What started out as an innocuous piece of spam in my inbox has lead me to multiple sources of evidence that O2, a major UK telecom provider owned by publicly traded Telefonica (and sponsor of the England Rugby team and Arsenal football club) is benefiting from a pay for links scam. I’ve found 6 suspicious backlinks to O2 that exactly match the pattern of an illict “advertising” offer sent to the Splitwise blog.
The most likely explanation (if the JCPenny / SearchDex scandal is any guide) is that a search engine consultant or marketing company hired by O2 has created a scam on O2’s behalf to increase their search rankings.
“We are unaware of this activity and, as a result of your findings, we are now conducting a full internal investigation,” said John Malley, reputation manager for O2 UK, via email on Tuesday morning EST.
The Big Deal
What’s so bad about buying links, and how is this different from paying for ads? It’s about fairness. Paying for regular, “organic” links (as opposed a paid advertisement, which is marked with a special flag to the search engines) is like trying to bribe your way to the top of a search engine by paying off its member websites. While not technically illegal, it is a form of reputation fraud and is subject to severe punishment by Google and Bing. It’s unethical because it weakens the ability to distinguish good content from trash on the internet. This makes it harder to find awesome, useful stuff and makes it harder to have your awesome, useful stuff discovered. No one wants to go back to the pre-Google days.
This isn’t the first time a publicly traded company has benefited from the buying and selling of links. In Feb 2011, the New York Times broke the JCPenny link-buying scandal and Google took “manual action,” harming their search position and their business massively. Other recent iterations of this scandal include a similar issue at Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corp, and a link-selling scandal at Forbes.com (where, in full disclosure, I am sometimes an unpaid contributor). Google has even punished itself for accidentally violating this clause in promoting Chrome. But Telefonica / O2 would be one of the largest companies benefiting from paid links so far – Telefonica would be #30 on the Fortune 500 (if they were an American company) and is roughly the 83rd largest company in the world by revenue as of 2011 (JCPenny and Google aren’t even in the top 200 by revenue.
One June 19th, I received the following spammy looking email.
I work for More Digital; a UK based Digital Marketing Consultancy.
We represent clients interested in social media marketing on smaller sites with little or no existing advertising and we’re currently looking for advertising partners.
We pay a fixed upfront annual fee which we will agree on with you. Once the ad is in place, payment is made within approximately 48 hours.
Would you be interested in placing a small text-based ad on Splitwise.com?
It looked so spammy that I completely ignored it. After ignoring the first email, I received a follow-up email a week later; highly unusual for ordinary spam.
We recently contacted you regarding advertising for one of our clients.
We pay an annual fee to you as soon as the advert is live. It is a straightforward process and we work with you to make sure we fit naturally with your site. Please let me know if you are interested and I’ll send you more details.
Would you be interested in selling us a simple text based advertisement on your website Splitwise.com?
I usually entertain most business-development inquiries at least a little, but I personally hate email, so I requested a call. This was politely declined two days after the second email.
Unfortunately, we are not able to discuss advertising for our clients over the phone. Email correspondence helps me keep track of what we have agreed and hopefully explain what we do more concisely. Is there anything in particular I could help you with?
For other services, our London number is +44 (X)XXX XXXX XXXX, and further details are at www.moredigital.com.
If you need anything else at all or if you want me to further discuss our proposal, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email.
This set off a red flag for me, and I (ironically? appropriately?) googled around to check if MoreDigital was legitimate. Many pieces of testimony made this clear this was a pay for link marketing scheme – sometimes, they pay, and sometimes, they don’t, but either way they are trying to solicit text links without the special “no-follow” code to indicate an advertisement.
With the JCPenny scandal fresh in my mind, I wanted to see if this was for some shady irrelevant company or for a legitimate company involved with shady people. I played along, and got this response.
Thanks for your email!
Here’s my proposal:
*Option 1) New Page On Your Site
Our team of content writers will create an entirely new page that will be tailored to fit with the current content of the site. We will make sure that you agree with how the new page has been put together before asking you to place it live on your site. We would offer you 130 USD for a one year placement.
*Option 2)New Page With the Content of your Choice
You will be free to create a new page or blog post and write the content how you wish. We will provide you with the URL to our clients website that we would like you to link to, you can link to our clients site in any manner you see fit. We would offer you 150 USD for a one year placement.
We represent Non-gaming Clients such as: Health, Finance, Telecommunications, Travel and Tourism, Hair and Beauty, Jeweller, Insurance etc. and Online Gaming Clients (casino, poker or bingo sites).
We pay the full annual fee via secure payment partners Paypal or Moneybookers within 48 hours of the advert going live on your site.
To give you an idea of what the advert looks like, please view our example at the following link: www.discoverdisney.co.uk/family-diary where the anchor is ‘Virgin Atlantic’.
Our Terms and Conditions can be found at: www.moredigital.com/terms.pdf
Please let me know if you’re interested so I can submit your site for a quick assessment. I will get back to you with further details about the advert and our client once we get their approval.
If you manage or own other sites, I’ll be glad to check them out as well.
I look forward to your response. Thanks in advance!
I selected, er, “Option 2,” hoping to get evidence as to who the client was and to see the quality of the pages they were creating. Then, no response for a long time. Here’s what I got on July 27th:
I apologise for the delay of my response.
I have sent your site to our technical team for further assessment, and I am glad to let you know that your site has been approved!
We now have all the details you need to include the new page on your site. Please let me know if this suits you:
Our client: O2
Our price: 130 USD
Agreed designation page: New page on http://splitwise.com/
How to insert the new page advert into your site:
If you are using WordPress or a similar CMS system then navigate to your admin area and create a new blog post or page, then simply copy and paste the following content into the page.
How to divide up chores fairly
When you live in a flat with other people, there are many considerations that you have to make in order to ensure everyone is happy. The running of the flat is up to all of you and the logical thing to do is to share this responsibility equally. However, this does not always happen in many flats, as people can forget about chores and not be comfortable enough to communicate any related issues. This is where a simple change and a little effort, can make a big difference.
If one person is not pulling their weight, or you don’t see them enough to talk about the living situation, then there is something you can do. Get in touch with all of your flatmates, via your [O2] mobile phone or e-mail, and organise a meeting. This is a great opportunity to calmly talk things through and decide on a way to solve any problems. This is a good time to suggest that you make a cleaning rota or schedule, so that everyone will know what they have to do each week to keep the flat in order. This is a good way to make sure everyone pulls their weight, without having to confront anyone in particular and risk making things awkward.
You can choose a specific day each week when you will all clean. However, if you think you all need more structure than that, to make sure everyone does their equal share, you can divide up the chores in a different way. Each week, each flatmate will have a different responsibility, such as cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the living room or tidying up the kitchen. That way everyone does everything at some point and as long as you stick to it, everyone should be happy.
You will have to create the anchor text for our advert, you can do this by following the instructions below.
Note: the html code for the text ‘O2’ is <a href=”http://www.o2.co.uk/samsung/galaxy-s2″>O2</a>
Find the following text in the copy and then link it to the destination URL.
Anchor text: O2
Anchor text destination URL: http://www.o2.co.uk/samsung/galaxy-s2
Finally you will need to publish the new page live on your system and ensure that it is correctly linked from the homepage of your site.
Once the advert is inserted and active, please email me confirmation. You should also include your PayPal or Moneybookers address so that I can arrange payment to you.
Are these instructions clear? Please let me know if you need any clarifications! Otherwise, I look forward to hearing back from you when the page has been placed.
You can judge for yourself, but this in light of the Google results made it pretty clear that “MoreDigital” wanted me to create a suspicious link (without an advertising “nofollow” code for the search engines) in a fake blog post in exchange for cash (which, clearly, I didn’t do). The interesting part was that it was for O2.co.uk, a legitimate client. Also, the choice of anchor text and deep link weren’t especially artful and actually quite obviously out of place. An “O2” anchor with a deep link to a specific phone’s page? Come on.
A little bit of extra hunting on SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer confirmed that at least six other blogs (no-follow’s included here, screenshots below in case they are removed or add a no-follow) have suspicious links with the same pattern: “O2,” with a deep link to the exact same Galaxy S2 page. Either they have been paid to place this link without no-follow, or expected to be paid.
While MoreDigital is a known marketing fraudster (and is currently blacklisted by Google), without the existence of others who are part of the scam, I wouldn’t have been able to prove that any harm has actually occurred. The fact that these sites have all awkardly deep-linked to O2 in bizarre form in these articles along the same lines as the solicitation sent to Splitwise is damning evidence in my view that these links were paid for as part of the same scam I was targeted for. And O2 is the beneficiary.
It should be said that it is possible that O2 did not pay for these links, and this was part of some bizarre SEO science experiment or attempt to discredit O2. But these feel like conspiracy theories to me, relative to a) the clear motive of delivering rankings for an SEO client, b) the large number of people targeted, and c) the unpredictability of the double game required to falsely manufacture a controversy.
I contacted O2’s press office on Friday, and again on Monday, and received the quote at the start of this post on Tuesday.
I should say, in the interests of fairness, that it feel it’s a little ironic or meta reporting this, since one of the main reason Splitwise maintains an active blog in the first place is to get quality back links. But of course, we do it by creating actual fresh content and not bribing or scamming people.
Corrections: I corrected “Forbes 500” to “Fortune 500” and blanked out the contact details for Irene on the morning of August 2nd.