches to things, and what we can do to set standards. In one way, we’d like to be proprietary and say Google is the most resistant [to Web spam] and therefore you should use us. On the other hand, if Yahoo or Microsoft is doing a bad job at fighting spam, then the spammer will be encouraged and there will be more of it. It’s to our advantage that everybody do a good job at fighting it.”
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Learn more about various Web marketing hijinks by companies online.
AdRants: Panera Launches Faux Blog
MetaFilter: Ashlee Simpson Message Forum Spam
Wall Street Journal: Online Buzz Helps Album Skyrocket to Top of Charts
Threadwatch.org: Google Caught Cloaking and Keyword Stuffing?