Monday, January 27, 2014

Black Hat SEO Goes from Link Farms to Click Farms

When Google unveiled its Penguin algorithm update, the rankings of web pages for which thousands of backlinks had been purchased plummeted sharply, essentially stopping the black hat strategy in its tracks. At the time, the practice of buying these links had spawned a cottage industry of companies that sold links for about a penny each to a wide variety of websites that were unwilling to wait for non-manipulative SEO tactics to yield results. The companies that built and sold these links were easy to find, with one of the biggest ironies being that a quick search on Google could provide pages of businesses that were happy to game the algorithm used by the same search engine to rank web pages.

As often happens in SEO the death of one black hat strategy, in this case link farming, fostered the birth and rapid growth of a new way to manipulate search rankings; buying “likes” on Facebook and followers on Twitter. For the companies in the soon to be defunct link farming business, the switch to Facebook and Twitter was easy and provided many of the same opportunities. Much like its emphasis on backlinks several years earlier, Google was shifting a significant number of the components in its ranking algorithm to assess “social signals” such as likes and follows to determine the value and relevance of content, which in turn was playing an increasing role in search rankings.

With that a new industry, which by some estimates grossed over $200 million in 2013 off of Facebook alone, had replaced the old one. In the Facebook version, “click farms” create fake accounts on the network and then fire them up to start generating sought after “likes”. According to the latest estimate from Facebook, the network has approximately 14 million fake accounts, many of which are related to click farm activity.

Like the plethora of companies that offered link farm services, searches pertaining to buying likes/followers will surface numerous options for manipulating the search engine’s ranking algorithm, an issue that flies against the company’s commitment to offering its users the best possible search experience every time. Google has since drastically discounted these types of social signals in terms of their influence on rankings, but an algorithm update that does to click farms what the Penguin update did to link farms is probably inevitable at some time in the near future.