SEO spammers wearing a printout of my face as their mask

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Over the past year, I’ve cut way back on my plethora of wacky domains used on long-lost web projects. I’ve let loads of domains go and only updated the few I still use or need. As a result, most projects have been lost to the ether but there’s a good enough record of them in The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine that I started to feel OK about it. But this week I learned one of the long-running projects I let lapse ended up in a particularly strange state.

Ten Years of My Life was one of my earlier projects, started in 2003 as a photoblog I intended to run for a decade, which seemed ludicrous at the time (there was no Flickr, no Google Photos, no real photo hosting of any kind in Fall of 2003). I built it out of Movable Type, made sure URLs were as short and stable as possible, and began posting my favorite photos. I had a backlog of great shots, so it was daily at first.

Within the first week of launch, it started to gather mentions on other blogs, and people immediately gathered that I wasn’t just doing a photoblog for ten years hence, but I would be doing it daily (I never intended this) but being young and stupid, I took it up as a challenge, and from then on out, it was daily.

Reality caught up with me about two years later, when my daughter was born and being able to casually spend 15 minutes each night tweaking my favorite daily shot in Photoshop became too tall of an order. Those first couple years were incredibly instructive to me, I went from terrible amateur photographer to vaguely better amateur photographer and began to understand how light and lenses worked.

Since late 2005, the site sat in a holding pattern. At first, I went to a favorite weekly photo, but it quickly became less often than that. Post-iPhone release in 2007-2008, I tried to streamline posting by removing all friction. In the end, I had it working where I simply needed to upload a photo to Flickr, tag it with a special tag, and it would automatically import to the blog as a new entry. Even with all the speedbumps smoothed over, I was posting a new photo an average of 3-4 times a year.

As a result, the project always felt unfinished and unrealized and it bummed me out a bit, but I also had half a dozen other things going on, as well as a growing family member that thankfully took more of my time.

Fast forward to two months ago, at the 14 year mark, I felt like it was time to finally let go. I hadn’t touched or even loaded the URL in a couple years, and I felt like whatever guilt I had about not fulfilling the original goals for it were long since passed. As you can guess, the URL was snapped up and repurposed by domain squatter/SEO spammer types.

I’m not going to link to the site, but here’s a couple screenshots. For some odd reason, they copied a handful of posts from 2004-2005, took my text descriptions word-for-word, then added a generic image (likely gathered from Google Image Search) related to the titles. You end up with weird stuff like this, using the exact same URL pattern I made in 2003:

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They took these tactics to hilarious ends when you see the About page, which is an about page I had last touched around 2010, along with a random cycling image they found.

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I’ve had domains lapse and fall into strangers’ hands in the past, and sometimes they tried to put up related content to what was there previously, but this time, making a copy of a half-dozen pages and inserting random images to match was a new low to me.

Does Amazon enable comment spam?

Comment spam has been around for many years now and I've seen all the tricks of the trade blasted at me and my sites. Lately, it's gotten tougher and tougher to weed out every last bit of spam because it's clear comment spammers are hiring people to write somewhat on-topic comments and then loading either their username or the comment with links to their sites (which are loaded with ads).

Here's an example of what I'd call a high quality comment spam:

Screen shot 2010-02-20 at 8.33.28 AM
It's on topic, it seems like an innocuous pat on the back in broken english, but the username links to a video game fan site. The comment was posted to get a backlink to their site. Sometimes they copy and paste two sentences from my own post as a new comment, but usually it's a mellow "this is a good post" comment meant to fall under my radar and eventually improve their Google ranking for whatever keyword they are chasing.

I started thinking about how people are farming out this "make an innocuous comment and link back to my site" work and I was reminded of Amazon's Mechanical Turk system where you pay humans to perform piecemeal work, often for mere pennies. A couple years ago, ReadWriteWeb noticed somewhat spammy activity on the Turk system so I decided to run the same searches today and found similar results.

  • 29 results for "bookmark" including people asking for comments on their site and posting their site to every social bookmark system, some paying as little as a penny per job.
  • 42 results for "comment" including lots of rate and comment my youtube videos up, test our comment system, and flat out "leave a good comment on my site" jobs.
  • 18 results for "digg" including people asking digg votes as well as posting their site to digg for them.
  • 13 results for "write a paragraph" These frequently become posts on adsense-loaded sites and other SEO nonsense.

I'm sure there are bigger sites that enable these kind of bottom-feeder transactions on the web. I bet there are whole black hat SEO forums and marketplaces to buy links, comments, and articles, but it's kind of a shame that two years after ReadWriteWeb pointed out the problems they still persist. I love using Amazon as a customer and I think the Mechanical Turk system is pretty cool, I just wish they did a better job eradicating this kind of thing that leads me to have to judge all my incoming comments harshly as defaulting to spam unless they seem like honest additions to the conversation.

I’ll miss you, Brad

“I try to be my own hero. That may sound flippant, but 15 years ago when I was really trying to grasp a direction for my life, a friend wise beyond his years reminded me that no one is perfect, that heroes fall and white knights on horseback are rare. Instead, he said, I should identify those qualities I found heroic and good and valuable in anyone I admired, and cultivate them in myself. “You won’t always succeed,” he said, “but you’ll be better for trying. Losers sit and wish. Heroes try. Be your own hero.”

It ends up, though, that most of the admirable qualities I want to have I saw in my father. He was the smartest man I’ve ever known and understood better than most the difference between education (of which he had little) and knowledge (of which he had much). He was incredibly gregarious, could always find something to talk about — at length — with absolutely anyone and in conversation with him, you always felt as though you were the absolute center of his universe right then. Dad had a story about everyone, and I never met anyone who knew him who didn’t have five or ten about him.

There’s a quote by Mark Twain, something along the lines of “You should endeavor to live your life such that when you die, even the undertaker will be sorry.” The procession of cars at my dad’s funeral stretched out four miles and, yes, the usually stoic funeral director cried. I should be so lucky. “

-Brad Graham, May 2001

Via Neale’s interview with him. RIP Brad.

Dear PR people: How to Pitch Bloggers

In the wake of my previous post and Gina’s PR blacklist that sprang from it, it seems like a good chunk of the PR industry is blogging about the things they should and shouldn’t be doing, but I’m not seeing a lot of practical real-world solutions that would work for bloggers getting pitched. All the advice has come from the PR side of things so it’s all about how they train employees, how they do their work, and why their work is vital to bloggers (newsflash: it often isn’t).

So in the spirit of extending an olive branch to the PR industry, here are some very basic tips I haven’t seen anyone mention elsewhere:

1. Don’t ever send a press release to a blogger based on a purchased list
I keep hearing about this thing called the Bacon/Cision list and how all the bloggers complaining about getting spammed are on it (the idea of someone selling a list with my email on it is another matter). As many PR people have stated, connecting PR and bloggers should be a connection made via reading their blog and contacting them with a personal note at the very least. Adding 200 names to a bcc: list on an emailed press release because you got 200 blogger emails from some list is the absolutely wrong way to go about it. Don’t ever do this.

2. Go beyond the press release
The rare, few times I’ve felt like enduring all this PR hassle was worth it was when someone from a company contacted me with an invite to preview a product, try out a site, and/or obtain a review item. A press release is the thing I line the bird cage with, a review unit is something I can actually use for a week or two and get a full review story written ready to publish on the day your client launches the product. I can’t stress it enough that a press release sent to me is just plain noise and totally and completely useless. Or if you must, at least just send me a link to one in case I want to learn more about the news you are sharing instead of pasting 2,000 words in ALL CAPS into an email.

3. Introduce a feedback loop!
I’ve never been contacted by anyone in PR that bothered to follow-up with me at any point in our “relationship”. I just get a bunch of press releases emailed to me again and again, often by the same people. If you’ve hand-picked out some bloggers covering topics you have clients releasing news about, at least check with the bloggers after a month, or your second message, or some other regular interval. Ask them if the PR they’ve been receiving is helpful and if it should be tweaked, or even ended if it’s not useful.

4. Provide an unsubscribe link
This is totally bottom-of-the-barrel, least-you-can-do-to-appease-bloggers stuff here, but at the very least provide an instant, no-humans-required way for a blogger to remove themselves from contact they aren’t getting anything but frustration from. About 1/4 of the PR email I get is managed with some sort of list interface and provides this option, and I use the option when off-topic, all-caps press releases get blasted my way. I prefer a no-humans-required option because I’ve asked people at an agency to remove me and they said they had and sorry for the inconvenience, only to be emailed by the same person two weeks later.

5. Use metrics to help you do your PR job
If personally emailing a bunch of bloggers with personal messages sounds like a lot of work that doesn’t scale, try using metrics to help you figure out what works and doesn’t. Right now we have the annual “did my PR firm show up on a blacklist?” metric, but if you implement the suggestions above, keep tabs on what percentage of receivers clicked on a link to read a press release (are your press releases effectively written?), figure out what % click on an unsubscribe link (how effective are you targeting bloggers), figure out how often the bloggers you contact ever write about your clients (how effective your PR/blogger strategy is) and when they do was it because of a press release or did you give them something more (to figure out if newer non-traditional approaches are working better).

update: Just to be clear here, I’m not asking for bloggers to be treated differently than journalists in other media because we bloggers are a cranky lot that can harm your company with a snide blog post if you do things wrong — my point in treating bloggers differently is that bloggers can often publish perfectly informative, up-to-date blogs without PR, instead relying on RSS, other blogs, Google News, and link aggregators to find news about topics they are interested in.

I published multiple blogs for five years before I got my first unsolicited press release, and if PR people want to stay relevant, they need to acknowledge that bloggers work in an information-rich environment filled with millions of choices and as a PR person you really need to be adding some value to their approach instead of taking time away with off-topic press releases emailed to them.

Stop asking, start filtering

PR filters I know it’s a cliché as a blogger to complain about public relations flacks sending you giant PDFs and weekly emails on topics you don’t care about, but recently I noticed my tried and true polite email saying:

Please remove my email address from your PR lists.

Thanks,
Matt

totally stopped working. Turns out that a lot of these PR companies have a single database of random blogger emails they’ve snarfed up, but each employee seems to maintain their own personal list. When I ask Alice at example.com PR to remove me, I noticed a week later I got another PR blast from Bob at example.com PR. Then Steve at example.com PR hits me again a day later.

So for now, I’m moving to filters in Gmail. The entire PR agency domain goes into the From: and you set it to delete immediately. Instantly, no more PR spam from Alice, Bob, or Steve, forever, and I don’t have to ask to opt-out of something I never opted into.

And to people working in PR, some bloggers do seem to post the things you send, but in four years of daily PR email blasts that now number in the thousands, I recall one or two being something I was actually interested in. That’s about the same success ratio of general email spam over the past 10 years for me.

update: I was thinking of posting my own blacklist of annoying firms, but it looks like Gina from Lifehacker beat me to the punch.

And to PR folks reading this post, I left a comment describing my dream scenario for how PR people should interact with bloggers:

the perfect PR person would match me up with topics I write about and when they figure out a perfect product pitch I might be interested in, email me personally once to share it, and ask me for confirmation if I’d like to get future email from them. Unless I reply back with a “yes” don’t add me to a list or pitch me again — it’s a not a good match and is only going to build frustration on my end if you keep sending unsolicited pitches.

Another update: I’ve written some tips on How To Pitch PR to Bloggers