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 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.
Share/bookmark this: del.icio.us • Google • ma.gnolia • Mixx • Netscape • reddit • Sphinn • Squidoo • StumbleUpon • Yahoo MyWeb
Subscribe to Entries Comments All Comments