Affiliate schemes have been described as a good way to earn money without lifting a finger. Say you’re a classic car enthusiast and create an interesting website about them: you’ll attract like-minded visitors who might be interested in buying spare parts. You don’t sell any spares, but can offer a link to a site that does. By signing up to that site’s affiliate scheme, you’ll receive a commission for the visitors sent from your site who buy spares.
A good affiliate scheme will, naturally, attract many affiliates, all vying to provide visitors and earn the most cash. But the idea of getting cash for having links on a site that leads to something people want also draws in those who want something on the cheap: blog spammers, who coordinate machines to post links to their own sites in the comments sections of blogs, or “sploggers” (spam bloggers), who simply steal others’ blog content wholesale in order to splatter affiliate ads around it.
Because spammers understand that increasing the number of links pointing to a site increases its popularity in Google, they will spam blogs with links in the comments that point to their site. Google doesn’t know that it’s not an outbreak of people thinking that the spammed blog is great. Result: the spammed site rises up the search results.
Networking for cash
Take the activities of “Lee Ritchie”, which might or might not be his real name. As the owner of the UK site itsamobile (according to Nominet UK’s records), Ritchie has for a couple of months now been trying to post comment spam on my blog and Guardian Technology’s Free Our Data blog. What made him stand out from the thousands of others was that his site was British, and the spammed links used the keywords “Carphone Warehouse” – so anyone searching on that term might be likely to be pointed to Ritchie’s site. It’s unusual for big-name British brands to get caught up in blog spam because they know how badly their reputation can be affected by the practice, and tend to stamp it out on discovery.
The spam promoted links to different pages on itsamobile, which redirected to another Ritchie site (showing images of mobile phones), which then linked to the website of Dial-a-Phone – an online mobile phone retailer. For every potential buyer Ritchie’s site passed on, Dial-a-Phone dangled a carrot of £40 commission via the TradeDoubler affiliate network – or so it seemed. “The particular affiliate you refer to was spotted blog spamming several months ago and was removed from the Tradedoubler programme within one week,” said Julian Hearn, head of online marketing for Dial-a-Phone Ltd. “This is the only case of an affiliate using comment spam in the last four years that I am aware of.”
If Ritchie was cut off, it hasn’t stopped his spamming, which continues to this day. Hearn won’t name the person who would receive that commission, nor say whether the name Lee Ritchie is real or false; apparently UK data protection law helps spammers too. He also points out that Dial-a-Phone has worked with several affiliate networks and thousands of affiliates. He claims the majority are hard-working business people who run websites such as shopsafe.co.uk. “We have identified a handful of affiliates who have used unethical methods of generating traffic and sales, including comment spam. All these affiliates have been removed,” says Hearn, who adds that the worst offenders are those who use adware.
Hearn isn’t able to stop Ritchie spamming. The actual entries to blog comments comes from an IP address controlled by a Mike Van Essen in Australia, identified by anti-spam campaigners Spamhaus as a major email spammer infamous for promoting penis enlargement pills, diet patches and growth hormone products. Ritchie’s spammed website is hosted by Van Essen too.
Ritchie has since switched the redirection of itsamobile to an affiliate scheme run by Austrian pay-per-click search engine company, PeakClick. Did PeakClick know about Ritchie’s spamming? Its terse response: “We will not answer any questions, the spamming affiliates will get their account terminated, just like the account that spammed your blog.” I contacted Andreas Bernstrom, Trade- Doubler’s UK and Ireland managing director. The Swedish company has more than 100,000 affiliates for customers including John Lewis, Littlewoods, Dell and HMV. Bernstrom describes Ritchie as a “young gentleman” living in England trying his luck – but won’t give out personal details: “The person who was blog spamming was identified by the account manager for that particular company [Dial-a-Phone]. They came quite quickly up the top list for that company in terms of number of sales done. Essentially what he’s trying to do is to make quick money from a pretty underhand practice.”
Bernstrom adds that TradeDoubler keeps a close eye on its affiliates, flagging up new and unexpected achievers for technical scrutiny. There is a zero- tolerance policy with spamming, adware, spyware, fraudulent clicks and other unethical practices. “There will be publishers [affiliates] who will try their luck. We just have to make sure we are as professional as possible so they don’t get anywhere,” says Bernstrom.
How bad is blog spamming? I asked Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of the popular open-source blogging software WordPress and operator of two major services for bloggers: wordpress.com, which hosts more than 500,000 blogs, and Akismet, a spam filtering system that’s stopped nearly 500m spam since October 2005. His statistics show that 94% of comments to blogs are spam.
“Spam is getting so bad that it’s effectively a denial-of-service attack on people’s websites,” says Mullenweg. He believes that affiliate schemes contribute to “most of the spam”, and also agrees with zero-tolerance on spam through better affiliate marketing industry regulation – perhaps a code of conduct.
It would have been nice to track down “Ritchie”. Initially, we couldn’t because Nominet allows “private individuals” to opt out of providing full address details for public consumption; only his name appeared on querying for his contact details. But Ritchie isn’t a private individual – he’s using the sites to make money.
Lesley Cowley, chief executive for Nominet UK, says the opt-out is only available to people not using domains for business. “Generally, we regard pay-per-click sites and spamming as commercial activities, and we will therefore remove the opt-out from this domain,” says Cowley. “We will be looking at all of the opted-out registrations for this individual.” Soon after, an address appears for Ritchie in the Nominet records. It’s that of a pub in Lochgelly, Scotland – which appears to have closed. Nor does Ritchie respond to emails.
Fortunately, bloggers under siege can use plug-in defences like Akismet or “captchas” that defeat spam software but don’t stop humans leaving a real comment. The “nofollow” tag, supported by some blogging software, means search engines won’t rank any link in a comment. Fine – except it doesn’t get rid of the dozens, hundreds, thousands of comments that pour on to blogs. While there’s money in it for people like Ritchie, and no effective comeback from the companies that benefit, the moneymaking will go on and bloggers will curse those trying to make money from their goodwill.
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