Google Passes off Affiliate Marketers as News Publishers
By Ina Steiner
In 2003, we broke the lid off of a story in which affiliates who were using eBay's program and doorways were fooling Google into believing their pages ranked highly for particular keywords. Our investigation made it into John Battelle's book, "The Search."
Ten years later, affiliates have again figured out how to game Google, which is either incapable of addressing the problem or is turning a blind eye to the issue. The latest trick is very simple: simply take a product for which you have an affiliate link and wrap a news story around it.
Google News particularly likes aggregators of user generated content: Huffington Post, Examiner, Business Insider, etc. If one of those publications publishes an article about an eBay item (mind you, it doesn't have to be a news story), it will appear high on the top of page one for a search for eBay.
For example, if you do a search for eBay on Google News, you'll still see articles about twinkies for sale on eBay. The same thing applies to articles about an Amazon item.
Publishers such as these are including affiliate links in their articles. If readers click on the links, visit eBay and then buy something, the publishers get paid.
Now, publishers are writing articles just to be able to include affiliate links in them. Google News is allowing - even encouraging - affiliates to write such stories by ranking drivel before actual news stories, and putting hard-hitting original reporting far from page 1 of search results.
In investigating the issue, it became clear that it's not easy to detect affiliate links. Usually eBay affiliate links have "rover" in the URL, but - affiliate marketers have found ways around this, and have blogged and posted videos on Google's own Youtube service explaining how to cloak affiliate links.
There are also middlemen that make it more difficult to detect affiliate links, including services such as viglink.com, who refers to the phenomenon as "content-driven commerce." See the VigLink demo page for how it works.
Gawker has recognized this opportunity and refers to it as content commerce, product curation and even brazenly calls it "service journalism."
In job postings for writers, it says, "What is Commerce Content? It's a brand new thing that merges writing and product curation. Most importantly, it adds value to our readers lives. So commerce content includes everything from posts about the cheapest deal on something our readers need to introducing them to new things they've never seen. It's a new type of service journalism. And yes, we generate revenue when products sell."
Any SEO strategy, whether it's black hat or white hat, includes content as a way to get natural exposure in search engines. It's up to Google to make sure it keeps enthusiastic affiliate marketers from degrading the quality of its search results. In 2003, affiliates used cloaking and doorways. In 2013, affiliates are using link-cloaking and Google News.
Unfortunately, it's significantly degraded the quality of Google News search results.
Google PR did not respond when we reached out to them last week.
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About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to email@example.com.
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