My wife is a potter. She conducts most of her glazedOver pottery business on-line. Over the past 2 years, she has incrementally leveraged social networks to supplement her regular marketing and advertising efforts and she has progressively built-up a large following of loyal customers and a network of peer artists. She will tell you that without a doubt, a focused Internet advertising campaign translates instantly to higher site traffic and sales.
Clearly, an important component in successfully operating a small on-line craft business is to leverage social and professional networks and to tactfully promote your product. One way to do this is by paying a service to expose your store. Another, more organic method, is to form a guild that promotes the interests of a group of related artists via blogs and other publications. High traffic sites like these typically contain interviews, product reviews, giveaways, and links to member shops.
The Internet barons the likes of Google and Microsoft are aware of the relationship between traffic and revenue, and so they court high volume sites to host advertising content. One of the most popular on-line money making schemes (eclipsed only by Nigerian get rich quick 4XX offers) is the Google AdSense program. With programs like AdSense, you place sponsored advertisements on your blog and Google then delivers specialized content based on your site classification. The premise of this model is that if you have a high traffic site, you will most likely generate product or service sales for the ad sponsor. The more clicks, the more you make.
Google obviously requires that the sponsor of the AdSense campaign operates a legitimate website or blog. Their definition of what is deceptive or manipulative behavior is quite specific as you can see from their guidelines:
Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.”
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
- Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.
Hosting Google adware has both its fans and its critics. Some users abstain from the practice on the grounds that it cheapens and waters down their brand (akin to placing a 30 foot billboard on your Victorian mansion), but many other popular blogs and websites do it enthusiastically, and they make some decent $$$ in the process.
It seems that if necessity is the mother of invention, then revenue from high internet traffic is the father of the con. Site sponsored advertising practice has now become so popular that many enterprising individuals/organizations are running large campaigns for site scams know as MFA (made for AdSense). These scraper sites are siphoning millions of dollars from the likes of Google.
The scam is ingenious and requires dedicated resources and some technical skill (like purchasing domains and manipulating content). I discovered this several days ago after my wife told me that someone was showcasing her pottery work on their site without crediting her. She first came upon it when she noticed an interesting pottery link in her twitter feed and asked me to have a look. After clicking on the link, I was routed to a site called VisionPottery.com. At first, the site looked legit; just another average blog dedicated to hand crafted goods.
Twitter feed, article, other site pages, and domain ownership information
When I checked the properties of the actual image, I was surprised to discover that it was hosted on the server and not linked to her site in any way (clearly, a copyright violation). I figured that the next best thing would be to read the article more carefully. The essay turned out to be laced with numerous grammatical errors and its contents made little sense.
Massive grammatical incoherencies smack of either human or machine altered text, so I performed a quick on-line search and located the original essay in “Articlebase.com”.
I diffed both essays and confirmed that the article hosted on VisionPottery.com was in fact a plagiarized version.
A textual analysis of the content revealed that the changes were purely based on a simple word substitution technique where one word, for example America is replaced by United States. It is clear that the plagiarizer’s objective was not to ‘lift’ the ideas from the article. Rather it was an attempted to prevent search engines from identifying and tagging the content as duplicate and thus improve their SEO (search engine optimization). This was also confirmed by the fact that the name of the original author could be found at the bottom of the plagiarized text.
An examination of the site structure reveled that it was built with a combination of machine generated scripts (many still contained the default WordPress template settings) and manual customization (logos and UI elements). The contents on the other hand, was managed by human ‘adaptors’ who took existing materials and resources from various on-line locations and altered them to create the appearance of an original composition, all for the sole purpose of scoring better search engine visibility.
Checking the VisionPottery.com domain registration shed some additional light on its modus operandi. The site is registered to Beverly Butler of Emerald Enterprise LLC; Beverly proudly advertises herself as the owner of the same on LinkedIn. As it happens, the server hosting her VisionPottery site also hosts many other parasitic marketing sites that operate along the same lines. Interestingly, the plagiarized version of the essay text where my wife’s bowls were found was also used verbatim by several other sites registered to different owners that were hosted on this machine as well.
A quick estimate (based on a sampling of the domains hosted on one server) suggests that there are potentially tens of thousands of sites that engage in this type of activity each making upwards of $150 a month. Clearly, this is a well coordinated and thriving criminal enterprise. It also turns out that there are hundreds of thriving franchises that for as low as 79.95 will provide you with ten ready AdSense sites (you also get a starter kit, a centralized dashboard to manage your growing Internet empire, and even a spamming pipeline into relevant Twitter feeds). A major sales pitch for these offer is the promise of “Passive-Residual” income which is defined by one developer of such sites as:
“… a steady stream of income that you have to do nothing at all to maintain, once you have established it. Passive-Residual Income is the ONLY income that gives you the freedom to come and go as you please, on your own schedule, while working at home or in your spare time.”
If you think that this is business as usual on the lawless Internet, think again. This type of conduct severely impacts all of us, from content creators who’s work is stolen and diluted, to service providers like Google who lose millions in revenue and all the way down to the average end user who gets spammed.
And yes, VisionPottery.com does have a copyright notice at the bottom of their web page, after all, they are only trying to protect their IP from other unscrupulous marketing entrepreneurs. Can you blame them?
© Copyright 2010 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.
13 thoughts on “Ripping Off Google”
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Dear Joana (or should I call you Mr. Ashok Vardhan of Hyderabad India (firstname.lastname@example.org) a proprietor extraordinaire of fine international AdSense scam services?).
Even though, I am not interested in your fail-proof methods of making a fortune, I would like to learn more about the technology you utilize. Specifically, did you register all 62 scam sites manually or do you use a script to do that? What types of botnet utilities and content scraping tools do you utilize?
I would also love to learn more about your organizational structure. Are you a private business or do you have broader political sponsorship? How do you manage to get a US based financial institute to process your payments and launder the money after you transfer it out of the country? How do you successfully avoid copyright prosecution for scraping unauthorized content from other sites?
So many questions! Please write soon, Ashok.
You have yet to discover the full depth of the problem. In Eastern Europe there are a number of networks of sites that make up full domain farms, none of the limited amount of content on any of them being original to the site owner(s). They are built specifically to target certain keywords and draw specific types of ads. The owner of each domain farm also runs a botnet and the botnet is programmed to randomly dial up different sites in the farm and randomly click on ads. As long as the activity never exceeds a certain threshold level, Google’s alarms are never triggered. With the large number of urls involved in each domain farm, constant low-level daily activity starts to add up. If you were to do some research into some of the complaints from advertisers in Google’s AdWords help forums, you would see folks daily complaining of their advertising accounts being drained by activity on sites based in Poland, Romania, the Ukraine and Russia that are nothing but a few sentences of plagiarized content and with almost no traffic other than the botnets involved.
The old AdSense arbitrageurs used to brag about starting a website today, placing AdSense code today, buying AdWords traffic today and getting paid tens of thousands of dollars at the end of next month for ads clicked on “sites” that never appeared in the search listings. These modern domain farmers/botnet operators have moved to the next level. And so far, Google doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into stopping the problem because with the size and affluence of these operators, the porosity of the Eastern European banking system and the openness of Google’s revolving door systems, Google would be just playing “whack-a-mole.”
Thank you for a great comment. Following your advice, I am going to dig a bit deeper. You are making some excellent points, many of which transcend poor business practices and advertiser’s loss of revenue. It seems to me that these operations also heavily promote practices that directly contribute to money laundering as well as major loss of revenue for the IRS.
I have often wondered how much of this activity is done with Google’s implicit consent. It may sound cynical, but after all, inflating the volume of the AdSense money machine only helps them sell more customer subscriptions…
How do they get around being sued for IP theft? I would think that something so wall organized would be targeted by Google sooner or later.
Getting around the IP theft is probably a combination of a calculated risk and security through ambiguity. With so many domains and such rapidly changing content, it would be difficult to pinpoint the violators. Also, enforcing copyright claims internationally requires a significant investment in legal resources. You would have to fork out $15K or more to prosecute a claim like this, so in reality, very few individuals can afford to protect their IP.
As far as Google is concerned, I don’t know what their strategy is, however, I am sure that they are aware of the revenue losses. Judging from their overall approach to Internet fraud, they are probably more concerned with “drying out the swamp” than wasting effort by taking swats at “individual” mosquitoes.
Wow, these guys must be raking in the money. It’s amazing the Google lets them get away with this. Lots of food for thought…
That’s amazing! An entire crime industry that is based on Google AdSense.
I like your blog, however you need to take a look at the spelliing on quite a few of your posts.
Several of them are rife with spellinng issues and I to find it very troublesome to inform the reality nevertheless I’ll definitely come again again.
Thank you for your feedback Judson (and your creative way of spelling “spellinng”)