Microsoft has a big report out, covered yesterday in the NY Times, that analyzes the sources of what it calls Web spam. The "Spam Double-Funnel: Connecting Web Spammers with Advertisers" report describes in excruciating detail how users end up getting duped into clicking search results that appear to link to one domain, but end up redirecting to a site loaded with more links to advertisers.
Surprise, Surprise: Google's to Blame
The report conveniently finds that Google's free blog hosting service blogspot (an optional hosting service for Blogger-powered blogs) "was responsible for about one in every four spam appearances (22% and 29% in the two benchmarks respectively, to be exact)" in instances involving "doorway domains." Regarding these types of domains, the report notes, "Typically, spammers create spam blogs, such as http://PhentermineNoPrescriptionn.blogspot.com, and use these doorway URLs to spam the comment area of other forums."
It also calls out Google's AdSense network as a facilitator in the process: "In the case of AdSense-based spammers, the single domain googlesyndication.com plays the role of the middle three layers, responsible for serving ads, receiving click-through traffic, and redirecting to advertisers. Specifically, browsers fetch AdSense ads from the redirection domain googlesyndication.com and display them on the doorway pages; ads click-through traffic goes into the aggregator domain googlesyndication.com before reaching advertisers’ websites."
It comes as no surprise that these "spammers," primarily affiliate marketing sites (the report makes no mention of the term affiliate marketing, by the way), create free-hosted sites and load them up with Google AdSense ads which provide them with revenue each time a user clicks them.
Adult, Drugs and Ringtone Searches Drive Spam? Say It Ain't So!
The report lists the top ten most prominent "spam" categories, ones anyone could probably guess. In order from 1 to 10: Drugs, Adult, Gambling, Ringtone, Money (car insurance, debt, etc.), accessories (Gucci handbag, rolex replica, etc.), travel, cars, music and furniture (OK, furniture surprises me, actually).
Is It Really Spam?
Though the report uses the term, "spam," it does so loosely, considering even if people end up on pages filled with advertiser links, they are actually keyword driven, meaning if they searched for "ringtones" and clicked on a so-called "spam" site, they most likely end up with a page filled with links to ringtone providers. It may not be an efficient or clean search experience, but applying the word "spam" to it might not be entirely appropriate.
Consider this: A Google search on "Ringtones" brings up more than one result on the first results page that finalizes at this page, which lists several links, many of which go through several redirects before they end up on sites that, indeed, offer free ringtones or ringtone services. Sure, this type of stuff is cluttering the Web and may be annoying, but the end result is relevant ringtone-related sites, right? I'm no fan of this stuff, just making a point.
Will the Real Advertisers Please Stand Up?
Who are the top advertisers according to the report? Microsoft researchers list shopping search sites, ringtone and drug-related sites like tunes4tones.com, couponmountain.com, bizrate.com and shopping.com. Still, those sites are fueled by the real advertisers: the retail sites and brand advertisers promoting their goods through the shopping sites.
The report suggests, "By exposing the end-to-end search spamming activities, we hope to educate users not to click spam links and spam ads, and to encourage advertisers to scrutinize those syndicators and traffic affiliates who are profiting from spam traffic at the expense of the long-term health of the web."
Ya know, if these guys wanted to educate users, they might have thought about writing a report that could be comprehended by them, or the press for that matter. When the tech guys write the report, it may as well be in another language.
A New Layer from Google's Pay-per-action Model?
Another interesting wrinkle here is that Google just unveiled a pay-per-action pricing model for its AdSense network, meaning advertisers pay based on an action taken by the user such as a sale or newsletter registration. So, in this scenario, AdSense site owners (lots of 'em belong to big affiliate marketing networks like Commission Junction), won't get paid for click-through only. As Rob Kniaz, product manager for Google's ad products told ClickZ, "It does shift the burden of conversion to the publisher, but it's a higher value ad unit."
By requiring that extra action occurs, one could argue Google will force affiliate marketing sites to feature truly valuable content for users, as opposed to the junk many of them provide now. Still, the promise of higher payouts for affiliates from Google, a primary driver of their revenue now, could attract more people to the affiliate marketing world, and possibly inspire the black hatters to conjure up more ways to clutter the Web with muck.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
March 19, 2014