Dissecting a Typical Spam Letter

Like, I’m sure, many of you who own or run websites, I get a shedload of spam. Usually I filter it out before ever having to open it but just occasionally I read some to see what inane nonsense is coming through at the moment. Probably 90% is from Indian web designers and so-called SEOs with incredibly unlikely English names and a complete inability to spell or construct grammatical sentences; trying to get me to outsource to them. Anyone stupid enough to take on an unknown company who advertises “Upcoming Crismos Offer…” (as contained in one recent email) deserves all they get, but there must be some folk who do, otherwise these messages would have died out years ago. Are businesses so blinkered by cheap costs or led by accountants who can’t see beyond the monthly bottom line that they would imagine for a moment that they’d get a useful result from this?

However the ones that really annoy me are the supposedly personal emails telling me how one of my sites could be doing so much better if I only did some SEO on it. Some clients and prospective clients occasionally mention them to me – and that despite the fact that I always try to educate all my clients as much as possible about the facts of online life – probably because they often play on their fears that somehow they’re missing something, or they tell them what they want to hear; just spend some money on our magic formula and you can get all the traffic you want – without all that tiresome marketing effort.

So I’ve decided to highlight some of these messages that I receive with some responses/annotations; to show just how transparently idiotic they are. If you’re a novice at online marketing then they may help you directly; if you’re an experienced practitioner then maybe you can use them to highlight to your clients the sort of thing they should treat with scorn.

I’ll start with a relatively simple one – I’ve had far worse than this – just because it’s one that arrived in the last couple of days – it’s almost certainly automated but I’ll answer it as if it were actually sent by a human being to show how stupid it is:

Hello my name is Ophelia Renee and I am an Internet and Website Specialist.

Hmm, try Googling that name – three spam reports in the top three places.

I was looking up websites in Google under the keyword search chess magazine and came upon your website www.chessedinburgh.co.uk. I see that you are not ranked on the first page for your primary keyword searches.

Really? You mean terms like “Chess in Edinburgh”, “Play chess in Edinburgh”, “Edinburgh Chess Clubs”, “Edinburgh Chess league”, and many more, all of which we share the top two places with the Edinburgh Chess Club – a site incidentally that I also built.

Since we don’t have a magazine of our own and don’t sell magazines, why on earth would we want to rank for such a term as “chess magazine”?

there is no reason that you can’t have top three rankings for your keywords based on your website’s structure and content.

Indeed there isn’t – that’s because being a professional web designer and SEO, I made sure that the structure and content were appropriate even though these sites are both now quite old – and that’s why we do rank top for those terms that we can legitimately target. But then you appear to have contacted me from my details on the site which explicitly state that I am an SEO, so why are you wasting your time trying to sell me SEO services?

You need significantly more one way anchor text backlinks and I can help you with this.

Would those be exactly the type of exact match anchor text backlinks that Google have just been hammering with increasing force across the entire internet for the last few months and which have caused thousands of sites to plummet in the rankings?

I have a very simple way to prove that what I do works and it’s risk free for you to try.
We pride ourselves on increasing our clients customers and sales

Sales? Hmm, has your extensive research somehow failed to notice that we are a regional chess league – a non-profit making association of non-profit making chess clubs who simply play matches against each other. We have members – not clients – and we don’t make sales.

to that end we also provide a fully upgraded website designed to convert.

Leaving aside the fact that we provide information and have no conversions as we have no sales, I’m a little puzzled – you said our content and structure was good enough to rank well, so why would a new website be of any benefit?

Your new website comes complete with a mobile website (distinct website when people access your business from their phone),

Have you not heard that Google prefers that mobile sites should be handled by making the normal website respond well to mobile devices rather than by having a separate site? Oh, did I mention that we’re not a business?

conversion optimization, online control panel, blog, social functions including Twitter and Facebook. A dated website costs you conversions, sales and additional business.

So you’d want us to ditch the forum that we have that you appear not to have noticed? And have our hard-working volunteers waste their time on social media rather than organising our tournaments. Did I mention that we’re not a business?

Additionally, we have a very successful referral program which allows you to refer other businesses and receive a substantial compensation for the referral and the business they refer, five tiers down and includes a monthly residual! Many of our clients earn our advanced packages for free because of the referrals they bring.

Five tiers down? Would this be a Multi-Level Marketing scheme by any chance? Not that we know any other businesses – did I mention that we’re not a business?

Nothing beats performance and after you see what we are able to do for your business you will feel confident in the results we can achieve.

Did I mention – oh never mind.

Would it be okay if I were to give you a call or you can certainly call me anytime at the number below. I would love to continue this discussion over the phone with you.

I always thought that a discussion implied a two-way process of interaction. You spammed me. Trust me, this is the nearest you’ll get to interaction.


Ophelia Renee (US company name and phone number removed ‘cos I don’t want to give them any more publicity)

I’m touched that someone from all the way over there in the USA should take such an interest in our little website in Scotland, a country that actually has quite a lot of very good SEOs, people a bit like err, me. Oh, by the way, I filter my phone calls rather heavily due to scammy and fraudulent calls from Indian call centres trying to tell me I have a virus on my PC or sell me crappy link building services, so you may have some problems getting through.

Have a nice day (do robots have nice days?)



Linkspam – Common forms of link building that have gone toxic

As I’ve been predicting for a long time Google has finally upped the ante on poor quality link building and is starting to actively penalise those who participate in it. This has of course started an absolute firestorm of comment and general gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands amongst the “SEO community”.

rusty chainsI put those words in quotes because frankly I never thought half of them were actually SEOs, at least as I define it. In recent years a group has developed that claimed that ‘SEO was all about links’, and they’ve spread that gospel far and wide until far too many client companies took it as the truth. Large numbers of SEO companies have grown up on the premise that you can sell SEO in a scalable way by hiring cheap labour, often outsourced to places like India or the Philippines or Romania, and just building links, often in ways that actually have little value but sound good to the client.

Genuine link builders, and there are some excellent ones out there who I would not wish to see tarred with the same brush as the poor ones, know that sometimes a single really good link which may have taken weeks to research and achieve will be more valuable that thousands of even mediocre links. But it’s a very difficult thing to sell to a client when someone else is telling them that they’ll get 100 or even a 1000 links a week by their methods.

And the really annoying thing is that sometimes this worked! Seldom when faced with a really competitive niche with quality sites in it, but often enough to make it seem like a good idea. Those of us who believe SEO is a far more rounded holistic approach to website building and development have sometimes been left embarrassed by the rubbish sites showing up for some searches and have long expected and wished that Google would take more concerted action. Well now they have, but unfortunately along with the sub-standard sites a lot of genuine sites run by honest people who have simply been badly advised are being caught in the backlash.

Yet many of the link building techniques started out as perfectly good ideas. So how did we get here?

Article Marketing

Article marketing started off as a good idea. Write a useful article about a topic of your choice and send it to other sites where it will be seen. If it’s newsworthy then send it to a PR site (whether free or paid). Include a link back to your site in the attribution and allow others to use it as long as they maintain the attribution. It gives you visibility and enhances your reputation in your industry.

Unfortunately the idea was seized on by many agencies and turned into a “scalable product”. Instead of you writing it with your knowledge and expertise they would get someone else to do it. (You don’t have time after all). It might initially be one of their staff but pretty soon someone says why not outsource it to somewhere cheap like India or the Philippines.

Instead of submitting to quality sites which takes time and which may charge fees, someone suggests why not build sites and put articles there. Hey, if we’ve got loads of new sites lets link them all up. And/or outsource to someone else doing the same thing. Quantity takes over, quality drops. Rinse and repeat.

Soon that initially good idea has become this:

Someone else with no expertise writes an article on your specialist subject. At best it reads poorly because they have no understanding of the subject or the people who are your potential clients.

At worst it will be complete gobbledygook written by a machine (See “Sodium body of water town” – Salt Lake City) or by a third world outsourcer who speaks poor English. It’s cheap because of this. It’s scalable, without the agency having to train staff in real SEO. And the agency can mark it up and make a profit on it and say “look at all the links we got you”

Their idea is that it doesn’t matter if it’s crap because no-one is ever going to read the article anyway – the article site will never rank well itself and usually has no other way of people finding it. If they ever did they’d find poor quality and go elsewhere. In other words the entire site(s) the article is on is purely built to fool the search engines into thinking this is genuine content and the links embedded in it are worth recording and counting.

Are they really that stupid at Google? Very unlikely. Actually they tell us that they can detect link networks, they can detect poor grammar, they know who owns what domains and can trace it all back. They aren’t perfect so sometimes this stuff works for a while or within a specific niche but in the long-term it’s sure to be caught. As some notable networks have been caught recently. And those associated with it will suffer because of it.

The companies behind the link networks can walk away and probably have other schemes going on in another sector. They don’t care about the domain name being blacklisted because they just switch to another one. There’s no long term loss for them. But there is for the clients who were caught up in it – their rankings will drop and their trust will be diminished. Their branded domain name may take months or years to recover.

What you should do instead

Why not spend the time writing yourself, or training your staff or associates to do it if you don’t have the time. Writing good articles and getting them published – on other quality sites if possible, and/or on your own site or blog.

Good articles that really contribute something and inform people will get noticed and get links naturally from real sites and social media mentions by real people. Your reputation is enhanced and you get long-lasting benefits.


Once upon a time there were some good, well-collated directories and people actually used them to find things. Of course as the web grew ever larger they began to become logistically impossible and as usual there was a lot of bandwagon jumping as owner tried to charge for inclusion. But for a while they were useful and the search engines spidered them.  They are now mostly defunct. The days of there being thousands of directories worth submitting to are over. Google devalued most of them some time ago and many of them closed down. Many of the ones left aren’t even indexed below category level so any links on them are useless. If an agency tell you they are doing directory submissions ask them which ones and go and check them out yourself. Local ones may have some value for citations for local search but larger general ones will often be worthless if they aren’t indexed. Yet there are still agencies out there selling directory submissions as if they are massively important.

Blog Comments

Commenting on blogs is a perfectly good idea in itself. You engage with people on a subject where you can offer expertise. If you offer something of value then no-one minds if you have a link to your site. The problem comes again when the process is scaled up into a product for sale.

Someone else (usually outsourced again) writes a throwaway comment on a blog post which may (but more often does not) relate to your subject (and which may or may not be genuine) and chucks in a link (which in most cases is “no-followed” anyway). The result is that your company is seen as spammy for doing a drive-by advert and link drop with no value. Your reputation goes down.

There is a sub-category of blog comment spam which shows how insane the whole thing becomes – an agency or foreign outsourced company creates a fake blog about a subject and puts some rubbish content on it, to use it for links for their clients. Another agency or outsource, looking for places to do comments, finds it and posts comment spam on it. Others follow and pretty soon there are whole threads of posts and comments which are completely fake, all crammed with links to clients. I’ve seen such sites in places like the Ukraine, Romania and Pakistan in those languages and then the English names of the clients stuck in the middle. Value is nil – risk of Google finding them and associating the clients with such tactics is high.

Missed opportunity on genuine blogs

There is no engagement in such outsourced commenting because the person doing it neither knows nor cares about your subject. If there is a genuine person behind the blog, (and it’s usually fairly easy to tell from their other posts, it simply requires time and experience), and they have real problems then YOU or one of your trained staff could have offered them useful advice.

If you do that it probably won’t result directly in a sale, though it might, but it certainly has lots of other benefits.

  • It would show you in a good light, as someone who cares enough to spend their time offering assistance.
  • The blogger may reply, they may visit your site, and may link back to you if they are impressed with your advice or the site. (Such a link is worth far more than all the artificial ones)
  • The comment or conversation may be seen by the blogger’s friends and followers, who may tell other people.

Your reputation goes up, your message is being spread. More people know about you. They are less likely to believe any negative comments that your competition spread about you so your automatically helping your reputation management. This is what real social engagement is about.

Important points to keep in mind

  • If you’re promoting a quality product or service shouldn’t anything about the company or related to the company or that mentions the company be the highest quality?
  • If you’re spreading the word about your business don’t you want that to be the best word possible?

Tactics like those mentioned above when scaled in the ways described have the opposite effect. They make your business look cheap and lacking in ethics or expertise. Is that worth risking for a small and temporary gain in the rankings?

In my view good SEO in its broadest sense is about building a sustainable long-term successful company by making their website the best it can be and by engaging with their customers in the best possible way. If short-term, high volume link building risks damaging those core fundamentals then it should be avoided.

If you’ve been caught up in this and are suffering lost rankings then maybe it’s time you started asking exactly what your SEO has been doing on your behalf.

Technology ideas in the real world – the human factor

I love gadgets, and I love new technology. You see something on Star Trek or one of the other sci-fi programmes and then a few years later you see it in the real world because the designers watch the same programs and you think ‘great, look forward to using that’. I’ve just been watching an excellent video of a talk by Luke Wroblewski, primarily about the new techniques of “mobile first” design and as tends to happen with these things I got sucked in, listening to all the great ideas that he was discussing for the things you can do with a mobile interface. All the services that you can offer if you know where people are and which direction they’re pointing in and how they’ve orientated their phone, etc. and you think as a teenager, you think how wonderful the new world’s gonna be. And with my web design and SEO hat on I’m also sometimes thinking about how it might work for some of my clients.

Then the cynicism kicks in, the world-weary experience; I stop and think ‘hang on, you know what’s going to happen to all this’. The answer of course is that it’ll be commercialised to death, the data will be taken from whatever it happens to be that you’re doing and someone will build a profile of you and then they’ll sell advertising to you. Did you point your camera phone at a book on history, a QR code for an Italian restaurant, a picture of a landmark? Then what’ll happen is the next time you go to an online bookstore you’ll see loads of ads for history books, on a site related to food you’ll see adverts for Italian restaurants or maybe, god forbid, when you pass an Italian restaurant they’ll send you the menu whether you wanted it or not, and the next time you go to a travel site or airline site you’ll be shown offers to take you to that landmark in whatever country it is.

Because unfortunately the real world that we live in isn’t like Star Trek, where money is obsolete (except for Ferengies!) and altruism is a way of life. Our world is all about greed and the fast buck, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch because every service that you’re offered comes with a catch and it seems that these days the entire western economy revolves not around creating real wealth but around advertising, and those involved in advertising will do anything to find out how they can sell more goods and services to you, and to do that they want to know everything about you.

So while I love all these new ideas, my middle-aged experience tells me that all too often the new world won’t be quite as great as we might hope. So to any young people reading this, (and it sometimes feels like most of the people in this industry are all younger than me these days!), yes, keep your delight in new things, keep imagining new ideas, but watch very carefully how they’re being used and think very hard about whether you should really give up your privacy for the latest shiny gadget or cool service. History, as opposed to sci-fi, tells us that there will always be someone who will mis-use your data, misinterpret your actions, seek to profit from your actions, and discriminate against you for a wide variety of seemingly stupid reasons.

This might seem a strange blog post on an SEO and web-related site, but it was inspired by precisely that sort of technology and marketing, and it does no harm to remember that the technology doesn’t exist in isolation and that it is always controlled by people with an agenda. And those people aren’t always as nice as you and me or Jean-Luc Picard.

Social Networks and Search – will they just spoil each other?

Social is all over the place these days – even the mainstream media mentions it often, particularly at the moment with Facebook having just announced major changes at F8 and with Google pushing Google+ as a major alternative. Following so many SEO-related blogs and Twitter feeds as I do it’s easy to get the feeling that everyone is obsessed by social; it’s only natural I suppose since many of them are busy trying to work out how they can be used to boost their own personal business reputations in the industry or are working out how they could affect the search rankings of their clients.

Truth to tell, I fear most of the imprecations to business clients to embrace social networking falls on deaf ears; or at best are mistaken for direct marketing opportunities. But this post is less about them than a more general consideration of the effects that two two channels may have on each other.

In recent years Google and the few remaining others have been fighting an often losing battle against spam and some of the less ethical practitioners of SEO. There have been more and more complex algorithm changes to combat this problem. Even when it works this has, in some people’s opinion, pushed the search results in a direction that isn’t always that useful for the average searcher. A lot of searches turn up nothing but commercial results even when you’re looking for information – try looking for technical info and you’re often flooded with either buying sites or content farms – while even if you are looking for items to purchase you often end up with endless price comparison sites.

In what they claim is an attempt to combat this they’ve been increasingly turning to social signals. However there are other considerations which may be more important to them. Basically search isn’t a money making operation and Google haven’t been a search company for a long time  – what they are is an advertising company because that’s where the profits are. I’m old enough to remember forum discussions about Google’s lack of ability to make money (a bit like Twitter today) and the answer to that was of course Adwords and later Adsense. Now, as a mega corporation the pressure on them is to continue to make ever-increasing profits, and the answer is still the same. The longer they can keep you on their properties the more chance they have of advertising to you

In the meantime the social channels, and particularly Facebook, have been spreading their influence in ways that have encroached more and more on the time spent on search engines. The problem for Google is not that Facebook might start another form of search engine, it’s that by channelling people’s use of the web through an almost permanently logged in social experience they are reducing the time that Google can show ads to them. This explains the emphasis that Google have put on trying to crack social over the last few years, culminating in their own full social networking property, Google+.

The problem is that if they use social signals for rankings purpose then they leave themselves open to social spamming – which will almost certainly be easier than link spamming and harder to combat, while also ruining social channels which will become flooded with fake posts and general noise.

The effect on social doesn’t much bother me much from a personal point of view as I only use Twitter – I value my privacy far too much to use either Facebook or Google +. It does bother me that another area of the internet in general may be polluted and lose what value it has for people, and the effect on search bothers me much more. It might sound odd coming from an SEO if you believe any of the badmouthing that our industry often gets, but I want the search results to be much cleaner; much easier to find quality results in all areas. To find information for informational queries, to find good suppliers for commercial queries, and to find proper technical results for technical queries. I can’t see how social signals can help produce that.

Google’s other answer seems to be ever-increasing personalisation of search, but this has never convinced me. When I search I want the widest range of potential information (within quality constraints of course) to choose from – I don’t want the search engine pandering to what I already know, or confirming any bias that may have crept into my opinions.When Jean-Luc Picard asks the Enterprise computer for information would he want only ideas that came from sources he had already approved? No, and neither do I.

Equally he probably wouldn’t want it influenced by the gossip from Ten Forward. I’d rather they keep search and social separate and fix search.

Links – are there any genuine link builders out there?

In recent months I’ve been thinking a lot about links. I’ll say straight away that getting them has never been a particular strength of mine – I’m more of a structural, technical and content SEO – but analysing them is definitely something I know about. I used to think that I actually wasn’t very good at links and that I was missing something about how the experts operated. I used to ask the ones I knew how they did it, and I’d read endless blogs and articles about it, but the secrets seemed elusive. I’ve even been known to advise a client that since we’d optimised everything else that they should consider hiring an outside specialist to boost their link profile for that final push that would take their top 5 rankings to the number one spots.

Now there are a lot of SEOs out there who seem to think the subject is about nothing but links, and some of them, particularly in the USA, are well-respected professionals. However there are others who are less well-respected – the sort who cold-call and promise that all the target company has to do is hire them and they’ll get them thousands of links and they’ll shoot up the rankings and everything will be dripping money in no time.

In the last year I’ve had the opportunity to closely assess the performance of a couple of these so-called link specialists and basically I’ve had all my concerns confirmed. The links I’ve seen created have been awful – in my view so poor as to be a danger to the site rather than a help. Artificial sites created purely to link together and then link out to the company’s clients – often with the same lists of links on every site. Thousands of exact match domains created on obscure south sea island TLDs and then scraped content added. Comment spam on obscure blogs and forums, often in foreign languages. In one hilarious case I found there was a spammy initial forum post on a Ukraine forum with a long series of comments which were ALL from different spam droppers.

Occasionally one or other of these tactics might actually give a short term minor boost but in most cases this was quickly followed by a drop back down. Lots of links, no value.

In my own efforts to find links the thing I notice most often is that the majority of sites that would be worthwhile targets just don’t have any mechanisms for giving links any more. Links and resources pages are largely a thing of the past, and many sites don’t have any outgoing links at all – either the management have banned them or the webmaster has listened to some ill-informed stories about “leaking pagerank”.

That doesn’t leave much – directories are largely worthless these days, while press releases probably always were. Article creation has taken a big hit from Panda and there aren’t always suitably relevant blogs or forums for many ecommerce sites to build up relationships on. The same thing applies to guest blogging – guest articles about SEO are easy; guest article opportunities about garden ornaments or bed linen tend to be a bit fewer and far between!

And yet still we see SEOs writing articles about link building. Of course they never actually tell you how to do it in enough detail that you can follow their methods – they talk about all the above methods that don’t work or aren’t relevant in most subject areas, or they talk about training link builders and the abilities they need to have, or they tell you how NOT to get links. In short they are just link bait about link building.

So come on guys tell me – are there ANY white-hat link building methods or is every method really a bit shady ranging to completely black-hat? Do any of you offer genuine, quality link building? Because if there are any I’d like to either get some training from you or outsource some client work to you – but beware, I know crap links when I see them so you’ll have to be the genuine article. (And if you’re an Indian spammer called “Steve” or “April” then don’t waste your time.)

Pressing the wrong international buttons

A Tale of Edinburgh University Press and search engines

This weekend I was doing some research for additional content for my Scottish Books site and had occasion to do a Google search for Edinburgh University Press. To my surprise their site didn’t appear in the first page of results, or the second, or the third.

Intrigued, I found a link to it on one of the sites that did rank, (it’s http://www.euppublishing.com/) and then viewed the source code (always my first action when I want to check a site’s setup and quality). First thing I noticed (apart from acres of whitespace) was  lang=”en-US”  in the html tag – not the best indication especially for a .com. That gave me  an idea and I went back to Google and clicked on the “web results” link (I had searched on UK-only as I usually do for UK-based queries). Low and behold up came the site in number 1 spot.

So Google thinks that Edinburgh University Press isn’t a UK site. Could it just be that language setting? Let’s dig a little further, I next activated my Netcraft toolbar – ahha, they are on IBM servers in the USA, another poor signal and almost certainly a rather more important one. (I’ve seen many many .com sites failing to rank in the UK because of being hosted elsewhere)

Since it doesn’t look as if there has been any SEO done on the site – poor and duplicate title tags and no meta-descriptions – it’s a fair bet that they haven’t got a Webmaster Tools account where they could have told Google the site was UK, although that isn’t the whole solution by any means.

Robots.txt puzzle

While musing on this situation of one of Scotland’s most important academic publishers not showing up in UK searches and whether I should try and contact the webmaster about it, I cast around pretty much on SEO autopilot checking various data, and having seen that there is a robots-noarchive setting on the home page, I checked the robots.txt file:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Oops! Seems they either don’t want indexed or are being somewhat badly advised!

Hang on, they were listed in the Google worldwide results…

So how are the search engines handling that? run a  few site: commands:

Bing only lists 1 page with no details (although as usual they can’t count their totals – 2/2 of 150??)

Yahoo only lists 1 page with no details.

Blekko says there are 250 pages but doesn’t list any of them.

Google lists 901!! (and gives another nonsensical total of 45,000) and includes page content in the short descriptions. (At least they aren’t cacheing it)


So much for Google obeying robots.txt – seems they make their own minds up (not the first time I’ve seen this)

So the moral of this story is, be careful about your domain name suffix, be careful where you host your site, don’t tell people you speak American when you’re British, and don’t expect Google to follow standards or stay out of your website when you tell it to.