Jan 82010

How Low is Low?

Schemers bother me more than perpetrators of crimes of passion. Likely it's the fact that they spend so much time thinking of ways to deceive and defraud others. A moment of blind fury can and should land a violent criminal in jail for a long time; but the cold calculating scam artists deserve the longest sentences in my view. Where the one loses control, the other is in complete control of their evil thoughts for years and years.

The other annoyance is the waste those schemers represent. Their elaborate devices take time, energy and talent to deploy. These folks are sharp enough and skilled enough to get a real job, but instead of building something they choose to be leeches on the backs of those who earn an honest day's pay.

What am I railing about? Two different scams.

SCAM #1: Affiliate thief

The client prohibits affiliates from bidding on their brand name. Oftentimes, we're prompted to look for affiliate theft because sales on our client's trademark drops off the table for some reason. We have tools to help detect this abuse, and normally a quick scan of the destination url reveals that the traffic is really going to www.dirtbag.com or whatever after the Google redirect. But check out this scam:

The top is what our analyst spotted; it looks like traffic is being passed from Google to our redirector rkdms.com, but it isn't! Not yet. This thief actually creates a spoofed version of our normal redirector and sends the traffic to her/his domain. Then -- devilishly clever -- after it's gone through the affiliate's site to get their credit tagged, the traffic is sent back through the real rkdms.com redirect (shown below the spoofed version) and on to the client's site.

The net effect? RKG doesn't see a drop in brand traffic through paid search -- the user got our tracking tags. But, the affiliate still gets the commission by inserting its tag as well. We don't see a drop so aren't prompted to look for the theft, and a casual look at the destination urls on the trademark ads wouldn't look out of the ordinary because of the spoof. Fortunately, our analyst had the razor sharp eye to spot the scam.

SCAM #2: SEO Link spam

RKG Blog generates many conversations with our readership, which we deeply appreciate. We also get a lot of comment Spam from both the standard spyware, malware villains and SEO companies looking to build link networks without doing the hard work necessary to do it right. Akismet has caught 190,000 of the first type, but has a bit more trouble spotting the last type.

Usually this later class of spam that makes it passed the filter is fairly easy to screen manually: "hi, love your blog, keep up the good work" type of generic message with links embedded. The more advance folks do something like: "Great post on [Title]" with dynamic insertion of either the title of the post, the author or a chunk of text from the post.

This morning, the prize winning dirt ball actually got a couple past the gatekeeper because instead of grabbing something easily identifiable, s/he grabbed a complete sentence from one of the other comments on the page so it looked like a well thought-through reaction to the post. His bad luck was that one of the comments he placed stole a snippet from one of my comments which I recognized as sounding a bit too familiar.

Clever, very clever, and evil.

Pretty clearly, the folks above have serious programming skills. They could undoubtedly get jobs with real companies doing positive work. Instead, they've chosen the Madoff route. I hope it leads them to the cell next to Bernie.


19 Responses to "How Low is Low?"
Wow George. That affiliate is something else.
Marc Adelman says:
George, I feel like I have to take a shower after reading this post. The examples you mentioned I think give even deeper inisght into the psychology of this generation. We live virtual lives. We have virtual friends, fight virtual wars, race virtual cars, make virtual sales with virtual customers, and yes, commit virtual crimes all without leaving our homes. The unreality of our reality has desensitized us to reality. If any of us faught in a war, there would be parts of our mental/emaotional self that would be scared for life, yet 8 year olds are blowing enemy soldiers apart and loving it. Therefore this has created a type of conciousness that can act in certain ways yet be so ultimately removed from the true concequences of their actions. So, these virtual thiefs probably think they are just outsmarting people, rather than being absolute cold blooded crooks. Truely a sad sentiment for our generation.
Thanks for your comment, Jonathan! Marc, I once read an article suggesting that the decline of civil society began with the spread of central air conditioning. The theory went that in the past during the hot summer months, people sat on the porch to stay cool and catch the breeze. Their neighbors did the same and friendships developed naturally. People knew all the neighborhood kids and felt comfortable talking to the parents if a kid was being a jerk. Now we all move from our cars to our houses as quickly as possible and close the door behind us. We don't know our neighbors or their kids and we stop caring about the folks outside our family and co-workers. I too wonder if "social media" isn't "anti-social media." Now we can interact with our friends without having to...interact with our friends...
James says:
George, Your last 4 or 5 blog posts have been like echoes from my brain. Its getting pretty weird actually... I guess it makes sense, given that we work in the same space, on the exact same problems. I have seen some absolutely massive trademark bidding scams lately. These guys apply to affiliate networks with a large number of affiliate accounts and spread the commissions across them all. If you turn in one account, they immediately switch to another and keep going. I think that any major affiliate program should be monitoring their trademarks globally using a 3rd party service. The programs that are victimized are the ones that aren't monitoring their trademarks in a distributed fashion, (e.g. to catch geographically targeted PPC). Anyway, keep up the good blogging, I really enjoy it! James
Thanks James, and my apologies for channeling you without your permission :-) There are good 3rd party tools available for monitoring affiliate trademark squatting, but monitoring and policing are two different animals. As you point out, shutting them down one at a time doesn't work, they just morph from dirtycouponsite.com to cheesycouponsite.com and keep trolling. The penalty for getting caught is essentially zero so they just keep up the barrage. It needs to be treated as the job destroying theft that it is, with perpetrators spending some time behind bars when they're caught. Maybe keeping a public database of the cheaters would up the cost of being caught. Companies could require their affiliate network to drop anyone whose name or domain appeared on the list.
Josh says:
Believe it or not, one of the larger TM affiliate poachers is actually run by an agency providing SEM, SEO, and affiliate management services...
Doesn't surprise me a bit. Some companies that started their lives as affiliate networks and added SEM services after the fact don't do much more than manage trademark ads for their paid search clients.
Kieran says:
George. We seem to be on the same wavelength. I wrote an open letter to affiliates (http://www.anepinion.co.uk/?p=23) explaining how some of their dirty tactics are giving anyone who actually does provide incremental revenue a bad name. I think in 2010 as ROI becomes clearer through things like super-cookies a lot of affiliates are going to struggle to prove their worth. Perhaps it is just worth working with a few affiliates that you trust so you don't have to be constantly watching out for the next scam. You got a twitter feed?
Kieran, I think you're right. Undoubtedly there are plenty of reputable folks who don't resort to dirty tricks. The hard part is finding them and only them. Seems like an opportunity for someone to build a network of clean affiliates that polices itself and collects no commissions for ill-gotten gains. You're welcomed to follow us on Twitter @rimmkaufman. We don't do much other than send links to our blog posts, but if that helps you stay in touch, go for it. Thanks for your comment! George
Billy Wolt says:
That domain spoof is new to me. Pretty ingenious. Back in my days at a ringtone company, there was one affiliate who had millions of inbound links to a garbage page that redirected to a page with offers. Somehow Google never caught this redirect page, just the final landing page. So they would should it down, and the affiliate would just redirect to a new domain. He pretty much controlled 8 of the 10 organic results for some of the largest volume keywords. I estimate he was making $10k/day. What company is going to pay these people what they can make running scams like this? I think the only solution is to kill off affiliate marketing. "but instead of building something they choose to be leeches on the backs of those who earn an honest day’s pay" That is how I feel about facebook app developers, all of these twitter applications, etc.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Billy. I read in last year's Inc 500 issue that one prominent affiliate had $8 million in revenue...and 8 employees. There's something wrong with that picture!
Billy Wolt says:
The last company I worked for was basically a giant affiliate. We had 40+ employees, revenues in the multi-millions...all for just running scammy offers on social media sites. I felt so dirty.
Stephen says:
The reason that link spam exists is simply because it works. Search engines are constantly battling such things. Keyword stuffing used to work, thus some people took advantage of that for rankings. Comment spamming still works, thus some people are abusing it for all its worth. The fact of the matter is that comment spam detection algorithms or search engines need to change to account for link spam. Even when changes are made, another method is going to replace it and become the next new thing to abuse. It's like playing whack-a-mole.
Billy, it's good to have you back on the side of truth, justice and the American way! Stephen, you're absolutely right, of course. Whack-a-mole is a fine metaphor on many levels! George
Excellent information! As an affiliate marketer my self I can relate to scam #1. People who are not cloaking their links will get ripped off sooner or later.
Katia says:
George, can you provide the names of the tools you mentioned do a good job of monitoring squatting? Thanks!
Katia! Thanks for stopping by! Check out The Search Monitor. They do the job well and cheap. RKG monitors brand searches for our paid search clients, but we haven't built out a fancy reporting interface for looking at the data.
Katia says:
Yeah, I remember those guys from back when... thanks George :) Good thing Cady reminded me of RKG's blog, I learn a lot from you guys!


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