Text link broker woes: Google’s smart paid link sniffers

Google's smart paid link sniffer at workAfter the recent toolbar PageRank massacre link brokers are in the spotlight. One of them, TNX beta1, asked me to post a paid review of their service. It took a while to explain that nobody can buy a sales pitch here. I offered to write a pitiless honest review for a low hourly fee, provided a sample on their request, but got no order or payment yet. Never mind. Since the topic is hot, here’s my review, paid or not.

So what does TNX offer? Basically it’s a semi-automated link exchange where everybody can sign up to sell and/or purchase text links. TNX takes 25% commission, 12.5% from the publisher, and 12.5% from the advertiser. They calculate the prices based on Google’s toolbar PageRank and link popularity pulled from Yahoo. For example a site putting five blocks of four links each on one page with toolbar PageRank 4/10 and four pages with a toolbar PR 3/10 will earn $46.80 monthly.

TNX provides a tool to vary the links, so that when an advertiser purchases for example 100 links it’s possible to output those in 100 variations of anchor text as well as surrounding text before and after the A element, on possibly 100 different sites. Also TNX has a solution to increase the number of links slowly, so that search engines can’t find a gazillion of uniformed links to a (new) site all of a sudden. Whether or not that’s sufficient to simulate natural link growth remains an unanswered question, because I’ve no access to their algorithm.

Links as well as participating sites are reviewed by TNX staff, and frequently checked with bots. Links shouldn’t appear on pages which aren’t indexed by search engines or viewed by humans, or on 404 pages, pages with long and ugly URLs and such. They don’t accept PPC links or offensive ads.

All links are outputted server sided, what requires PHP or Perl (ASP/ASPX coming soon). There is a cache option, so it’s not necessary to download the links from the TNX servers for each page view. TNX recommends renaming the /cache/ directory to avoid an easily detectable sign for the occurence of TNX paid links on a Web site. Links are stored as plain HTML, besides the target="_blank" attribute there is no obvious footprint or pattern on link level. Example:
Have a website? See this <a href="http://www.example.com" target="_blank">free affiliate program</a>.
Have a blog? Check this <a href="http://www.example.com" target="_blank">affiliate program with high comissions</a> for publishers.

Webmasters can enter any string as delimiter, for example <br /> or “•”:

Have a website? See this free affiliate program. • Have a blog? Check this affiliate program with high comissions for publishers.

Publishers can choose from 17 niches, 7 languages, 5 linkpop levels, and 7 toolbar PageRank values to target their ads.

From the system stats in the members area the service is widely used:

  • As of today [2007-11-06] we have 31,802 users (daily growth: +0.62%)
  • Links in the system: 31,431,380
  • Links created in last hour: 1,616
  • Number of pages indexed by TNX: 37,221,398

Long story short, TNX jumped through many hoops to develop a system which is supposed to trade paid links that are undetectable by search engines. Is that so?

The major weak point is the system’s growth and that its users are humans. Even if such a system would be perfect, users will make mistakes and reveal the whole network to search engines. Here is how Google has identified most if not all of the TNX paid links:

Some Webmasters put their TNX links in sidebars under a label that identifies them as paid links. Google crawled those pages, and stored the link destinations in its paid links database. Also, they devalued at least the labelled links, if not the whole page or even the complete site lost its ability to pass link juice because the few paid links aren’t condomized.

Many Webmasters implemented their TNX links in templates, so that they appear on a large number of pages. Actually, that’s recommended by TNX. Even if the advertisers have used the text variation tool, their URLs appeared multiple times on each site. Google can detect site wide links, even if not each and every link appears on all pages, and flags them accordingly.

Maybe even a few Googlers have signed up and served the TNX links on their personal sites to gather examples, although that wasn’t neccessary because so many Webmasters with URLs in their signatures have told Google in this DP thread that they’ve signed up and at least tested TNX links on their pages.

Next Google compared the anchor text as well as the surrounding text of all flagged links, and found some patterns. Of course putting text before and after the linked anchor text seems to be a smart way to fake a natural link, but in fact Webmasters applied a bullet-proof procedure to outsmart themselves, because with multiple occurences of the same text constellations pointing to an URL, especially when found on unrelated sites (different owners, hosts etc., topically irrelevancy plays no role in this context), paid link detection is a breeze. Linkage like that may be “natural” with regard to patterns like site wide advertising or navigation, but a lookup in Google’s links database revealed that the same text constellations and URLs were found on n  other sites too.

Now that Google had compiled the seed, each and every instance of Googlebot delivered more evidence. It took Google only one crawl cycle to identify most sites carrying TNX links, and all TNX advertisers. Paid link flags from pages on sites with a low crawling frequency were delivered in addition. Meanwhile Google has drawed a comprehensive picture of the whole TNX network.

I’ve developed such a link network many years ago (it’s defunct now). It was successful because only very experienced Webmasters controlling a fair amount of squeaky clean sites were invited. Allowing newbies to participate in such an organized link swindle is the kiss of death, because newbies do make newbie mistakes, and Google makes use of newbie mistakes to catch all participants. By the way, with the capabilities Google has today, my former approach to manipulate rankings with artificial linkage would be detectable with statistical methods similar to the algo outlined above, despite the closed circle of savvy participants.

From reading the various DP threads about TNX as well as their sales pitches, I’ve recognized a very popular misunderstanding of Google’s mentality. Folks are worrying whether an algo can detect the intention of links or not, usually focusing on particular links or linking methods. Google on the other hand looks at the whole crawlable Web. When they develop a paid link detection algo, they have a copy of the known universe to play with, as well as a complete history of each and every hyperlink crawled by Ms. Googlebot since 1998 or so. Naturally, their statistical methods will catch massive artificial linkage first, but fine tuning the sensitivity of paid link sniffers respectively creating variants to cover different linking patterns is no big deal. Of course there is always a way to hide a paid link, but nobody can hide millions of them.

Unfortunately, the unique selling point of the TNX service –that goes for all link brokers by the way– is manipulation of search engine rankings, hence even if they would offer nofollow’ed links to trade traffic instead of PageRank, most probably they would be forced to reduce the prices. Since TNX links are rather cheap, I’m not sure that will pay. It would be a shame when they decide to change the business model but it doesn’t pay for TNX, because the underlying concept is great. It just shouldn’t be used to exchange clean links. All the tricks developed to outsmart Google, like the text variation tool or not putting links on not exactly trafficked pages, are suitable to serve non-repetitive ads (coming with attractive CTRs) to humans.

I’ve asked TNX: I’ve decided to review your service on my blog, regardless whether you pay me or not. The result of my research is that I can’t recommend TNX in its current shape. If you still want a paid review, and/or a quote in the article, I’ve a question: Provided Google has drawn a detailed picture of your complete network, are you ready to switch to nofollow’ed links in order to trade traffic instead of PageRank, possibly with slightly reduced prices? Their answer:

We would be glad to accept your offer of a free review, because we don’t want to pay for a negative review.
Nobody can draw a detailed picture of our network - it’s impossible for one advertiser to buy links from all or a majority sites of our network. Many webmasters choose only relevant advertisers.
We will not switch to nofollow’ed links, but we are planning not to use Google PR for link pricing in the near future - we plan to use our own real-time page-value rank.

Well, it’s not necessary to find one or more links on all sites to identify a network.



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15 Comments to "Text link broker woes: Google's smart paid link sniffers"

  1. DazzlinDonna on 6 November, 2007  #link

    And this is why a paid review doesn’t constitute gaming the system (even though this one isn’t paid for). These people contacted me to do a paid review for them as well. I replied to them, telling them that I would do it, but that they should be aware that it would be a negative review. Of course, they didn’t pay me, and I didn’t do the review. If I hadn’t warned them in advance that it would be negative, they would have paid me, I would have done the review, it would have been my honest opinion, and yet it would be considered “wrong” to have gotten paid for reviewing a service or product.

    People, and Google in particular, want to believe that we are incapable of writing honest reviews. How wrong they are, as you’ve just proven. You would have been honest, paid or not. That’s wrong, how? It’s all about trust, on all sides of the coin.

  2. Sebastian on 6 November, 2007  #link

    You’re right Donna. Andy got even penalized because he accepted a tiny consulting fee to do a full blown review which took him hours for research alone. Journalists are paid workers too, feeded with advertising bucks, but next to nobody questions their work like Google does with bloggers. I admit that bazillions of bloggers will publish a canned review plastered with promotional links for 12 bucks or so, and in this case I think that Google’s fear of paid-for-review-links influencing rankings has substance. However, that does not qualify Google to demonise honest paid reviews. Sigh.

  3. Dan Anton on 6 November, 2007  #link

    I use to be completely against any fee for reviewing or buying a link but I think Google might be getting a little ridiculous on the crackdown. If you are paying for an honest review or a service that helps you build your site (real life businesses pay marketers/advertisers) then I don’t see why the internet should be any different. But like you stated no one knows the algorithm or to the extent this hurts the search results…Good post and I’m sure it’s not the end of the debate

  4. Jez on 7 November, 2007  #link

    Great post… its a shame you were not paid ;-)
    I would not take someones money for a negative review either…

    At best I think the statement

    “Nobody can draw a detailed picture of our network”

    is naive.

  5. […] just want to highlight why I don't support paid links and this is the kind of review I really wish Sebastian had been paid […]

  6. Karen Andrews on 7 November, 2007  #link

    great review and article. thank you for taking the time to illustrate why these paid link networks are so dangerous. I think webmasters are going to start getting back to basics and stop playing all of these link buying games.

    For example, I have been link exchanging with sites relevant to mine for the past EIGHT years. Over these years, I’ve developed over 800 inbound links through traditional reciprocal linking with sites related to my own. I use sites like seoelite and linkpartners.com to find relevant links. I use linksmanager to manage my links. I get one way links just from webmasters filling out my suggest link form. I decide who I link to, not an automated network. My results? about 40% of my traffic comes from my link exchanges. My rankings are solid. I am in the top ten for all of my keywords in all of the major search engines. If and when my rankings change, I have my inbound links to produce traffic for me. I suspect webmasters will go back to the basics of link exchange as link buying games continue to come into the spotlight.

    No games or secrets here. I build links SLOWLY over a long period of time. You can fly under the radar if you make linking decisions that generates links slowly.

  7. Brian Cook on 8 November, 2007  #link

    Very thoughtful review of the dangers involved in link buying. However, I think it’s way too early to announce the death of paid linking. Google’s recent actions have frightened many webmasters into chopping their text link ads, but the fact remains that text link advertising still works.

    I have no doubt that Google has many people much smarter than me working on it, but they haven’t solved it yet and I don’t think they’re particularly close. Until there’s firm, irrefutable evidence that text link advertising has an adverse effect on a site’s rankings, text link brokers and their clients will continue to prosper.

  8. Sebastian on 8 November, 2007  #link

    Brian, used to dig quite deep into such things, I can tell you that not everything works like it seems to work.

    Look at a paid link’s life cycle. After the first fetch by Googlebot, esp. when found on a page (A) not yet known for the appearance of paid links and cleverly integrated into the page’s look and feel, or, even better, put within the textual contents and not on a sidebar or other templated page area, it will most probably slip through if the link’s destination is not yet known as link buyer. Then this link appears on another page (B) where the Webmaster doesn’t care that much about link placements, and gets identified as paid link. Now link (A) passes link juice, and link (B) does not. Next Google identifies another paid link (C) on any page on the Web. Unfortunately link (C) can be found on page (A) too, so that this page gets flagged for paid linkage because it links out to two URLs owned by a link buyer. The result is that page (A) loses its ability to pass PageRank with its links, without (!!) any change in its toolbar PageRank. It might even get a raise with the next toolbar PR update, because the green slider visualizes the power of incoming links only (exept when Google finds too much paid links and decides to express their lowered opinion about that page with adjusted green pixels).

    Most probably only the identified paid links respectively the block carrying them will no longer pass PageRank in this stage, but I want to keep the example simple. Also, Google possibly gathers more evidence than just two links, and is smart enough not to rely on URLs alone, which could appear in natural links too.

    This method scales extremely well and can be applied to the linkage of the whole Web. Compiling the seed is a breeze thanks to paid link reports and staff doing research on the Web since Google exists. With every caught paid link the algo produces better results. Of course it can’t catch every paid link, especially not most privately traded links, but it will discover all large networks because those produce link patterns which are detectable with statistical methods.

    I agree that mass text link selling is not dead. Actually its extremely profitable at the moment, but that’s due to the credence of the masses, backed by short-term successes here and there, not because it indeed works on the long haul, or even in the medium term.

    Here is more food for thoughts: Nobody questions any more that Google penalizes exessive crosslinking and massive artificial linkage to some degree at least, because we’ve seen the evidence years ago. Now tell me why Google shouldn’t be able to identify paid link networks which basically leave the same patterns. All systematic link patterns are extremely risky with Google, regardless whether the links are paid for or not.

  9. Jeff Kansky on 8 November, 2007  #link

    All of you guys are talking about Google PR here, but non of you ever mentioned the fact, that you don’t need any PR to get to the Google TOP-1 results by eny keyword.

    It is all about links. More links point to your page with the set keyword, your page is going to have top positions in SERPs by that keyword.

    Karen Andrews, you built 800 link in 8 years … that is great, but once Google slaps you for no reason, or for the link buying reason you will understand that you wasted your precious time for the full 8 year period.

    It is not easy to cheat Google, but following its rules will definately not lead your business to success.

  10. […] Sebastian explains why it’s pretty easy for Google to spot the pattern of a large link network […]

  11. Karen Andrews on 9 November, 2007  #link

    Jeff,

    I have developed links for my end users not to game the search engines. I make linking decisions based on what benefits my end users (for example I link up with low PR sites if they offer content that benefits my own users).

    You can bet search engines trend how often sites obtain links. Since my linking strategy is defined to obtain links slowly in a natural method, I will never be “slapped”. Or it would have happened already. That is undeniable proof that link exchange works when you maintain control over who you link to, and keep the volume slow and natural. Those who disagree probably have little to no experience with link exchange link I do. It’s how you conduct the camapign that matters.

    I think Google is more concerned with fully automated link networks where there is no editorial control and when links are obtained very quickly. they can spot the difference. I will continue to link exchange for my end users in natural volume.

  12. Lucia on 10 November, 2007  #link

    Sebastian’s thought process for diagnosing paid links sounds about right to me. That’s one of the reasons I think those buying links are going to need to a) be patient and b) do some hand screening of blogs where they buy links.

    You don’t want your ads to appear on blogs that ‘obviously’ runs loads of ads. You don’t want to have too many appear in a clump.

  13. […] Text link broker woes: Google’s smart paid link sniffers - After the recent toolbar PageRank massacre link brokers are in the spotlight. One of them, TNX beta1, asked me to post a paid review of their servic… […]

  14. Malignition.com on 12 December, 2007  #link

    It’s very hard to outsmart Google these days. While it is lucrative to buy links, it is probably in everybody’s best interest to just play by the rules. I’m a bit surprised with TNX’s responce that they don’t want to pay for a negative review. As far as I’m concerned, this is an excellent review that points out some major flaws in their network which need to be addressed.

  15. rtt on 25 June, 2009  #link

    I think TNX is overrated. They claim they like security but their website does not use SSL to login.

    Their system works in a way that’s obvious a “programmer” made it, and is very inflexible.

    It’s hard to say if it works, there are so many text link sellers, but they have an advantage over TLA.

    Recently we noticed all their so-called PR4-5 links are actually PR0 and more are dropping like flies.

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