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Crowdturfing Running Rampant

A melding of the terms crowd-sourcing and astro-turfing, crowdturfing is a threat to any SEO practitioner or site owner that tries to play by the rules when it comes to ranking well in search engines.

Google advises a conscious, systematic and sustained link buying for the purposes of manipulated rankings can get you into hot water. But the problem is they have to catch you first and buying links is getting cheaper thanks to crowdturfing. 

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How crowdturfing works:

Crowdturfing can be very complex, so here is a bare bones example that explains the general concept.

There are a few marketplaces around where you can post simple jobs that may only involve posting links, retweeting a tweet, rating a video or liking an article. 

For example, I noted a "job" where posting 50 (original) words on a blog or a forum along with a "followed" link pays 50 cents a throw. Another job was to retweet a tweet about a news item on a particular site for 15c.

While it's not a lot of cash, there is no shortage of people who will do this sort of thing.

It works out to be a very cheap inbound link with the added power in some cases of social signals - factors that are playing a role in rankings. 

When you consider these links are being posted by a bunch of different people from all over the map rather than a centralized spamming sweatshop; it can also be hard to detect what is going on, aside from the fact these links suddenly pop up over a relatively short time-frame. However, if the posts and links point to a news item, then the online tracks are easier to cover.

This type of thing along with the usual link and comment spamming going on is becoming particularly rife in an industry I watch. A couple of companies started doing it, other companies noticed the original guys weren't being pinged for it (yet) and it became a case of monkey-see, monkey-do. The end result has been the top 6 ranks on a very competitive term are now populated with sites engaged in these practices.

In defense of search engine companies, attacking the problem is a massive task and it isn't without its risks. 

Let's say for example you have an axe to grind against a competitor who is ranking better than you and that competitor is playing by the rules. By spending a few hundred bucks, you could initiate a comment/link/crowdturfing campaign and then lodge a spam report to Google showing the activity. If Google isn't careful in its audit, assuming it gets around to it, a manually applied penalty could send that competitor straight to search engine hell - for something they didn't do.

The other way to go about it is to just dampen the link love of all the spammy inbounds - which Google does do in some cases; particularly where the site involved is engaged in selling links for PageRank - but that's a different situation entirely - and what if there are thousands of links coming from thousands of sites? You can dampen anything pointing to X page, but again, the chances of collateral damage are high. 

What's the answer? There's no easy one; solving it algorithmically may be impossible and each instance needs to be carefully investigated. 

However, watching sites float to the top of the rankings using what are essentially spamming techniques a decade old is incredibly frustrating. One site I'm monitoring has over 10,000 spammy inbounds - and they are ranking very well. An added layer of complexity is the site involved is actually quite a good site. It's just been a case of them not being able to grasp the top slot by playing by the rules. They found something that worked and are getting increasingly greedy in widening their lead. Perhaps they know the writing is on the wall for them, so they are just trying to make as much cash from their position as they can, while they can.

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All I can advise is that if crowdturfing and similar tactics are starting to look appealing to you as everyone else seems to be doing it - just bear in mind the old wisdom of "don't gamble what you can't afford to lose". 
Maybe it will work for you, maybe it will work for months - but at some stage if the search engines catch onto what you're doing, copping a manually applied penalty can send you to search engine hell - a place you may never emerge from again. 
Something that may even be a bigger deterrent is the legal aspect. For example, a Facebook "like" is a recommendation in my opinion - a review of sorts. In some countries, fake reviews and testimonials are illegal. I would love to see this tested in a court soon.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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