Bloggers beware: Bad ads can come back to bite you

Last week I wrote about Linkstar, a UK-based company that offers to place text ads for its clients on small, low-traffic Web sites. (See "The curious case of Linkstar Media.") Though Linkstar is extremely close-lipped about who it is and what it does, I couldn't see anything wrong with the ads they were placing (unless you object to running ads for online gambling sites).

Is there anything wrong with running a text ad on your blog and pocketing a few sawbucks for your troubles? Not a thing. But be careful whom you do business with. You could find yourself lumped in with all the text link spammers on Google's blacklist.

And then? There goes your traffic. Goodbye career as a Web 2.0 entrepreneur; hello day job at Wal-Mart.

In my research on Linkstar, I ran across text ad companies that operate in a similar manner, but whose ads are definitely not on the up and up.

Blog Bites Man author Jon Silvers details one such encounter with "Martin Hardy" from an unnamed advertising company, who was willing to pay him $100 to place permanent text ads on five subpages of his blog. "Martin" even sent him a sample of one ad, which can still be found at a site called Easy Diet Review.

It's a quasi-nonsensical slab of text with a half-dozen links embedded (I've removed the links but indicated where they are by underlining them):

Several civic welfare organizations back the cpr first aid training to the citizens. They believe that with proper first aid training, citizens are better able to take care of their health which will minimize the drug usage. On the other hand it will encourage the use of prescription drugs and threats caused by self-diagnosing of drugs will be minimized. It also provides awareness of different forms of vitamins like vitamin a, B and C and their specific benefits.

Those links lead to the following sites:

These are ad farms masquerading as legitimate sites. Except for the generic content and images found on each one, they're otherwise identical in format and intent. They serve no purpose but to induce people to click on ads -- something that clearly violates Google's Adsense Terms of Service.

The domains are registered to various people in Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, and the US, though the odds of any of that information being legit are rather slim. Using the search engine at DomainTools, I found at least 1600 other domains associated with the owners of these six sites -- and that's probably just the tip of the spamberg.

I'm no SEO maven, but I'm guessing that getting hundreds or even thousands of small blogs to backlink to these sites would boost their Google juice, increasing their traffic and in turn producing enough ad revenue to more than offset the cost of the text ads they wanted to place.

It's not as insidious as hijacking your browser's home page or installing adware to drive you to link farms, but the net effect is similar. Why go to all this trouble? Because this scam is much harder to detect. As Silvers writes:

It's going to be incredibly tough for search engine algorithms to filter out these spam links. The paragraphs are written in perfect English and the text links go to various different websites. While the example above is incongruous with the rest of the site's content, in another example, the spam paragraph actually relates perfectly to the rest of the page -- i.e., it's contextual and much more likely that someone will click on the links, giving greater validity to the ads as far as the search engines are concerned.

I got in touch with one publisher who briefly ran ads from this company in 2007, but asked that his name and site be left out of this post. He now says he "will never offer this ad type again as there is a real danger in getting thrown out of Google's index, which can damage other revenue streams seriously."

These types of offers started popping up well over a year ago. By now, "Martin Hardy" is long gone, as are Mary Chorney, Heising Robert, Christian Michael, Andrew Artz, David Kruse, and the other names used to make this offer.

But spammy text-link ad deals haven't gone away. And bloggers hungry to see some kind of return on their hard work will be tempted to take them up on it.

My advice? Don't do it. This is about more than getting on Google's bad side. It's about protecting your brand, which as we move fully into a Web-based economy will quickly become your most valuable -- and most vulnerable -- asset.

More important than that: It's about not letting the bad guys win. Personally, I think that's worth far more than $100.

When not spending ridiculous amounts of time chasing down spammy advertisers, Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon