AuctionBytes has had a series of stories looking into how an eBay affiliate was driving traffic to eBay from Google through cloaked content. The tactic is nothing new when it comes to search engine optimization. However, it is notable how quickly Google responded to the public outcry over this, while similar situations that are known or reported continue.
The first part of the article explains how AuctionBytes found about half a million pages from one site using eBay's content to gain high placements on Google, then cloaked this content so users were sent right to the eBay web site. As an eBay affiliate, the company involved earned money off this redirection.
It's not true that eBay's own content did not show up in Google's unpaid results. For example, "used electronics" at Google brings up the eBay home page. Or "holiday barbie ebay" brings up actual listings from eBay on that topic. Google is no doubt finding some of eBay's own content, though how well that content ranks for key terms is an entirely other issue.
The affiliate involved, Ryle Goodrich, rolled out a standard argument employed by those who use doorway pages:
"[My sites” are just designed to give search engine visibility to eBay auctions, something these auctions still don't have much of," Goodrich told AuctionBytes.
In other words, the actions are simply helping the search engines find content they might otherwise miss. Ironically, it's the same argument that I often hear search engines offering paid inclusion now making.
It emerged in the second story that rather than being a some type of rogue eBay affiliate, Goodrich was approved by eBay to use its content. The third story suggests further that this has all been part of a pilot program by eBay to generate more traffic from organic listings.
Affiliates & Search Engine Listings
Depending on your affiliates to generate traffic is nothing new. That's the entire point of having affiliates. Indeed, Amazon's had affiliates duplicating its content and getting listed in search engines for years. But the twist to the eBay story is that this comes only two months after eBay leaned on Google to stop allowing advertisers to bid on terms that involve its name.
eBay has used Google's own policies on advertising to its advantage, so one might expect Google to react to eBay's apparent attack on its editorial results by perhaps going straight to the source and pulling eBay's own site out of its non-paid listings. That's something it has done to my understanding to other sites that have been too aggressive with affiliates.
Of course, this hasn't happened. Instead, Google moved quickly to remove just the affiliate pages in question. That drew plenty of praise from those following the story in the forum area of AuctionBytes. However, some fair criticism of Google got aimed from more sophisticated SEO quarters.
In particular, Greg Boser at WebmasterWorld pointed out that plenty of content just like Goodrich's exists in Google and will remain there because of a lack of public outcry.
Around the same time, Jill Whalen recounted horror stories from readers about spam sites dominating Google's results. Just like me, she gets these type of reports from readers all the time. But in taking a closer look, she felt like Google was letting things slide. In particular, she was surprised to find that a search for "email marketing consultant" seemed to be still full of pages using apparently deceptive techniques, despite having complained publicly about this in April.
Different Listings; Same Product
Meanwhile, one of my readers Adam Brower complained to Google back in late September that a search for ultrasonic jewelry cleaner brought back top listings for the same product from two sites owned by The Sharper Image: SharperImage.com and SharperImageBest.com. Two other sites in the top listings were affiliates hawking the same product from Sharper Image and directed visitors to the SharperImage.com web site.
Brower's upset was that his client, which apparently sells a competing product, seems to be locked out of any chance of showing up due to the dominance of Sharper Image. As you can imagine, such an argument doesn't engender much sympathy. Yet, there's no denying that having the top listings all leading back to the same merchant isn't a good user experience. Nevertheless, Google didn't find this to be a problem.
"We found that two of the sites are owned by the Sharper Image and the rest are owned by affiliates. This did not meet our criteria for human intervention in the search results. We try to keep a 'hands off' approach to our results and prefer to modify our algorithms to detect these kinds of situations in the first place," Google's support staff told Brower.
Going back to the recent eBay situation, GoogleGuy, a Google employee who monitors WebmasterWorld discussions, suggested in the aforementioned WebmasterWorld thread that some new automated system was used to wipe out the eBay spam. Perhaps. But while the eBay situation was corrected within days, the Shaper Image situation -- and the email marketing consultant one Jill mentioned -- continue.
Brower continued to follow up with Google about the situation. In October, he was again told that Google would take no action:
"Thanks for contacting us about this. Our engineers investigated the situation and found that most of the listings in the results in your report are being run by affiliates that collect referral fees. Google currently does not take action in this type of situation, as these sites do not meet our criteria for 'spam'," he was told.
Yet Google's own quality guidelines state:
"Avoid 'doorway' pages created just for search engines, or other 'cookie cutter' approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content."
Reviewing the two affiliate sites, neither has more information about the ultrasonic jewelry cleaner product they pitch than on the ShaperImage.com site itself. Indeed, they use portions of the exact copy you'll find on the Sharper Image site. The same is true for the SharperImageBest.com page that appears.
In short, Goodrich's only fault seems to be that he cloaked his content on Google, always a hot button for the service. Had he not, Goodrich might have escaped just as the Sharper Image affiliates are.
The situation on Google isn't a good user experience, but in fairness, other search engines also have troubles. For example, an Inktomi-powered search for ultrasonic jewelry cleaner reveals similar problems. The first two listings redirect from other sites to Shaper Image. At Teoma, Sharper Image picks up two identical listings similar to Google.