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Old 03-05-2005   #1
PhilC
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Obnoxious cloaking scam

Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to find intrinsic fault with cloaking, but I've come across a particularly obnoxious practice of it, and I'm basically looking for advice.

The scam is perpetrated by a hosting company on its hosting clients. When a search engine spider, such as Googlebot, requests a client's page, the host adds a bunch of links to the page that is returned. The client has no idea that it happens. The links are mostly to the host site's pages, and are added for the link text benefit.

Also, new pages are added to the clients' sites, including a new sub-directory. Links to the new stuff are added to normal pages. The links point to new URLs within the client's site. The returned pages from those URLs simply contain links, with targeted link text, to the host's pages and sites. The new URLs are not static and don't exist in the client's site, so the client can't see them with FTP. Requests for the URLs are simply intercepted and the links page is returned to search engines, while people get a 302 to the site's home page.

It's a small operation, but a particularly obnoxious thing for a host to do, because it forces cloaking on client sites, and risks them being penalized - and the clients are paying for the privilege!

The problem I have is that, if I inform Google and the other engines about it, they may penalize the server(s), and the innocent sites would be dropped, as happened with searchking and Traffic Power. If I keep quiet about it, the scam will continue, and the innocent sites will remain at risk. If the engines would penalize the host's sites, so that the links were ineffective, I wouldn't have the problem. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Last edited by PhilC : 03-05-2005 at 11:11 AM.
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Old 03-05-2005   #2
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That is a tough one Phil

It does sound like a particularly nasty little trick.

I had one site survive the SearchKing fiasco, so I am speaking from personal experience here.

If it were me, my gut reaction would be to let this become public knowledge (maybe not tell google directly, just let it come out in the forumsm if the admins allow it) and as you know I am not an advocate of snitching on anyone because of their methods. But I think that if you let it become public it will give the site owners the chance to get a new host before the crap hits the fan.

I think the customers of this “hosting” company NEED to know what is going on for their own good.

Google may well be forced to penalize them all, but if it goes public like searchking or TP the chances that any of the “innocent” webmasters being hurt in the long run is reduced by quite a bit.

Anyway my 2cents worth
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Old 03-05-2005   #3
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To be honest, that's half the reason why I posted here - I think that Googleguy frequents these parts. But I am genuinely seeking advice. I'd hate to see the thing continue, but I'd hate to do something that caused the innocent sites to be penalized.

Ideally, I'd like the engines to say, "Give us the info and we promise to only hit the host's sites"
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Old 03-05-2005   #4
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Lets not use this forum to report spam, and thanks for not posting the specifics. If you feel strongly enough about it, maybe you could email the offending host and threaten to expose them to their cients if they don't desist.
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Old 03-05-2005   #5
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It isn't spam that I'm concerned about, John. I have strong objections to reporting spam. It's the scam that concerns me. Although it's smaller, it is much worse than anything that Searchking did, and at least on a par with what TP did, and they were discussed openly.
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Old 03-05-2005   #6
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I can understand why you don't want this kind of stuff on the boards, in most cases, but under the circumstances I think you should make an exception, but I do respect your decision either way.

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maybe you could email the offending host and threaten to expose them to their cients if they don't desist.
Would that not be a lot like emailing a warez site and asking them to stop or you'll tell....

I agree with Phil, it is a scam and not spam.
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Old 03-05-2005   #7
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Ok, I see your point - scam vs. spam. I encourage you to find a way to deal with it, but still, I think that its best that SEW not become the web-police bulletin board.

Last edited by JohnW : 03-05-2005 at 12:12 PM. Reason: typo
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Old 03-05-2005   #8
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I think that its best that SEW not become the web-police bulletin board.
John, I think your way too late.

I don't have time today (I really should be finishing off a page) but I am sure I could find several threads here at SEW that expose and/or openly discuss several scams, besides the incidents that Phil named.
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Old 03-05-2005   #9
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To be honest, I am pretty sure that the host already knows that they've been discovered. This has been discussed elsewhere for a few days, and outside enquiries have been made. The effect was that either the user-agent cloaking has been stopped (maybe temporarily), or my IP address is being filtered so that I can't now see what the engines see, or they've gone over to IP cloaking. But everything is still there for all to see in the engines' caches.

I posted here because I am in a genuine quandary about what to do, and I am genuinely looking for advice and/or suggestions. I'm not trying to make a big issue of it, but I do want to see it stopped - and without any harm to the victims.
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Old 03-05-2005   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnW
... I think that its best that SEW not become the web-police bulletin board.
hehe... you don't know me, do you

Have a read of some of the articles in my site (webworkshop.net), and then bite yer tongue when you even think of mentioning me and the web-police in the same sentence
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Old 03-05-2005   #11
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I've come across this sort of practice from the hosting side even before TP - the webhosting industry is pretty appalled to see it happen, but there's little that can be done to the offending host unless they are doing something implicitly illegal.

My initial recommendation would be to use a service like a reverse IP tool on any particular sites in question.

That will allow you to locate the other domains hosted on the same server, and therefore gives you a list of affected sites. You could then use any WHOIS look-up service to locate e-mail addresses of the individual domain registrants.

That gives you an opportunity to contact these sites, and warn them of what's going on.

Even a small hosting operation could be expected to have a couple of servers, with perhaps a couple of hundred domains on each. So there could be a lot of work involved in contacting the affected webmasters.

If sheer altruism isn't a good enough incentive, then this contact can also be a moment worth offering alternative SEO services that work with client interests, not against them.

And if even that isn't enough, then there are plenty enough hosting companies out there offering $40-$60 per new signup - so if you were able to shift even just 100 affected webhosts to a new reliable host via an affiliate link, that act alone could be worth a good $4,000-$6,000.

Add to that new SEO signups, and that could be one very rewarding act of altruism.


PS - JohnW - No one wants to see SEW condemn people for types of SEO practice, but asking for advice on dealing with business scams - that's surely a different topic area? The offending company name hasn't even been raised.
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Old 03-05-2005   #12
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I've never heard of it before Brian, but it doesn't surprise me that it happens. The affected sites are very easy to find because the host used specific filenames for the added pages and sub-sirectories, and an allinurl: search shows them all. In fact, the filename and directory name are so outlandish that it's a shame not to divulge them. Here's an invented filename to give you the idea:- morefreelinks4me.html

I'm thinking of contacting the victims, stating what is happening to their sites, and a date when the engines will be informed. It will give them time to change hosts if they want to, in case the engines actually do something about it. Does that sound like a plan?

Btw, I won't be touting for any business out of it, but I know you were just kidding.
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Old 03-05-2005   #13
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Considering the numbers that potentially *could* be involved, some people may require an incentive. Like I said, if there's a few hundred webmasters involved, then that's a lot of time to invest in contacting alone.

Obviously, overt affiliate marketing and self-interested promotion could likely be seen as nothing more than an attempt by one business to steal anothers' business, and defeat the object of the warning.

However, if you're giving warning, and if people start asking for recommendations for new hosts, then if there are companies that you can genuinely recommend it would hardly be criminal to send them via an affiliate link, or other marketing arrangement.

Of course, you could always send a list of recommended hosts, or else send them somewhere like webhostingtalk to ask for recommendations.

It is worth pointing out, though, that there is a very high churn of hosting companies in the industry - so my personal recommendation would be to ensure that you could at least recommend reliable hosting alternatives, to webmasters who may well be found to be panicking at the thought of being blacklisted. Otherwise the act of warning could cause more damage in the longer-term than it solves.
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Old 03-05-2005   #14
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Interesting..

What a scuzzy practice. PhilC, if you want to send an email spam report to webmaster [at] google.com and mention your nick "PhilC" I'll be happy to check it out. I've seen stuff like that before, but it's usually pretty rare--legitimate hosts have a lot to lose from deceiving their hosting clients like that. I'd be happy to ask someone to investigate and to be very careful to protect the innocent pages. This isn't the right forum to talk about details, but practices like that just go way beyond legitimate and into scamming.
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Old 03-05-2005   #15
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Wow!!! What did I say about an ideal?

I'd already written an email, hoping to reach you, but I was reluctant to click the Send button for reasons that I've mentioned. I'll send it now, with PhilC in the subject line - and thank you!
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Old 03-05-2005   #16
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>What a scuzzy practice.

For sure and thanks to PhilC for making the effort to expose this.

I can't think of anything worse than placing links on a web site without the owners permission.
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Old 03-05-2005   #17
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While it's great that there may be a case of innocent sites being be protected from action by Google, how much impact can Google actually have at punishing the offending site?

Whilst I don't know the company in question, webhosting is such a competitive industry that I'll be genuinely surprised if the site in question is able to capture and convert a whole lot of traffic from any search engine for webhosting. So even a delisting from Google may not have any significant impact on the offending company's sales and marketing.

And even if it did, what then of the clients? There are plenty of kids into webhosting as a way of generating a side income while at school, who can simply drop servers and clients at a hat when it becomes too much hard work (and people thought SEO has a bad reputation?!).

If this were one such company with only a small client base then there's always the danger of the host simply walking away from the clients, or else selling up to a company with it's own short-term interests.

Simply put, these are vulnerable webmasters.

Best protection might be to contact them and recommend other hosts who have a good standing in the hosting industry, and are definitely not going to start inserting hidden code into user pages without their consent.

If anyone would like a starter list, then the following I've happily dealt with in the past, covering a range of budgets:


US hosting:

www.pair.com
www.liquidweb.com
www.unitedhosting.com
www.akashik.net
www.tvihosting.com


UK hosting:

www.clook.net
www.amard.com
www.sonnethosting.co.uk


There are plenty more decent companies, and enquiries at the Webhostingtalk shared hosting forum, or the Sitepoint hosting board, might bear other useful recommendations.

Last edited by I, Brian : 03-05-2005 at 05:03 PM.
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Old 03-05-2005   #18
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This one is a bigger operation that a kid in school. They are into much more than hosting, Brian. The hosting aspect isn't big, though. There are dozens of clients rather than hundreds. I said earlier that it is small, but not for each of the victims.
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Old 03-05-2005   #19
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>I am sure I could find several threads here at SEW that expose and/or openly discuss several scams, besides the incidents that Phil named.

As a matter of fact you are right. But I think you will continue to see an effort to curb the posting of specific url info, unless it is the only way to illustrate the issue at hand. Looks like everything worked out. Thanks everyone for being so cool about it.
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Old 03-05-2005   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NFFC
>What a scuzzy practice.

For sure and thanks to PhilC for making the effort to expose this.

I can't think of anything worse than placing links on a web site without the owners permission.
some webmasters are getting frustrated with this practice.
http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/blog/050225-104317
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