Will Scamming Slaughter Social Search Signals?

In the old days, black hat SEOs bought links from other websites to manipulate the signals seen by Google. The practice got them to the top of the SERPs – until the Panda updates. Now, some SEOs are buying “likes” and positive reviews instead. What does this mean for the future of search?

Trond Lyngbo wrote a long and thought-provoking piece for Search Engine Land on this very topic, and I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about their clients and their online reputation. If you worked as an SEO back in the early days of the field, of course, you can almost predict what’s coming – which only makes his points ring all the truer. If you didn’t, come with me on a short trip back in time.

Before Google came on the scene, getting to the top of a search engine ranking often involved keyword stuffing and other practices considered shady or frowned upon today. Google introduced the idea of links to a website from other sites counting as “votes” for that site. Thanks to Google’s algorithm, websites with more links thus rose to the top of its rankings. Simultaneously, many users found Google’s results to be better and more relevant than those of the other search engines.

SEOs figured out that they could game Google’s algorithm by getting lots of links to their websites. Not surprisingly, where there is supply and demand, a market came into existence, and it wasn’t long before SEOs and businesses could buy and sell links for the purpose of ranking high in Google. Google spotted and penalized some, but the others just got sneakier in response, building more complex backlinking schemes. Sure, this broke Google’s Terms of Service, but black hat SEOs didn’t care, and Google found it difficult to catch and punish them – until Panda, at least. “Google permitted spammy link building for far too long, before cracking down hard,” Lyngbo noted.

Google started using social search signals – the likes, positive reviews, +1s, and so forth – at least partially to counteract the link spam it’s been fighting all these  years. A website with lots of good links but relatively few likes, or vice versa, would seem inconsistent to Google’s algorithm. For black hat SEOs, though, there’s a way around that now: buying likes and positive reviews.

Lyngbo displayed images of ads for those selling these social signals. “I will give you 100 FB like and 200 guarantee Google plus Unique Votes from Different Accounts…for $5.” “I will write 10 Amazing 5 Star Positive GOOGLE Places Reviews…for $5.” “I will post 1 excellent 5 star review for your business item on TripAdvisor for $5.” And don’t get me started on how many Twitter and Google+ followers you can get for $5. Frequently coming from China and India, the Boston Globe reported that many of these accounts look too real to be machine-generated. And if they’re real enough to fool a human, they’re real enough to fool Google.

{mospagebreak title=Buying Social Signals: the Ethical Issues}

If you don’t think there’s anything wrong either with buying links or buying social signals, perhaps you haven’t examined the situation from the searcher’s point of view. Lyngbo gave two examples of what can happen. In one, a searcher looking for a delicious chocolate muffin does a search on their mobile device for one nearby and heads for a bakery awarded five stars in the results. They buy their muffin, and it’s terrible! The bakery bought those social signals; the customer blames the search engine for leading him astray.

Lyngbo’s second example implied somewhat more serious consequences, at least potentially. What happens when a young woman traveling alone to Europe looks for a good hotel room – and a sleazy hotel bought some excellent reviews and ratings very cheaply? Well, speaking as a not-so-young woman with a hyperactive imagination who could find herself in just this position, I’m not sure I want to find out what could happen. And if you were that young woman, neither would you.

But let’s go beyond the bad experiences. If searchers get steered wrong repeatedly because of Google interpreting purchased social signals as real, two things will probably happen. First, they’re going to get skeptical about those five-star ratings and even dismiss social signals. And second, Google will get wind of the problem – because searchers will complain one way or another, and perhaps even switch to some other search engine.

Just how do you think Google will react to this? They won’t be happy, to say the least. Unhappy searchers makes for an unhappy search engine. But the root cause isn’t the search engine; it’s the SEOs and site owners buying those social votes. The way Lyngbo explained it, it’s almost a snowball effect: searchers become unhappy; Google gets unhappy; and searchers stop trusting social signals, since they’re being severely abused. Where does that leave you?

“Would your prospects still view your business or brand the same way if they found out that YOU were doing this to them?” Lyngbo asks. It’s a telling question. One can make the argument that ethically, buying social signals is no different from buying links, especially if you’re doing it to manipulate your ranking in Google. Indeed, it could even be worse; as Jeffrey Taylor notes in his comment to Lyngbo’s article, “…it is ILLEGAL! Keep buying fake reviews and you may hear from the FTC. It is a $250,000 fine.”

Yet sometimes it seems like everyone is doing it. Taylor also noted that in his research he found “hundreds of cheaters in every industry” – even a fertility clinic! How can you refrain when your competition is using just this tactic to climb to the top?

Well, you could side with Navid Dardashti, another commenter on Lyngbo’s piece. He strongly disagreed with Lyngbo’s position, pointing out out that “Before Google…add[ed] social signals to their search algorithm, no one complained about a contest that required you to like a page; individuals made the choice of whether they were willing to publicly like the company for a chance at the prize, and one of the considerations was whether they felt the company was reputable enough to ‘like’ in front of all their friends and therefore implicitly recommend.” He also noted that businesses both online and offline offer discounts and incentives for social validation and referrals; consider the gym that adds a free month to your membership if you get a friend to sign up.

But some incentives seem different from others. If I were running a business today, I’d feel comfortable with offering a ten percent discount on my services if my customer posted a review on, say, Yelp or Google Places or the like. I admit that I’d only make that offer to customers who were actually happy with what I did for them. I’d see it as a way to remind them of something they might be inclined to do anyway. Paying someone you don’t know to review something they haven’t even seen or used crosses the line for me. What do you think?

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