Archived posts from the 'Search Quality' Category

Hard facts about URI spam

I stole this pamphlet’s title (and more) from Google’s post Hard facts about comment spam for a reason. In fact, Google spams the Web with useless clutter, too. You doubt it? Read on. That’s the URI from the link above:

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/11/hard-facts-about-comment-spam.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed
&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FamDG+%28Official+Google+Webmaster+Central+Blog%29

GA KrakenI’ve bolded the canonical URI, everything after the questionmark is clutter added by Google.

When your Google account lists both Feedburner and GoogleAnalytics as active services, Google will automatically screw your URIs when somebody clicks a link to your site in a feed reader (you can opt out, see below).

Why is it bad?

FACT: Google’s method to track traffic from feeds to URIs creates new URIs. And lots of them. Depending on the number of possible values for each query string variable (utm_source utm_medium utm_campaign utm_content utm_term) the amount of cluttered URIs pointing to the same piece of content can sum up to dozens or more.

FACT: Bloggers (publishers, authors, anybody) naturally copy those cluttered URIs to paste them into their posts. The same goes for user link drops at Twitter and elsewhere. These links get crawled and indexed. Currently Google’s search index is flooded with 28,900,000 cluttered URIs mostly originating from copy+paste links. Bing and Yahoo didn’t index GA tracking parameters yet.

That’s 29 million URIs with tracking variables that point to duplicate content as of today. With every link copied from a feed reader, this number will increase. Matt Cutts said “I don’t think utm will cause dupe issues” and points to John Müller’s helpful advice (methods a site owner can apply to tidy up Google’s mess).

Maybe Google can handle this growing duplicate content chaos in their very own search index. Lets forget that Google is the search engine that advocated URI canonicalization for ages, invented sitemaps, rel=canonical, and countless high sophisticated algos to merge indexed clutter under the canonical URI. It’s all water under the bridge now that Google is in the create-multiple-URIs-pointing-to-the-same-piece-of-content business itself.

So far that’s just disappointing. To understand why it’s downright evil, lets look at the implications from a technical point of view.

Spamming URIs with utm tracking variables breaks lots of things

Look at this URI: http://www.example.com/search.aspx?Query=musical+mobile?utm_source=Referral&utm_medium=Internet&utm_campaign=celebritybabies

Google added a query string to a query string. Two URI segment delimiters (“?”) can cause all sorts of troubles at the landing page.

Some scripts will process only variables from Google’s query string, because they extract GET input from the URI’s last questionmark to the fragment delimiter “#” or end of URI; some scripts expecting input variables in a particular sequence will be confused at least; some scripts might even use the same variable names … the number of possible errors caused by amateurish extended query strings is infinite. Even if there’s only one “?” delimiter in the URI.

In some cases the page the user gets faced with will lack the expected content, or will display a prominent error message like 404, or will consist of white space only because the underlying script failed so badly that the Web server couldn’t even show a 5xx error.

Regardless whether a landing page can handle query string parameters added to the original URI or not (most can), changing someone’s URI for tracking purposes is plain evil, IMHO, when implemented as opt-out instead of opt-in.

Appended UTM query strings can make trackbacks vanish, too. When a blog checks whether the trackback URI is carrying a link to the blog or not, for example with this plug-in, the comparision can fail and the trackback gets deleted on arrival, without notice. If I’d dig a little deeper, most probably I could compile a huge list of other functionalities on the Internet that are broken by Google’s UTM clutter.

Finally, GoogleAnalytics is not the one and only stats tool out there, and it doesn’t fulfil all needs. Many webmasters rely on simple server reports, for example referrer stats or tools like awstats, for various technical purposes. Broken. Specialized content management tools feeded by real-time traffic data. Broken. Countless tools for linkpop analysis group inbound links by landing page URI. Broken. URI canonicalization routines. Broken, respecively now acting counterproductive with regard to GA reporting. Google’s UTM clutter has impact on lots of tools that make sense in addition to Google Analytics. All broken.

What a glorious mess. Frankly, I’m somewhat puzzled. Google has hired tens of thousands of this planet’s brightest minds –I really mean that, literally!–, and they came out with half-assed crap like that? Un-fucking-believable.

What can I do to avoid URI spam on my site?

Boycott Google’s poor man’s approach to link feed traffic data to Web analytics. Go to Feedburner. For each of your feeds click on “Configure stats” and uncheck “Track clicks as a traffic source in Google Analytics”. Done. Wait for a suitable solution.

If you really can’t live with traffic sources gathered from a somewhat unreliable HTTP_REFERER, and you’ve deep pockets, then hire a WebDev crew to revamp all your affected code. Coward!

As a matter of fact, Google is responsible for this royal pain in the ass. Don’t fix Google’s errors on your site. Let Google do the fault recovery. They own the root of all UTM evil, so they have to fix it. There’s absolutely no reason why a gazillion of webmasters and developers should do Google’s job, again and again.

What can Google do?

Well, that’s quite simple. Instead of adding utterly useless crap to URIs found in feeds, Google can make use of a clever redirect script. When Feedburner serves feed items to anybody, the values of all GA tracking variables are available.

Instead of adding clutter to these URIs, Feedburner could replace them with a script URI that stores the timestamp, the user’s IP addy, and whatnot, then performs a 301 redirect to the canonical URI. The GA script invoked on the landing page can access and process these data quite accurately.

Perhaps this procedure would be even more accurate, because link drops can no longer mimick feed traffic.

Speak out!

So, if you don’t approve that Feedburner, GoogleReader, AdSense4Feeds, and GoogleAnalytics gang rape your well designed URIs, then link out to everything Google with a descriptive query string, like:

I mean, nicely designed canonical URIs should be the search engineer’s porn, so perhaps somebody at Google will listen. Will ya?

Update:2010 SEMMY Nominee

I’ve just added a “UTM Killer” tool, where you can enter a screwed URI and get a clean URI — all ‘utm_’ crap and multiple ‘?’ delimiters removed — in return. That’ll help when you copy URIs from your feedreader to use them in your blog posts.

By the way, please vote up this pamphlet so that I get the 2010 SEMMY Award. Thanks in advance!



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As if sloppy social media users ain’t bad enough … search engines support traffic theft

Prepare for a dose of techy tin foil hattery. [Skip rant] Again, I’m going to rant about a nightmare that Twitter & Co created with their crappy, thoughtless and shortsighted software designs: URI shorteners (yup, it’s URI, not URL).

don't get seduced by URI shortenersRecap: Each and every 3rd party URI shortener is evil by design. Those questionable services do/will steal your traffic and your Google juice, mislead and piss off your potential visitors customers, and hurt you in countless other ways. If you consider yourself south of sanity, do not make use of shortened URIs you don’t own.

Actually, this pamphlet is not about sloppy social media users who shoot themselves in both feet, and it’s not about unscrupulous micro blogging platforms that force their users to hand over their assets to felonious traffic thieves. It’s about search engines that, in my humble opinion, handle the sURL dilemma totally wrong.

Some of my claims are based on experiments that I’m not willing to reveal (yet). For example I won’t explain sneaky URI hijacking or how I stole a portion of tinyurl.com’s search engine traffic with a shortened URI, passing searchers to a charity site, although it seems the search engine I’ve gamed has closed this particular loophole now. There’re still way too much playgrounds for deceptive tactics involving shortened URIs

How should a search engine handle a shortened URI?

Handling an URI as shortened URL requires a bullet proof method to detect shortened URIs. That’s a breeze.

  • Redirect patterns: URI shorteners receive lots of external inbound links that get redirected to 3rd party sites. Linking pages, stopovers and destination pages usually reside on different domains. The method of redirection can vary. Most URI shorteners perform 301 redirects, some use 302 or 307 HTTP response codes, some frame the destination page displaying ads on the top frame, and I’ve seen even a few of them making use of meta refreshs and client sided redirects. Search engines can detect all those procedures.
  • Link appearance: redirecting URIs that belong to URI shorteners often appear on pages and in feeds hosted by social media services (Twitter, Facebook & Co).
  • Seed: trusted sources like LongURL.org provide lists of domains owned by URI shortening services. Social media outlets providing their own URI shorteners don’t hide server name patterns (like su.pr …).
  • Self exposure: the root index pages of URI shorteners, as well as other pages on those domains that serve a 200 response code, usually mention explicit terms like “shorten your URL” et cetera.
  • URI length: the length of an URI string, if less or equal 20 characters, is an indicator at most, because some URI shortening services offer keyword rich short URIs, and many sites provide natural URIs this short.

Search engine crawlers bouncing at short URIs should do a lookup, following the complete chain of redirects. (Some whacky services shorten everything that looks like an URI, even shortened URIs, or do a lookup themselves replacing the original short URI with another short URI that they can track. Yup, that’s some crazy insanity.)

Each and every stopover (shortened URI) should get indexed as an alias of the destination page, but must not appear on SERPs unless the search query contains the short URI or the destination URI (that means not on [site:tinyurl.com] SERPs, but on a [site:tinyurl.com shortURI] or a [destinationURI] search result page). 3rd party stopovers mustn’t gain reputation (PageRank™, anchor text, or whatever), regardless the method of redirection. All the link juice belongs to the destination page.

In other words: search engines should make use of their knowledge of shortened URIs in response to navigational search queries. In fact, search engines could even solve the problem of vanished and abused short URIs.

Now let’s see how major search engines handle shortened URIs, and how they could improve their SERPs.

Bing doesn’t get redirects at all

Bing 301 messed up SERPsOh what a mess. The candidate from Redmond fails totally on understanding the HTTP protocol. Their search index is flooded with a bazillion of URI-only listings that all do a 301 redirect, more than 200,000 from tinyurl.com alone. Also, you’ll find URIs that do a permanent redirect and have nothing to do with URI shortening in their index, too.

I can’t be bothered with checking what Bing does in response to other redirects, since the 301 test fails so badly. Clicking on their first results for [site:tinyurl.com], I’ve noticed that many lead to mailto://working-email-addy type of destinations. Dear Bing, please remove those search results as soon as possible, before anyone figures out how to use your SERPs/APIs to launch massive email spam campaigns. As for tips on how to improve your short-URI-SERPs, please learn more under Yahoo and Google.

Yahoo does an awesome job, with a tiny exception

Yahoo 301 somewhat OkYahoo has done a better job. They index short URIs and show the destination page, at least via their site explorer. When I search for a tinyURL, the SERP link points to the URI shortener, that could get improved by linking to the destination page.

By the way, Yahoo is the only search engine that handles abusive short-URIs totally right (I will not elaborate on this issue, so please don’t ask for detailled information if you’re not a SE engineer). Yahoo bravely passed the 301 test, as well as others (including pretty evil tactics). I so hope that MSN will adopt Yahoo’s bright logic before Bing overtakes Yahoo search. By the way, that can be accomplished without sending out spammy bots (hint2bing).

Google does it by the book, but there’s room for improvements

Google fails with meritsAs for tinyURLs, Google indexes only pages on the tinyurl.com domain, including previews. Unfortunately, the snippets don’t provide a link to the destination page. Although that’s the expected behavior (those URIs aren’t linked on the crawled page), that’s sad. At least Google didn’t fail on the 301 test.

As for the somewhat evil tactis I’ve applied in my tests so far, Google fell in love with some abusive short-URIs. Google –under particular circumstances– indexes shortened URIs that game Googlebot, having sent SERP traffic to sneakily shortened URIs (that face the searcher with huge ads) instead of the destination page. Since I’ve begun to deploy sneaky sURLs, Google greatly improved their spam filters, but they’re not yet perfect.

Since Google is responsible for most of this planet’s SERP traffic, I’ve put better sURL handling at the very top of my xmas wish list.

About abusive short URIs

Shortened URIs do poison the Internet. They vanish, alter their destination, mislead surfers … in other words they are abusive by definition. There’s no such thing as a persistent short URI!

Long time ago Tim Berners-Lee told you that URI shorteners are evil fucking with URIs is a very bad habit. Did you listen? Do you make use of shortened URIs? If you post URIs that get shortened at Twitter, or if you make use of 3rd party URI shorteners elsewhere, consider yourself trapped into a low-life traffic theft scam. Shame on you, and shame on Twitter & Co.

fight evil URI shortenersBesides my somewhat shady experiments that hijacked URIs, stole SERP positions, and converted “borrowed” SERP traffic, there are so many other ways to abuse shortened URIs. Many of them are outright evil. Many of them do hurt your kids, and mine. Basically, that’s not any search engine’s problem, but search engines could help us getting rid of the root of all sURL evil by handling shortened URIs with common sense, even when the last short URI has vanished.

Fight shortened URIs!

It’s up to you. Go stop it. As long as you can’t avoid URI shortening, roll your own URI shortener and make sure it can’t get abused. For the sake of our children, do not use or support 3rd party URI shorteners. Deprive the livelihood of these utterly useless scumbags.

Unfortunately, as a father and as a webmaster, I don’t believe in common sense applied by social media services. Hence, I see a “Twitter actively bypasses safe-search filters tricking my children into viewing hardcore porn” post coming. Dear Twitter & Co. — and that addresses all services that make use of or transport shortened URIs — put and end to shortened URIs. Now!



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How to handle a machine-readable pandemic that search engines cannot control

R.I.P. rel-nofollowWhen you’re familiar with my various rants on the ever morphing rel-nofollow microformat infectious link disease, don’t read further. This post is not polemic, ironic, insulting, or otherwise meant to entertain you. I’m just raving about a way to delay the downfall of the InterWeb.

Lets recap: The World Wide Web is based on hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are supposed to lead humans to interesting stuff they want to consume. This simple and therefore brilliant concept worked great for years. The Internet grew up, bubbled a bit, but eventually it gained world domination. Internet traffic was counted, sold, bartered, purchased, and even exchanged for free in units called “hits”. (A “hit” means one human surfer landing on a sales pitch. That is a popup hell designed in a way that somebody involved just has to make a sale).

Then in the past century two smart guys discovered that links scraped from Web pages can be misused to provide humans with very accurate search results. They even created a new currency on the Web, and quickly assigned their price tags to Web pages. Naturally, folks began to trade green pixels instead of traffic. After a short while the Internet voluntarily transferred it’s world domination to the company founded by those two smart guys from Stanford.

Of course the huge amount of green pixel trades made the search results based on link popularity somewhat useless, because the webmasters gathering the most incoming links got the top 10 positions on the search result pages (SERPs). Search engines claimed that a few webmasters cheated on their way to the first SERPs, although lawyers say there’s no evidence of any illegal activities related to search engine optimization (SEO).

However, after suffering from heavy attacks from a whiny blogger, the Web’s dominating search engine got somewhat upset and required that all webmasters have to assign a machine-readable tag (link condom) to links sneakily inserted into their Web pages by other webmasters. “Sneakily inserted links” meant references to authors as well as links embedded in content supplied by users. All blogging platforms, CMS vendors and alike implemented the link condom, eliminating presumably 5.00% of the Web’s linkage at this time.

A couple of months later the world dominating search engine demanded that webmasters have to condomize their banner ads, intercompany linkage and other commercial links, as well as all hyperlinked references that do not count as pure academic citation (aka editorial links). The whole InterWeb complied, since this company controlled nearly all the free traffic available from Web search, as well as the Web’s purchasable traffic streams.

Roughly 3.00% of the Web’s links were condomized, as the search giant spotted that their users (searchers) missed out on lots and lots of valuable contents covered by link condoms. Ooops. Kinda dilemma. Taking back the link condom requirements was no option, because this would have flooded the search index with billions of unwanted links empowering commercial content to rank above boring academic stuff.

So the handling of link condoms in the search engine’s crawling engine as well as in it’s ranking algorithm was changed silently. Without telling anybody outside their campus, some condomized links gained power, whilst others were kept impotent. In fact they’ve developed a method to judge each and every link on the whole Web without a little help from their friends link condoms. In other words, the link condom became obsolete.

Of course that’s what they should have done in the first place, without asking the world’s webmasters for gazillions of free-of-charge man years producing shitloads of useless code bloat. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the balls to stand up and admit “sorry folks, we’ve failed miserably, link condoms are history”. Therefore the Web community still has to bother with an obsolete microformat. And if they –the link comdoms– are not dead, then they live today. In your markup. Hurting your rankings.

If you, dear reader, are a Googler, then please don’t feel too annoyed. You may have thought that you didn’t do evil, but the above said reflects what webmasters outside the ‘Plex got from your actions. Don’t ignore it, please think about it from our point of view. Thanks.

Still here and attentive? Great. Now lets talk about scenarios in WebDev where you still can’t avoid rel-nofollow. If there are any — We’ll see.

PageRank™ sculpting

Dude, PageRank™ sculpting with rel-nofollow doesn’t work for the average webmaster. It might even fail when applied as high sophisticated SEO tactic. So don’t even think about it. Simply remove the rel=nofollow from links to your TOS, imprint, and contact page. Cloak away your links to signup pages, login pages, shopping carts and stuff like that.

Link monkey business

I leave this paragraph empty, because when you know what you do, you don’t need advice.

Affiliate links

There’s no point in serving A elements to Googlebot at all. If you haven’t cloaked your aff links yet, go see a SEO doctor.

Advanced SEO purposes

See above.

So what’s left? User generated content. Lets concentrate our extremely superfluous condomizing efforts on the one and only occasion that might allow to apply rel-nofollow to a hyperlink on request of a major search engine, if there’s any good reason to paint shit brown at all.

Blogging

If you link out in a blog post, then you vouch for the link’s destination. In case you disagree with the link destination’s content, just put the link as

<strong class="blue_underlined" title="http://myworstenemy.org/" onclick="window.location=this.title;">My Worst Enemy</strong>

or so. The surfer can click the link and lands at the estimated URI, but search engines don’t pass reputation. Also, they don’t evaporate link juice, because they don’t interpret the markup as hyperlink.

Blog comments

My rule of thumb is: Moderate, DoFollow quality, DoDelete crap. Install a conditional do-follow plug-in, set everything on moderation, use captchas or something similar, then let the comment’s link juice flow. You can maintain a white list that allows instant appearance of comments from your buddies.

Forums, guestbooks and unmoderated stuff like that

Separate all Web site areas that handle user generated content. Serve “index,nofollow” meta tags or x-robots-headers for all those pages, and link them from a site map or so. If you gather index-worthy content from users, then feed crawlers the content in a parallel –crawlable– structure, without submit buttons, perhaps with links from trusted users, and redirect human visitors to the interactive pages. Vice versa redirect crawlers requesting live pages to the spider fodder. All those redirects go with a 301 HTTP response code.

If you lack the technical skills to accomplish that, then edit your /robots.txt file as follows:

User-agent: Googlebot
# Dear Googlebot, drop me a line when you can handle forum pages
# w/o rel-nofollow crap. Then I'll allow crawling.
# Treat that as conditional disallow:
Disallow: /forum

As soon as Google can handle your user generated content naturally, they might send you a message in their Webmaster console.

Anything else

Judge yourself. Most probably you’ll find a way to avoid rel-nofollow.

Conclusion

Absolutely nobody needs the rel-nofollow microformat. Not even search engines for the sake of their index. Hence webmasters as well as search engines can stop wasting resources. Farewell rel="nofollow", rest in peace. We won’t miss you.



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Vaporize yourself before Google burns your linking power

PIC-1: Google PageRank(tm) 2007I couldn’t care less about PageRank™ sculpting, because a well thought out link architecture does the job with all search engines, not just Google. That’s where Google is right on the money.

They own PageRank™, hence they can burn, evaporate, nillify, and even divide by zero or multiply by -1 as much PageRank™ as they like; of course as long as they rank my stuff nicely above my competitors.

Picture 1 shows Google’s PageRank™ factory as of 2007 or so. Actually, it’s a pretty simplified model, but since they’ve changed the PageRank™ algo anyway, you don’t need to bother with all the geeky details.

As a side note: you might ask why I don’t link to Matt Cutts and Danny Sullivan discussing the whole mess on their blogs? Well, probably Matt can’t afford my advertising rates, and the whole SEO industry has linked to Danny anyway. If you’re nosy, check out my source code to learn more about state of the art linkage very compliant to Google’s newest guidelines for advanced SEOs (summary: “Don’t trust underlined blue text on Web pages any longer!”).

PIC-2: Google PageRank(tm) 2009What really matters is picture 2, revealing Google’s new PageRank™ facilities, silently launched in 2008. Again, geeky details are of minor interest. If you really want to know everything, then search for [operation bendover] at !Yahoo (it’s still top secret, and therefore not searchable at Google).

Unfortunately, advanced SEO folks (whatever that means, I use this term just because it seems to be an essential property assigned to the participants of the current PageRank™ uprising discussion) always try to confuse you with overcomplicated graphics and formulas when it comes to PageRank™. Instead, I ask you to focus on the (important) hard core stuff. So go grab a magnifier, and work out the differences:

  • PageRank™ 2009 in comparision to PageRank™ 2007 comes with a pipeline supplying unlimited fuel. Also, it seems they’ve implemented the green new deal, switching from gas to natural gas. That means they can vaporize way more link juice than ever before.
  • PageRank™ 2009 produces more steam, and the clouds look slightly different. Whilst PageRank™ 2007 ignored nofollow crap as well as links put with client sided scripting, PageRank™ 2009 evaporates not only juice covered with link condoms, but also tons of other permutations of the standard A element.
  • To compensate the huge overall loss of PageRank™ caused by those changes, Google has decided to pass link juice from condomized links to their target URI hidden to Googlebot with JavaScript. Of course Google formerly has recommended the use of JavaScript-links to prevent the webmasters from penalties for so-called “questionable” outgoing links. Just as they’ve not only invented rel-nofollow, but heavily recommended the use of this microformat with all links disliked by Google, and now they take that back as if a gazillion links on the Web could magically change just because Google tweeks their algos. Doh! I really hope that the WebSpam-team checks the age of such links before they penalize everything implemented according to their guidelines before mid-2009 or the InterWeb’s downfall, whatever comes last.

I guess in the meantime you’ve figured out that I’m somewhat pissed. Not that the secretly changed flow of PageRank™ a year ago in 2008 had any impact on my rankings, or SERP traffic. I’ve always designed my stuff with PageRank™ flow in mind, but without any misuses of rel=”nofollow”, so I’m still fine with Google.

What I can’t stand is when a search engine tries to tell me how I’ve to link (out). Google engineers are really smart folks, they’re perfectly able to develop a PageRank™ algo that can decide how much Google-juice a particular link should pass. So dear Googlers, please –WRT to the implementation of hyperlinks– leave us webmasters alone, dump the rel-nofollow crap and rank our stuff in the best interest of your searchers. No longer bother us with linking guidelines that change yearly. It’s not our job nor responsibility to act as your cannon fodder slavish code monkeys when you spot a loophole in your ranking- or spam-detection-algos.

Of course the above said is based on common sense, so Google won’t listen (remember: I’m really upset, hence polemic statements are absolutely appropriate). To prevent webmasters from irrational actions by misleaded search engines, I hereby introduce the

Webmaster guidelines for search engine friendly links

What follows is pseudo-code, implement it with your preferred server sided scripting language.

if (getAttribute($link, 'rel') matches '*nofollow*' &&
    $userAgent matches '*Googlebot*') {
    print '<strong rev="' + getAttribute(link, 'href') + '"'
    + ' style="color:blue; text-decoration:underlined;"'
    + ' onmousedown="window.location=document.getElementById(this.id).rev; "'
    + '>' + getAnchorText($link) + '</strong>';
}
else {
    print $link;
}

Probably it’s a good idea to snip both the onmousedown trigger code as well as the rev attribute, when the script gets executed by Googlebot. Just because today Google states that they’re going to pass link juice to URIs grabbed from the onclick trigger, that doesn’t mean they’ll never look at the onmousedown event or misused (X)HTML attributes.

This way you can deliver Googlebot exactly the same stuff that the punter surfer gets. You’re perfectly compliant to Google’s cloaking restrictions. There’s no need to bother with complicated stuff like iFrames or even disabled blog comments, forums or guestbooks.

Just feed the crawlers with all the crap the search engines require, then concentrate all your efforts on your UI for human vistors. Web robots (bots, crawlers, spiders, …) don’t supply your signup-forms w/ credit card details. Humans do. If you find the time to upsell them while search engines keep you busy with thoughtless change requests all day long.



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@ALL: Give Google your feedback on NOINDEX, but read this pamphlet beforehand!

Dear Google, please respect NOINDEXMatt Cutts asks us How should Google handle NOINDEX? That’s a tough question worth thinking twice before you submit a comment to Matt’s post. Here is Matt’s question, all the background information you need, and my opinion.

What is NOINDEX?

Noindex is an indexer directive defined in the Robots Exclusion Protocol (REP) from 1996 for use in robots meta tags. Putting a NOINDEX value in a page’s robots meta tag or X-Robots-Tag tells search engines that they shall not index the page content, but may follow links provided on the page.

To get a grip on NOINDEX’s role in the REP please read my Robots Exclusion Protocol summary at SEOmoz. Also, Google experiments with NOINDEX as crawler directive in robots.txt, more on that later.

How major search engines treat NOINDEX

Of course you could read a ton of my pamphlets to extract this information, but Matt’s summary is still accurate and easier to digest:

    [Matt Cutts on August 30, 2006]
  • Google doesn’t show the page in any way.
  • Ask doesn’t show the page in any way.
  • MSN shows a URL reference and cached link, but no snippet. Clicking the cached link doesn’t return anything.
  • Yahoo! shows a URL reference and cached link, but no snippet. Clicking on the cached link returns the cached page.

Personally, I’d prefer it if every search engine treated the noindex meta tag by not showing a page in the search results at all. [Meanwhile Matt might have a slightly different opinion.]

Google’s experimental support of NOINDEX as crawler directive in robots.txt also includes the DISALLOW functionality (an instruction that forbids crawling), and most probably URIs tagged with NOINDEX in robots.txt cannot accumulate PageRank. In my humble opinion the DISALLOW behavior of NOINDEX in robots.txt is completely wrong, and without any doubt in no way compliant to the Robots Exclusion Protocol.

Matt’s question: How should Google handle NOINDEX in the future?

To simplify Matt’s poll, lets assume he’s talking about NOINDEX as indexer directive, regardless where a Webmaster has put it (robots meta tag, X-Robots-Tag, or robots.txt).

The question is whether Google should completely drop a NOINDEX’ed page from our search results vs. show a reference to the page, or something in between?

Here are the arguments, or pros and cons, for each variant:

Google should completely drop a NOINDEX’ed page from their search results

Obviously that’s what most Webmasters would prefer:

This is the behavior that we’ve done for the last several years, and webmasters are used to it. The NOINDEX meta tag gives a good way — in fact, one of the only ways — to completely remove all traces of a site from Google (another way is our url removal tool). That’s incredibly useful for webmasters.

NOINDEX means don’t index, search engines must respect such directives, even when the content isn’t password protected or cloaked away (redirected or hidden for crawlers but not for visitors).

The corner case that Google discovers a link and lists it on their SERPs before the page that carries a NOINDEX directive is crawled and deindexed isn’t crucial, and could be avoided by a (new) NOINDEX indexer directive in robots.txt, which is requested by search engines quite frequently. Ok, maybe Google’s BlitzCrawler™ has to request robots.txt more often then.

Google should show a reference to NOINDEX’ed pages on their SERPs

Search quality and user experience are strong arguments:

Our highest duty has to be to our users, not to an individual webmaster. When a user does a navigational query and we don’t return the right link because of a NOINDEX tag, it hurts the user experience (plus it looks like a Google issue). If a webmaster really wants to be out of Google without even a single trace, they can use Google’s url removal tool. The numbers are small, but we definitely see some sites accidentally remove themselves from Google. For example, if a webmaster adds a NOINDEX meta tag to finish a site and then forgets to remove the tag, the site will stay out of Google until the webmaster realizes what the problem is. In addition, we recently saw a spate of high-profile Korean sites not returned in Google because they all have a NOINDEX meta tag. If high-profile sites like [3 linked examples] aren’t showing up in Google because of the NOINDEX meta tag, that’s bad for users (and thus for Google).

Search quality and searchers’ user experience is also a strong argument for totally delisting NOINDEX’ed pages, because most Webmasters use this indexer directive to keep stuff that doesn’t provide value for searchers out of the search indexes. <polemic>I mean, how much weight have a few Korean sites when it comes to decisions that affect the whole Web?</polemic>

If a Webmaster puts a NOINDEX directive by accident, that’s easy to spot in the site’s stats, considering the volume of traffic that Google controls. I highly doubt that a simple URI reference with an anchor text scrubbed from external links on Google SERPs would heal such a mistake. Also, Matt said that Google could add a NOINDEX check to the Webmaster Console.

The reference to the URI removal tools is out of context, because these tools remove an URI only for a short period of time and all removal requests have to be resubmitted repeatedly every few weeks. NOINDEX on the other hand is a way to keep an URI out of the index as long as this crawler directive is provided.

I’d say the sole argument for listing references to NOINDEX’ed pages that counts is misleading navigational searches. Of course that does not mean that Google may ignore the NOINDEX directive to show –with a linked reference– that they know a resource, despite the fact that the site owner has strictly forbidden such references on SERPs.

Something in between, Google should find a reasonable way to please both Webmasters and searchers

Quoting Matt again:

The vast majority of webmasters who use NOINDEX do so deliberately and use the meta tag correctly (e.g. for parked domains that they don’t want to show up in Google). Users are most discouraged when they search for a well-known site and can’t find it. What if Google treated NOINDEX differently if the site was well-known? For example, if the site was in the Open Directory, then show a reference to the page even if the site used the NOINDEX meta tag. Otherwise, don’t show the site at all. The majority of webmasters could remove their site from Google, but Google would still return higher-profile sites when users searched for them.

Whether or not a site is popular must not impact a search engine’s respect for a Webmaster’s decision to keep search engines, and their users, out of her realm. That reads like “Hey, Google is popular, so we’ve the right to go to Mountain View to pillage the Googleplex, acquiring everything we can steal for the public domain”. Neither Webmasters nor search engines should mimic Robin Hood. Also, lots of Webmasters highly doubt that Google’s idea of (link) popularity should rule the Web. ;)

Whether or not a site is listed in the ODP directory is definitely not an indicator that can be applied here. Last time I looked the majority of the Web’s content wasn’t listed at DMOZ due to the lack of editors and various other reasons, and that includes gazillions of great and useful resources. I’m not bashing DMOZ here, but as a matter of fact it’s not comprehensive enough to serve as indicator for anything, especially not importance and popularity.

I strongly believe that there’s no such thing as a criterion suitable to mark out a two class Web.

My take: Yes, No, Depends

Google could enhance navigational queries –and even “I feel lucky” queries– that lead to a NOINDEX’ed page with a message like “The best matching result for this query was blocked by the site”. I wouldn’t mind if they mention the URI as long as it’s not linked.

In fact, the problem is the granularity of the existing indexer directives. NOINDEX is neither meant for nor capable of serving that many purposes. It is wrong to assign DISALLOW semantics to NOINDEX, and it is wrong to create two classes of NOINDEX support. Fortunately, we’ve more REP indexer directives that could play a role in this discussion.

NOODP, NOYDIR, NOARCHIVE and/or NOSNIPPET in combination with NOINDEX on a site’s home page, that is either a domain or subdomain, could indicate that search engines must not show references to the URI in question. Otherwise, if no other indexer directives elaborate NOINDEX, search engines could show references to NOINDEX’ed main pages. The majority of navigational search queries should lead to main pages, so that would solve the search quality issues.

Of course that’s not precise enough due to the lack of a specific directive that deals with references to forbidden URIs, but it’s way better than ignoring NOINDEX in its current meaning.

A fair solution: NOREFERENCE

If I’d make the decision at Google and couldn’t live with a best matching search result blocked  message, I’d go for a new REP tag:

“NOINDEX, NOREFERENCE” in a robots meta tag –respectively Googlebot meta tag– or X-Robots-Tag forbids search engines to show a reference on their SERPs. In robots.txt this would look like
NOINDEX: /
NOINDEX: /blog/
NOINDEX: /members/

NOREFERENCE: /
NOREFERENCE: /blog/
NOREFERENCE: /members/

Search engines would crawl these URIs, and follow their links as long as there’s no NOFOLLOW directive either in robots.txt or a page specific instruction.

NOINDEX without a NOREFERENCE directive would instruct search engines not to index a page, but allows references on SERPs. Supporting this indexer directive both in robots.txt as well as on-the-page (respectively in the HTTP header for X-Robots-Tags) makes it easy to add NOREFERENCE on sites that hate search engine traffic. Also, a syntax variant like NOINDEX=NOREFERENCE for robots.txt could tell search eniges how they have to treat NOINDEX statements on site level, or even on site area level.

Even more appealing would be NOINDEX=REFERENCE, because only the very few Webmasters that would like to see their NOINDEX’ed URIs on Google’s SERPs would have to add a directive to their robots.txt at all. Unfortunately, that’s not doable for Google unless they can convice three well known Korean sites to edit their robots.txt. ;)

 

By the way, don’t miss out on my draft asking for REP tag support in robots.txt!

Anyway: Dear Google, please don’t touch NOINDEX! :)



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The hacker tool MSN-LiveSearch is responsible for brute force attacks

401 = Private Property, keep out!A while ago I’ve staged a public SEO contest, asking whether the 401 HTTP response code prevents from search engine indexing or not.

Password protected site areas should be safe from indexing, because legit search engine crawlers do not submit user/password combos. Hence their try to fetch a password protected URL bounces with a 401 HTTP response code that translates to a polite “Authorization Required”, meaning “Forbidden unless you provide valid authorization”.

Experience of life and common sense tell search engines, that when a Webmaster protects content with a user/password query, this content is not available to the public. Search engines that respect Webmasters/site owners do not point their users to protected content.

Also, that makes no sense for the search engine. Searchers submitting a query with keywords that match a protected URL would be pissed when they click the promising search result on the SERP, but the linked site responds with an unfriendly “Enter user and password in order to access [title of the protected area]”, that resolves to a harsh error message because the searcher can’t provide such information, and usually can’t even sign up from the 401 error page1.

Evil use of search resultsUnfortunately, search results that contain URLs of password protected content are valuable tools for hackers. Many content management systems and payment processors that Webmasters use to protect and monetize their contents leave footprints in URLs, for example /members/. Even when those systems can handle individual URLs, many Webmasters leave default URLs in place that are either guessable or well known on the Web.

Developing a script that searches for a string like /members/ in URLs and then “tests” the search results with brute force attacks is a breeze. Also, such scripts are available (for a few bucks or even free) at various places. Without the help of a search engine that provides the lists of protected URLs, the hacker’s job is way more complicated. In other words, search engines that list protected URLs on their SERPs willingly support and encourage hacking, content theft, and DOS-like server attacks.

Ok, lets look at the test results. All search engines have casted their votes now. Here are the winners:

Google :)

Once my test was out, Matt Cutts from Google researched the question and told me:

My belief from talking to folks at Google is that 401/forbidden URLs that we crawl won’t be indexed even as a reference, so .htacess password-protected directories shouldn’t get indexed as long as we crawl enough to discover the 401. Of course, if we discover an URL but didn’t crawl it to see the 401/Forbidden status, that URL reference could still show up in Google.

Well, that’s exactly the expected behavior, and I wasn’t surprised that my test results confirm Matt’s statement. Thanks to Google’s BlitzIndexing™ Ms. Googlebot spotted the 401 so fast, that the URL never showed up on Google’s SERPs. Google reports the protected URL in my Webmaster Console account for this blog as not indexable.

Yahoo :)

Yahoo’s crawler Slurp also fetched the protected URL in no time, and Yahoo did the right thing too. I wonder whether or not that’s going to change if M$ buys Yahoo.

Ask :)

Ask’s crawler isn’t the most diligent Web robot out there. However, somehow Ask has managed not to index a reference to my password protected URL.

And here is the ultimate loser:

MSN LiveSearch :(

Oh well. Obviously MSN LiveSearch is a must have in a deceitful cracker’s toolbox:

MSN LiveSearch indexes password protected URLs

As if indexing references to password protected URLs wouldn’t be crappy enough, MSN even indexes sitemap files that are referenced in robots.txt only. Sitemaps are machine readable URL submission files that have absolute no value for humans. Webmasters make use of sitemap files to mass submit their URLs to search engines. The sitemap protocol, that MSN officially supports, defines a communication channel between Webmasters and search engines - not searchers, and especially not scrapers that can use indexed sitemaps to steal Web contents more easily. Here is a screen shot of an MSN SERP:

MSN LiveSearch indexes unlinked sitemaps files (MSN SERP)
MSN LiveSearch indexes unlinked sitemaps files (MSN Webmaster Tools)

All the other search engines got the sitemap submission of the test URL too, but none of them fell for it. Neither Google, Yahoo, nor Ask have indexed the sitemap file (they never index submitted sitemaps that have no inbound links by the way) or its protected URL.

Summary

All major search engines except MSN respect the 401 barrier.

Since MSN LiveSearch is well known for spamming, it’s not a big surprise that they support hackers, scrapers and other content thieves.

Of course MSN search is still an experiment, operating in a not yet ready to launch stage, and the big players made their mistakes in the beginning too. But MSN has a history of ignoring Web standards as well as Webmaster concerns. It took them two years to implement the pretty simple sitemaps protocol, they still can’t handle 301 redirects, their sneaky stealth bots spam the referrer logs of all Web sites out there in order to fake human traffic from MSN SERPs (MSN traffic doesn’t exist in most niches), and so on. Once pointed to such crap, they don’t even fix the simplest bugs in a timely manner. I mean, not complying to the HTTP 1.1 protocol from the last century is an evidence of incapacity, and that’s just one example.

 

Update Feb/06/2008: Last night I’ve received an email from Microsoft confirming the 401 issue. The MSN Live Search engineer said they are currently working on a fix, and he provided me with an email address to report possible further issues. Thank you, Nathan Buggia! I’m still curious how MSN Live Search will handle sitemap files in the future.

 


1 Smart Webmasters provide sign up as well as login functionality on the page referenced as ErrorDocument 401, but the majority of all failed logins leave the user alone with the short hard coded 401 message that Apache outputs if there’s no 401 error document. Please note that you shouldn’t use a PHP script as 401 error page, because this might disable the user/password prompt (due to a PHP bug). With a static 401 error page that fires up on invalid user/pass entries or a hit on the cancel button, you can perform a meta refresh to redirect the visitor to a signup page. Bear in mind that in .htaccess you must not use absolute URLs (http://… or https://…) in the ErrorDocument 401 directive, and that on the error page you must use absolute URLs for CSS, images, links and whatnot because relative URIs don’t work there!



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Google removes the #6 penalty/filter/glitch

Google removed the position six penaltyAfter the great #6 Penalty SEO Panel Google’s head of the webspam dept. Matt Cutts digged out a misbehaving algo and sent it back to the developers. Two hours ago he stated:

When Barry asked me about “position 6″ in late December, I said that I didn’t know of anything that would cause that. But about a week or so after that, my attention was brought to something that could exhibit that behavior.

We’re in the process of changing the behavior; I think the change is live at some datacenters already and will be live at most data centers in the next few weeks.

 

So everything is fine now. Matt penalizes the position-six software glitch, and lost top positions will revert to their former rankings in a while. Well, not really. Nobody will compensate income losses, nor the time Webmasters spent on forums discussing a suspected penalty that actually was a bug or a weird side effect. However, kudos to Google for listening to concerns, tracking down and fixing the algo. And thanks for the update, Matt.



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Do search engines index references to password protected smut?

how prudish are search enginesRecently Matt Cutts said that Google doesn’t index password protected content. I wasn’t sure whether or not that goes for all search engines. I thought that they might index at least references to protected URLs, like they all do with other uncrawlable content that has strong inbound links.

Well, SEO tests are dull and boring, so I thought I could have some fun with this one.

I’ve joked that I should use someone’s favorite smut collection to test it. Unfortunately, nobody was willing to trade porn passwords for link love or so. I’m not a hacker, hence I’ve created my own tiny collection of password protected SEO porn (this link is not exactly considered safe at work) as test case.

I was quite astonished that according to this post about SEO porn next to nobody in the SEOsphere optimizes adult sites (of course that’s not true). From the comments I figured that some folks at least surf for SEO porn evaluate the optimization techniques applied by adult Webmasters.

Ok, lets extend that. Out yourself as SEO porn savvy Internet marketer. Leave your email addy in the comments (dont forget to tell me why I should believe that you’re over 18), and I’ll email you the super secret password for my SEO porn members area (!SAW). Trust me, it’s worth it, and perfectly legit due to the strictly scientific character of this experiment. If you’re somewhat shy, use a funny pseudonym.

I’d very much appreciate a little help with linkage too. Feel free to link to http://sebastians-pamphlets.com/porn/ with an adequate anchor text of your choice, and of course without condom.

Get the finest SEO porn available on this planet!

I’ve got the password, now let me in!



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No more RSS feeds in Google’s search results

Google killing RSS feedsFolks try all sorts of naughty things when by accident a blog’s feed outranks the HTML version of a post. Usually that happened mostly to not that popular blogs, or with very old posts and categorized feeds that contain ancient articles.

The problem seems to be that Google’s Web search doesn’t understand the XML structure of feeds, so that a feed’s textual contents get indexed like stuff from text files. Due to “subscribe” buttons and other links, feeds can gather more PageRank than some HTML pages. Interestingly .xml is considered an unknown file type, and advanced search doesn’t provide a way to search within XML files.

Now that has changed1. Googler Bogdan Stănescu posts on the German Webmaster blog2 We remove feeds from our search results:

As Webmasters many of you were probably worried that your RSS or Atom feeds could outrank the accompanying HTML pages in Google’s search results. The emergence of feeds in our search results could be a poor user experience:

1. Feeds increase the probability that the user gets the same search result twice.

2. Users who click on the feed link on a SERP may miss out on valuable content, which is only available on the HTML page referenced in the XML file.

For these reasons, we have removed feeds from our Web search results - with the exception of podcasts (feeds with media files).

[…] We are aware that in addition to the podcasts out there some feeds exist that are not linked with an HTML page, and that is why it is not quite ideal to remove all feeds from the search results. We’re still open for feedback and suggestions for improvements to the handling of feeds. We look forward to your comments and questions in the crawling, indexing and ranking section of our discussion forum for Webmasters. [Translation mine]

I’m not yet sure whether or not that’s ending in a ban of all/most XML documents. I hope they suppress RSS/Atom feeds only, and provide improved ways to search for and within other XML resources.

So what does that mean for blog SEO? Unless Google provides a procedure to prevent feeds from accumulating PageRank whilst allowing access for blog search crawlers that request feeds (I believe something like that is in the works), it’s still a good idea to nofollow all feed links, but there’s absolutely no reason to block them in robots.txt any more.

I think that’s a great move into the right direction, but a preliminary solution, though. The XML structure of feeds isn’t that hard to parse, and there are only so many ways to extract the URL of the HTML page. Then when a relevant feeds lands in a raw result set, Google should display a link to the HTML version on the SERP. What do you think?


1 Danny reminded me that according to Matt Cutts that’s going on for a few months now.

2 24 hours later Google published the announcement in English language too.



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MSN spam to continue says the Live Search Blog

MSN Live Search clueless webspam detectionIt seems MSN/LiveSearch has tweaked their rogue bots and continues to spam innocent Web sites just in case they could cloak. I see a rant coming, but first the facts and news.

Since August 2007 MSN runs a bogus bot faking a human visitor coming from a search results page, that follows their crawler. This spambot downloads everything from a page, that is images and other objects, external CSS/JS files, and ad blocks rendering even contextual advertising from Google and Yahoo. It fakes MSN SERP referrers diluting the search term stats with generic and unrelated keywords. Webmasters running non-adult sites wondered why a database tutorial suddenly ranks for [oral sex] and why MSN sends visitors searching for [MILF pix] to a teenager’s diary. Webmasters assumed that MSN is after deceitful cloaking, and laughed out loud because their webspam detection method was that primitive and easy to fool.

Now MSN admits all their sins –except the launch of a porn affiliate program– and posted a vague excuse on their Webmaster Blog telling the world that they discovered the evil cloakers and their index is somewhat spam free now. Donna has chatted with the MSN spam team about their spambot and reports that blocking its IP addresses is a bad idea, even for sites that don’t cloak. Vanessa Fox summarized MSN’s poor man’s cloaking detection at Search Engine Land:

And one has to wonder how effective methods like this really are. Those savvy enough to cloak may be able to cloak for this new cloaker detection bot as well.

They say that they no longer spam sites that don’t cloak, but reverse this statement telling Donna

we need to be able to identify the legitimate and illegitimate content

and Vanessa

sites that are cloaking may continue to see some amount of traffic from this bot. This tool crawls sites throughout the web — both those that cloak and those that don’t — but those not found to be cloaking won’t continue to see traffic.

Here is an excerpt from yesterdays referrer log of a site that does not cloak, and never did:
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=webmaster&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=smart&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=search&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=progress&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=google&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=google&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=domain&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=database&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=content&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP
http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=business&mrt=en-us&FORM=LIVSOP

Why can’t the MSN dudes tell the truth, not even when they apologize?

Another lie is “we obey robots.txt”. Of course the spambot doesn’t request it to bypass bot traps, but according to MSN it uses a copy served to the LiveSearch crawler “msnbot”:

Yes, this robot does follow the robots.txt file. The reason you don’t see it download it, is that we use a fresh copy from our index. The tool does respect the robots.txt the same way that MSNBot does with a caveat; the tool behaves like a browser and some files that a crawler would ignore will be viewed just like real user would.

In reality, it doesn’t help to block CSS/JS files or images in robots.txt, because MSN’s spambot will download them anyway. The long winded statement above translates to “We promise to obey robots.txt, but if it fits our needs we’ll ignore it”.

Well, MSN is not the only search engine running stealthy bots to detect cloaking, but they aren’t clever enough to do it in a less abusive and detectable way.

Their insane spambot led all cloaking specialists out there to their not that obvious spam detection methods. They may have caught a few cloaking sites, but considering the short life cycle of Webspam on throwaway domains they shot themselves in both feet. What they really have achieved is that the cloaking scripts are MSN spam detection immune now.

Was it really necessary to annoy and defraud the whole Webmaster community and to burn huge amounts of bandwidth just to catch a few cloakers who launched new scripts on new throwaway domains hours after the first appearance of the MSN spam bot?

Can cosmetic changes with regard to their useless spam activities restore MSN’s lost reputation? I doubt it. They’ve admitted their miserable failure five months too late. Instead of dumping the spambot, they announce that they’ll spam away for the foreseeable future. How silly is that? I thought Microsoft is somewhat profit orientated, why do they burn their and our money with such amateurish projects?

Besides all this crap MSN has good news too. Microsoft Live Search told Search Engine Roundtable that they’ll spam our sites with keywords related to our content from now on, at least they’ll try it. And they have a forum and a contact form to gather complaints. Crap on, so much bureaucratic efforts to administer their ridiculous spam fighting funeral. They’d better build a search engine that actually sends human traffic.



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