Feb 26, 2013

Back in the day I had a thriving business selling email client software for Windows. I was very proud of the product, but even more proud of the community we built over the years. We had hundreds of active users on our forum, many with over thousand posts, helping and discussing email.

Then the web spam started. Our forum was inundated with non-sensical posts linking various high-priced keywords to sites that paid unscrupulous SEO agencies to help them rank higher. Since Google valued inbound links and their anchor text as proof of quality many reasoned that posting as many links pointing back to their client can only be a good thing.

Sure, it all started innocuous enough, with random semi-relevant posts being made on various blogs and forums that also included the intended payload: the link back to the client's site. Sadly, it only took a few months for this process to accelerate to absurd levels. Soon we had dozens of new accounts being created daily, whose sole purpose was to post garbage on our most frequented forum pages.

So we added CAPTCHA to help us defend from this onslaught. Spammers quickly figured out how to beat that. We wrote an in-house skill-testing question to make sure spammers can't automate attacks on our particular forum. That didn't help either: spammers simply circumvented our efforts through vulnerabilities in the forum software and crammed their spam through. After years of facing the losing battle, including a migration to a completely different forum platform, the forum was abandoned, since our losing battle against spam meant that our community was shut out (at the peak, our busiest forum section would have nothing but spam on the full first page).

Years later, Google recognized this problem and started penalizing sites that practice link buying. Great, right?

Not if you're the victim of the original spam-wave.

Many of the penalized sites did not see this coming. They fired their shady SEO agency and hired a white-hat SEO to help. And this is where the pain starts again.

I've started receiving dozens and dozens of email requests asking for the old links to be taken down from our now moribund forum. Note that I had to completely disable new signups to the forum and keep it online just for the wealth of information it contained.

My user page, which was singled out by these emails as "spammy", lists over 14,000 forum accounts. Keep in mind our forum peaked at about 1,500 members which leaves over 12,000 fake spam accounts they want me to remove. To get a sense of the scale, visit our members list then hit Next page a few (hundred) times.

Part of me wants to reply and ask for payment for removal, as reparation for all the damage they've done but instead I just archive these emails and try to not get angry.

That is until I read a post from the other side today, an SEO trying to help clients clean up their site profiles:

There will certainly be webmasters out there who will strip you down to the bone asking for money in exchange of link removals. These are the most soulless snake oil salesmen on earth. We’ve documented and submitted their replies to Google too.

[...]

See below a snake oil salesman haggling for bucks!

[...]

Pro Tip: Never give in to webmasters asking for money in order to remove your links. Your reply saying a simple “No” is already fair enough to tell the Google Webspam QA Team that you are serious with what you are doing in helping them “cleaning the web”.

So now I'm the snake oil salesman? And they're cleaning the web?

And Google - you have just turned a problem with web spam into a personal email spam of the worst kind. I'm getting so many requests for link removal from people who seem entitled to it. They feel I personally sullied their brand and can't understand why I'm not responding to my email.

And I don't want to make it all about Gary's post: it sounds like he's trying to fix the problem in an ethical way, but it lacks the perspective of those of us on the other side of this. Those who suffered through the maelstrom of crap, spam and hacks directed at our sites and our communities that took years to build.

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Feb 26, 2013

Back in the day I had a thriving business selling email client software for Windows. I was very proud of the product, but even more proud of the community we built over the years. We had hundreds of active users on our forum, many with over thousand posts, helping and discussing email.

Then the web spam started. Our forum was inundated with non-sensical posts linking various high-priced keywords to sites that paid unscrupulous SEO agencies to help them rank higher. Since Google valued inbound links and their anchor text as proof of quality many reasoned that posting as many links pointing back to their client can only be a good thing.

Sure, it all started innocuous enough, with random semi-relevant posts being made on various blogs and forums that also included the intended payload: the link back to the client's site. Sadly, it only took a few months for this process to accelerate to absurd levels. Soon we had dozens of new accounts being created daily, whose sole purpose was to post garbage on our most frequented forum pages.

So we added CAPTCHA to help us defend from this onslaught. Spammers quickly figured out how to beat that. We wrote an in-house skill-testing question to make sure spammers can't automate attacks on our particular forum. That didn't help either: spammers simply circumvented our efforts through vulnerabilities in the forum software and crammed their spam through. After years of facing the losing battle, including a migration to a completely different forum platform, the forum was abandoned, since our losing battle against spam meant that our community was shut out (at the peak, our busiest forum section would have nothing but spam on the full first page).

Years later, Google recognized this problem and started penalizing sites that practice link buying. Great, right?

Not if you're the victim of the original spam-wave.

Many of the penalized sites did not see this coming. They fired their shady SEO agency and hired a white-hat SEO to help. And this is where the pain starts again.

I've started receiving dozens and dozens of email requests asking for the old links to be taken down from our now moribund forum. Note that I had to completely disable new signups to the forum and keep it online just for the wealth of information it contained.

My user page, which was singled out by these emails as "spammy", lists over 14,000 forum accounts. Keep in mind our forum peaked at about 1,500 members which leaves over 12,000 fake spam accounts they want me to remove. To get a sense of the scale, visit our members list then hit Next page a few (hundred) times.

Part of me wants to reply and ask for payment for removal, as reparation for all the damage they've done but instead I just archive these emails and try to not get angry.

That is until I read a post from the other side today, an SEO trying to help clients clean up their site profiles:

There will certainly be webmasters out there who will strip you down to the bone asking for money in exchange of link removals. These are the most soulless snake oil salesmen on earth. We’ve documented and submitted their replies to Google too.

[...]

See below a snake oil salesman haggling for bucks!

[...]

Pro Tip: Never give in to webmasters asking for money in order to remove your links. Your reply saying a simple “No” is already fair enough to tell the Google Webspam QA Team that you are serious with what you are doing in helping them “cleaning the web”.

So now I'm the snake oil salesman? And they're cleaning the web?

And Google - you have just turned a problem with web spam into a personal email spam of the worst kind. I'm getting so many requests for link removal from people who seem entitled to it. They feel I personally sullied their brand and can't understand why I'm not responding to my email.

And I don't want to make it all about Gary's post: it sounds like he's trying to fix the problem in an ethical way, but it lacks the perspective of those of us on the other side of this. Those who suffered through the maelstrom of crap, spam and hacks directed at our sites and our communities that took years to build.

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