23 responses

  1. John
    September 2, 2009

    Devil’s Advocate:
    Have you considered that the FTC indictments may have come from Google pushing for them?

    Also, Edelman’s article shows how many advertisers get through the gates, but do you actually think that all those fraudulent advertisers are making good on their payments? If my time in e-commerce anti-fraud tells me anything, it’s that these folks are very unlikely to be good paying customers, so the positive revenue I suspect is not that great.

    Besides, Google’s product relies 100% on the integrity of results, thus whatever revenue ramifications would be very unlikely to be a sufficient draw to let a bunch of crap though for that $.50 click, no?

    Again, just playing the advocate here. I think these ads are horrendous and applaud the FTC (for once?) but I’m not sure Google is complicit in this fraud, per se.

  2. Jonah Stein
    September 2, 2009

    John

    It would be very easy for Google to block these ads if they weren’t making the company millions of dollars every year and I am absolutely positive that Google is collecting on them. They may have a small degree of chargebacks or credit card fraud, but if your revenue model depends on Google advertising, you make sure they get paid.

    Google certainly has been pushing the FTC to go after bloggers who accept compensation for links, but there is NO evidence they have even taken a public position against fraudulent offers. Witness diet products, job seeker scams and dozens of others such as adult friend finder. While some in Google, notably the web spam team, are fighting to keep the results “clean” and protect the integrity of the results, plenty of others are responsible for the bottom line for individual industries and keyword segments.

    Google could stop taking ads for these keywords today, much like Bing doesn’t accept ads for adult sites. The bottom line is that the ad networks are in a much better position to fight this issue than anyone else, which is why I co-authored the open letter to ad networks. The only other weapon we have is to use community defense/neighborhood watch model, why I am leading the charge for White Knight SEO and asking search marketers to get involved.

    I think of it as Google Bombing 2.0. As amusing as George Bush’s miserable failure was, ultimately the joke didn’t help anyone or keep them from being defrauded. Maybe this time we can actually make a difference.

  3. John
    September 3, 2009

    Jonah,
    Brief aside: Bing’s not one upping Google on standards: http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/bin/static.py?page=guidelines.cs&topic=16862&subtopic=9279

    I do however agree in that letting anyone advertise for certain things seems insane, but think of all the crap that gets sold everywhere, not just online, e.g. who is going to vet out the thousands of BS dieting sites versus “The South Beach Diet” which sounds just as ridiculous (until it sells millions of copies)? Usage often dictates legitimacy in some of these areas. Are Google or Bing/Yahoo going to become the arbiters (obviously not talking about GMoneyTree here)?

    Also, as for Google Money Tree, the worst part of it is that it’s not even all scammers. If you click on the links it’s all affiliates: it’s mostly comprised of the people who were scammed into advertising trying to get other people to advertise. It’s a huuuuge MLM scheme that pits innocent and not-so-innocent people into snaring others. The originators set the trap, but it’s your neighbor that’s actually taking you down. I guess it’s easier when you can’t see your victim to get paid for selling his/her info. Sigh.

    The dating sites and such are terrible too, but what’s worse is how many people are interested in the content and thus get scammed by it! Your concept is a good one: keep drug dealers off the streets. But it takes two to make a drug deal, and censorship isn’t going to stop that kind of activity on the demand side. Just look at the Craigslist personals. Two women get killed via that hookup in Boston and people are still using it in droves. Should Craigslist shut down that part of the site? I don’t know. It’s not a revenue generator, so what’s the story there?

    I applaud your effort, honestly. I’m just not 100% sure things are as clear cut as you may suggest. Google definitely has a responsibility to take greater control of their content, and I think they do a good job especially avoiding gambling and pharmaceutical stuff (which would be worth BILLIONS, right?), but affiliate sites can be harder to get a grasp on. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing better, but I don’t think it’s purely a bottom line issue.

    But who’s to say? Maybe being in Tech in the Bay involves drinking the Kool-Aid…

  4. Jonah Stein
    September 3, 2009

    John

    Stayed tuned… The effort isn’t over and we have a lot more targets, but the fact is that Google profits from allowing a number of very, very slimy advertisers while lobbying the FCC about bloggers getting compensation. At the end of the day, the only solution is to keep pressure on the ad networks to AT MINIMUM provide tools for us to rate advertisers while we pressure regulators and law makers to make ad networks legally culpable.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think I am drinking any Kool-Aid..

    Jonah

  5. Paul Schlegel
    September 3, 2009

    As Aaron Wall said the pressure also needs to be on the affiliate networks, which unfortunately would be difficult for the FTC to go after, because it could affect too many legitimate businesses running offers through the networks.

    Now of course the Florida AG went after Azoogle back in 2007, but that was a case where the Affiliate Network was CREATING their own offers (as I understand it anyhow), so it was a bit more clearcut.

    Hopefully everyone is posting links to the following places when they are posting their stories:

    http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov (Paul, I changed this from the .com, which seems to be an affiliate site of some sort, not a government site.
    http://www.ic3.gov
    http://www.naag.org/attorneys_general.php (You should file with the AGs office of the state you are in AND the state that the company is operating out of).
    http://www.bbb.org (the Federal and State government agencies will NOT put out warnings, because doing so could possibly jeapordize their case before they have time to collect evidence). The BBB on the other hand will issue warnings AND the FTC goes through their documentation in case they need extrinsic evidence to make a judgement on matters of deception.

    You might also post that you can help people find the IP address of the companies site as sometimes they complaint forms will request that. Of course the sites often keep switching IPs as the complaints are filed against the host, but it’s an easy matter to keep your blog post updated on the IP/hosting changes.

    Ideally people will file complaints with the hosts AND the affiliate networks running the offers as well – another factor that the White Knight SEOs can help out with.

    In fact if the White-Knight SEOs do NOT post the complaint information they are potentially actually making it MORE difficult for people to find the proper channels to file complaints against the companies and deliver the extrinsic evidence that is sometimes need to prepare a motion for injunction against the companies operating the scams.

    Some people wonder why the AGs took so long to act. One strange fact is that the AG initially sends a letter to the company to try to investigate the complaints and in at least ONE recent incident (the Penbrook Productions incident) I have a letter that someone sent me saying the AG told them they couldn’t pursue the matter because they couldn’t get in touch with the company.

    I’m suspecting and HOPING that is not common practice, but clear as day I have the letter from the AGs office sitting right in my possession!

  6. Jonah Stein
    September 3, 2009

    Paul

    I hope you noticed that the Open Letter to Ad Networks Jonathan and I wrote last month was published on Aaron Wall’s SEOBook.com. I am continually inspired by Aaron’s insight and I consider him one of the leading voices in trying to put the responsibility on the people who profit the most from spreading blight online. I would be very happy to include you in the ranks of crusaders based on the work you describe.

  7. Paul Schlegel
    September 3, 2009

    Thank you for adding the Complaint information!

    Please encourage anyone else participating in your crusade to do so as well.

    That complaint information is specifically useful for hidden negative option offers and business opportunity scams and is specifically for U.S. citizens.

    If they are victims of investment scams I would encourage them to visit http://www.eagleresearchassociates.org and call or email for help if they can’t find what they need on the site.

    Do you have someone in the loop that knows WHICH agencies to file with depending on the TYPE of scam site you are getting ranked for?
    I’ve relied on Lyndell extensively for that information, so if you do need that information just let me know – you can use the email I posted with.

  8. Jonah Stein
    September 3, 2009

    By the way, I saw some of the posts on your blog and I applaud the work you have been doing. If it seems like we are 10 months too late, I can only say we have been fighting other battles but I was not inspired to use this particular tactic until about a month ago and it took a while to get people to develop articles.

    “Google Cash” was an easy decision because it is an example which is not only egregious, it is easy for the public to understand that this is a scam and easier still for Google to act on it.

    Now that this campaign is under way, we are open to discussion about the next target term.

  9. Paul Schlegel
    September 3, 2009

    Thanks Jonah,

    One tip is that it’s pretty EASY to determine which sites that are scheduled to run through an affiliate network people are going to complain about by looking at offers that are scheduled to run through the networks. Odigger and OfferVault are a couple sites that are useful for that.

    I’m not an SEO expert by any means like you are, but it certainly seems that if you rank well for a term and you get a lot of blog activity (discussion) about the subject that it’s difficult for others to usurp your position. Again, I don’t know if there’s any REAL SEO basis for that. It’s just something I’ve noticed, although I haven’t validated that through any kind of rigorous testing.

    ComplaintsBoard has been a pretty accurate indicator of what complaint trends are picking up within 2 to 3 weeks of a product being sent to market.

    What tends to happen is once enough complaints are filed against a product, the company will relaunch it under a new name. CopyScape typically will find those easily or doing a basic search like:

    inurl:terms (some unique phrase in the terms and condition/privacy policy).

    http://www.tineye.com is getting MUCH better at finding stock photos of fake testimonials (not helpful for the flogs where photos were stolen).

    One last thing. Ideally the White-Knight SEO-ers should go through the order process of each site (up to the point where they put in the credit card) and SAVE every page.

    In the case I helped the FTC with directly I just BARELY was able to save a fake testimonial photo I had found through Tineye that the FTC wanted and that the scammers had taken down before the FTC was able to save it and it wasn’t available via Cache on any Google, any other search engine, or through Archive.org.

    I know it seems like I’m bringing up a lot, but these things CAN be critical.

  10. Paul Schlegel
    September 3, 2009

    This is a bit off-topic here, but one thing that keeps popping into my head is Aaron Wall’s recommendation of the ORIGINAL Google Cash back in 2004:

    http://www.seobook.com/archives/000147.shtml

  11. Jonah Stein
    September 3, 2009

    I can’t speak to how Aaron feels about his 2004 review, but it seemed like he said he learned $50 worth of information and appreciated the technique for presenting to a non-SEO, non-technical audience.

    I think it is fair to say making money as a PPC affiliate has changed in the last 5 years, but I do not object to a $50 ebook. People may or may not get the value from spending that money, but that doesn’t make it a scam.

    Meanwhile, I want to emphasize that the idea behind White Knight SEO is not to police the affiliate space. Our goal is to promote consumer awareness material to the top of organic results and to pressure engines, publishers and add networks to take responsibility for the content of advertising. Essentially, it is the latest facet of our Virtual Blight campaign.

    While we welcome FTC and AG involvement, we believe that we can get quality content to the top of the search results faster that we can get government action. It is in this spirit that we invite suggestions, involvement and participation. You have a lot of experience and some excellent suggestions for people who have been victimized as well as for people who want to help prosecute scammers. I recommend you compile this content and we will help promote it from (when I get a chance to work on it) WhiteKnightSEO.org.

  12. Paul Schlegel
    September 4, 2009

    My main concern is that the White-Knight SEO not make it HARDER for consumers and law-enforcement to do their job. For example sometimes there are difficult judgments to be made about what information should be put out and which should be withheld so as not to “tip off” a potential suspect.

    If you are planning to push your results to the top of the engines I would hope that anyone doing so will to help people directly ON your site. One advantage of doing so is that often representatives or even owners of the companies will come post during the discussions which can often be useful for gathering information for law enforcement.

    If you send them off to another site then suddenly the potential “conversation” is disrupted and the chance for securing important information is lost.

    I also take by your comments that you’ve already tried to work directly with law enforcement with no luck?

  13. Jonah Stein
    September 4, 2009

    Paul

    I have not tried to work with law enforcement on these matters with the exception of trying to get the FBI to pursue a spammer who hijacked my mail server in 1997. That is outside our mission and not within my expertise.

    I also think that including links to resources for victims within the articles is far more effective than putting it in the discussion/comments on the post, since few people engage in them.

    Beyond that, you are assuming I exercise some control over others who are contributing articles. I am an evangelist, but no one works for me and this “group” doesn’t have any rules. I am trying to start a movement and some of my friends agreed to contribute THEIR perspective and knowledge.

    Build out the resources you think victims need using your knowledge, best practices and discretion and some of the White Knights will publish them.

  14. Paul Schlegel
    September 4, 2009

    Well, you’ll be happy to know that the case I worked directly with the FTC with involved one of the top 100 spammers in the world according to the SpamHaus ROSKO database.

    I think putting pressure on the affiliate networks by whatever means necessary as you’ve started to do is probably the most important aspect of what you’re doing and something it seems so far that law enforcement isn’t willing to get involved in.

  15. Paul Schlegel
    September 4, 2009

    Ah, just read your letter and realize you are pressuring the “Ad” networks not the affiliate networks.

    I’ll have to think about that, but my thinking has always been that putting pressure on the AFFILIATE networks is a critical piece, too, as they are a huge means of distribution for the scam merchants.

  16. aaron wall
    September 5, 2009

    Goes off to do a proper 301 redirect of that old page :D

    Back in the day it wasn’t too hard to scrape together a bit of profits with AdWords ads here and there, but being a PPC affiliate has got much harder over the last half decade.

  17. Jonah Stein
    September 5, 2009

    Aaron, I guess with a few thousand posts over the last 5 years, you are allowed to have second thoughts about a few of them….

  18. Paul Schlegel
    September 5, 2009

    LOL.

    Too funny.

  19. Paul Schlegel
    September 5, 2009

    Oh by the way.

    I’m not really a huge fan of the BBB either in most cases, but for the purposes of collecting evidence and putting out warnings when other agencies can’t they can be useful.

    Let’s just say that aside from that I find them to be a bit of a “racket” and to tend to make judgement calls in industries they don’t have expertise in.

  20. Richard Coar
    December 27, 2009

    The googlmlm are scam ? last nov 21, 2009 I was join pay for $ 100.00 to my ID. rjcoar under by ID. worcottjr. I do not know why the google remove my id. rjcoar. the google steal my money and scam. I have e-mail to google many time and never reply me. proof what I did pay
    ========= ORDER INFORMATION =========Invoice Number : 13lwczwjd1a0tybj2zsrDescription :Total : US $100.00Tax : US $0.00Shipping : US $0.00Payment Method : Visa Item : 558054Description : Google CS Digital ProductQuantity : 1Unit Price : US $100.00
    ===============================================
    Want to know where google from ? is fla ? have phone ?
    I wonder the google are scam ? let me know,
    richardcoar59@hotmail.com

  21. AJAY SAHNI
    January 6, 2010

    I am another victim of these advertisings.

  22. AJAY SAHNI
    January 6, 2010

    I list $40 for subscribing “Google Cash Cow”.

    • Jonah Stein
      January 6, 2010

      Make sure you cancel the credit card you used for your subscription. This scam will try to bill you again and again.

      Jonah

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