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2004-09-30 📌 The web is going to the dogs... ably assisted by Erica

Tags 🏷 All 🏷 Tech

I got an vaguely interesting piece of spam the other day. I've chopped it down onto fewer lines for the sake of space, and removed the links:

Hi there,

Congratulations, I just added your website URL to my new web directory xxxxxx.xxx. I really believe your website will allow my visitors to benefit from your dog information. Click here to find your site listed in my index: http://xxx.xxxxxx.xxx/xxxxxx/ I would be honored if you would please add my site to your link page. Click here for a page with instructions on how to link with me or edit your link: http://xxx.xxxxxx.xxx/xxxxxx/ . I have code that you can easily copy and paste into your website. Best of luck to you!!

Thanks a bunch,
Erica Bronson :-)

Some people would interpret this as a personal mail. I, however, am a cynical bastard with a basic understanding of search engines. And if you'll permit me to explain, you may find the following of some small interest. The first rather glaring clue is that my site contains nothing even remotely resembling dog information... and sure enough, copy-pasting the link into a browser, I find the page includes the text...

denyer.cjb.net - Descriptive Prose
triangular and fluorescent orange glory as if boldly to state: Let there be art

...which is from a short fiction snapshot of mine somewhat derivative of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas". The full line is "Let there be art for the starving, pornography for the fat, and dogs playing poker for everyone else!" Wonderful dog information, I'm sure you'll agree, not to mention a non-sequitur stolen from someone else's quote file in the first place.

Our second clue is in the text used as the link—"denyer.cjb.net - Descriptive Prose"— as the title and location of the page that text comes from has long since changed. This strongly suggests that someone (well, an automated bit of code) has pulled this reference straight from Google, which contains a few old references to this site along with more up-to-date ones.

Other clues are the title of the mail ("Do you want to link?") the fact it was sent to webmaster at virtualdebris dot co dot uk (an inbox I check very, very infrequently and an address I never give to anyone) and the rather suspect grammar in the body of the message.

Which probably brings you to the question: why is 'Erica' doing this? It all has to do with a thing called PageRank. Google gives priority in its results to sites which have a lot of links pointing to them, assuming this to be a sign that they are popular. If I put a link to http://xxx.xxxxxx.xxx/xxxxxx/ on one of my pages, 'Erica' can come along, submit that page to Google and marginally increase her site's ranking in search results. Get enough people to do it, and they'll increase a lot—driving traffic to her site, where they might be persuaded to click on links which pay her a percentage for each click-through, or for each click-through which results in a purchase. Or other, nastier things might happen, such as spyware infections being sent through the security sieve which is Internet Explorer. (Still browsing with Internet Explorer? Protect yourself.) It seems more like a technology demo site than an ad-trap right now, though.

I've been using 'Erica' in inverted commas because I doubt she exists. People (especially male geeks) tend to respond more obligingly towards women. Still, at least 'she' had the honesty to admit to running a web directory in the first line of the mail. Strangely enough, I used to get a lot of similar spam mails to my yahoo! mail account regarding my old Tripod site, except the keyword they selected was "death" rather than "dog".

My advice to anyone thinking of looking into keyword stuffing Google via reciprocal links, directory names, URLs with hyphens, etc. is quite simple: don't. This kind of blackhat approach to search ratings is gradually being stamped on by the company in their bid to return genuinely relevant content for searches. Those who want a bit more technical detail may find this article interesting:

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