Do you ever get spam comments in your blog or see spam comments on the Internet and wonder where they come from, what they mean, and what purpose they serve? Web Authority decided to chase some of these comments down the rabbit hole they and you’ll be surprised at what we uncovered.
Spam and SEO
There are hundreds of articles on the Internet describing methods of marketing and tips to score high on SEO (search engine optimization) rankings. There are good ways (white hat), bad ways (black hat), and questionable ways (gray hat) to achieve high SEO scores.
White hat SEO means you produce good content, use proper image tags, and follow general good practices and rules to achieve high-ranking organically. Black hat SEO refers to use of illegal methods to promote via SEO and can include things such as hacking, forced link placement, and purchasing back-links. In the middle ground is gray hat SEO, which encompasses methods that are questionable, but maybe not outright illegal – such as using improper keywords, creating false profiles, creating fake reviews with links to your site.
We won’t profess to be an expert on SEO, but we did uncover an aggressive campaign in action, and quite frankly, it was entertaining to watch unfold. How many sites show you gray hat SEO in action and the result of a widespread guerrilla SEO campaign?
For those not savvy with web content or programming, in short, mastering search engine optimization means you have figured out how to land near the top of search results for a given keyword or phrase. In our example today we will show actual examples and give direct links to websites used by a company to promote their flashlight.
Without further ado, let’s take a peek behind that SEO curtain utilized by Simon Flashlights…
We first became aware of Simon Flashlights due to their aggressive ‘marketing’ comment campaign, which was leaving countless spam comments across many articles. The comments are usually nonsensical and do not always list the name of the item they are promoting, instead featuring a keyword like “flashlight” or “LED torch” followed by a comment which appears to satisfy popular search strings.
Note: One of the things that helps an SEO score are what’s called ‘back-links’ to the webpage. These are links elsewhere on the Internet which point back to a site you wish to promote. The more links from around the internet that point to your site, the greater of an ‘authority site’ your page becomes. Despite the fact we list links to the various ‘trick’ pages here, we are using what’s called a ‘nofollow’ designation on all links which means the links won’t get credit toward ranking those websites in search results.
Simon started with the basic back-link to the amazon or other web retailer page. This is entry-level spamming, featuring a keyword, brief search string description, and of course the product link.
Below is a screenshot of how a typical comment held in the moderation queue appears in the control panel of a website administrator:
‘Name’ reflects the field which asks for the commenter’s name. In this case the spam bot used the keyword of “18650” as the name. ‘Website’ is intended for a commenter to leave a reference to his or her own website. In this case the provided link is to a listing on Amazon.com for a Simon 3400mAh rechargeable battery. Underneath the linked website is the IP address from where the comment was submitted. Most if not all of this spam/SEO stuff is done behind virtual private networks, so these will rarely be of value.
The ‘comment’ field is normally reserved for comments under whatever blog article it was published, but here it includes a cleverly written brief description which manages to tick off a few popular search strings for the keywords they care about:
- “greatest top LED flashlights”
- “LED flashlights battery”
- “flashlights battery available anywhere” and
- “at the best price”
This simple sentence does an amazing job of covering a wide swath of potential search terms.
Now keep in mind 99.9% of spam comments are caught by various spam filters. So what is the point of these comments? The hope is one of the comments squeaks through a spam filter – or finds a site not employing a filter – then lands on a page and is allowed to stay. If the site does not use a plugin or other tweak that automatically attaches ‘nofollows’ to comment links, then BOOM! Free link juice, and the next person who visits that page and might be looking for 18650 batteries might just click it too.
If you hire a good marketing company, they will probably do several variations of this basic comment across multiple comment blasts. Here they introduce the brand name ‘Simon’ along with the ‘18650’ keyword, along with a similar search-string-friendly description:
The example below uses more search string keywords such as “best batteries” and “best batteries rated on Amazon”:
In the example below the comment is constructed differently in case a search engine indexes alphabetically. This ‘website’ link also takes us to the Amazon page of a Simon flashlight instead.
More search string magic: “best small flashlights”
Step 2: Create Fake Tumblr Accounts
After linking directly to the product sites, the next step is to create fake reviews from made-up accounts of fictitious people who appear to be happily using the products. This can be easily done by creating fake profile pages across actual, reputable sites.
Websites like Tumblr and YouTube (among about a thousand others) allow you to create an account – which means you get a profile page hosted on a major website with potential strong link juice, or at the very least potential to land higher on search rankings.
In the case of Simon Flashlights, they created a tumblr account named “tourchlite” and added posts such as “Stream Flashlights with Lighting to Save,” populated with text that appears to describe how LED flashlights work. A second Tumblr account (“besttorchlite”) repeats the Simon plug but with a different title of “The very best LED flashlight for safety and defense.”
But if we scroll down…..
There it is.
Yes folks, that is a hidden link that says “bright led flashlight.” Clicking the link takes visitors to the Simon Flashlights website.
Hidden links are not illegal or immoral, but their use is suspect if they are used to circumvent a platform’s terms of service or game search engine results.
Note the page links to Simon Flashlights with the text “bright led flashlights” instead of labeling the link as “Simon Flashlights.” There are two reasons for doing this:
- It’s against Tumblr’s terms of service to self-promote with links, to spam, or to engage in affiliate marketing (more on this below).
- Use of the string “bright led flashlights” will no doubt perform better in search engine rankings than the name of the company when users do a search.
What’s the big deal, you ask?
Well for Tumblr it’s specifically a violation of community rules to engage in “Non-Genuine Social Schemes” or use “Deceptive or Fraudulent Links” in posts on their service. In addition there’s also an anti-spam section in Tumblr’s Terms of Service that states:
“Don’t spam people. Don’t make spammy posts, don’t post spammy replies, don’t send people spammy messages. Don’t use deceptive means to generate revenue or traffic, or create blogs with the primary purpose of affiliate marketing. Spam doesn’t belong on Tumblr.”
But we’re not here to police Tumblr.
Back to the Simon Tumblr post: If we scroll further down the post, we reach an embedded YouTube video. The video gives what appears to be a neutral and positive review of the Simon flashlight:
When we go directly to YouTube, we see the video is posted by a user named “Conrad Stevens.” Under the video, a sales-catalog description accompanies the clip along with no less than three links to Simon Flashlights and their products. Interestingly, comments are disabled.
If we check out Conrad Stevens’ channel we see he has four videos uploaded (two with > 25k views) – and as it turns out they are all reviews of Simon flashlights. Furthermore, three of the four have titles saying “best flashlight I ever bought on Amazon” instead of listing the product model number or name.
So is Conrad Stevens an undercover Simon employee, or just a rabid Simon flashlight fan? Before you ask, Simon Flashlights already has an official YouTube channel (and it’s not Conrad Stevens).
Once Simon Flashlights had the Tumblr page established, the next step was to spam links to the Tumblr page across multiple website comment sections:
Step 3: Post & Re-Post Fictional Review Videos to YouTube
When it comes to convincing shoppers, fake YouTube reviews are gold mines. Here’s another video review submitted by yet another guy who has more than one Simon Flashlight review video on his channel.
How many impartial third parties do multiple flashlight reviews from the same brand on their channel? Smartly, comments are disabled on this one too.
Another example is the YouTube user John Mesisca. He uploaded just one video, a review of a Simon flashlight. But he didn’t call the video the name of the flashlight like you or I might do, instead he titled the video a search-engine-friendly “Brightest Tactical LED Flashlight I Ever Bought on Amazon.”
Pro-tip: If a video is named with a superlative descriptor (ex. “brightest”, “best”, “top selling”) and a retailer’s name – but neglects to mention the product name – it’s probably inauthentic and strictly for search result / SEO purposes!
Fortunately for us, in case we forgot the link to Simon’s website, John Mesisca includes the link three times in his video description (thanks John).
There’s more. In a display of their broad impartiality, YouTube user “LED Flashlights” has five flashlight review videos uploaded to their channel – but they’re all Simon videos. Lest there be any doubt “LED Flashlights” is really Simon Flashlights in drag, their channel description says “our flashlights,” “our collection,” and “our products” before directing viewers to visit their Amazon store.
But YouTube user “Police Flashlight” is the dead giveaway. This account actually uses Simon’s official logo as their avatar, uses the same banner graphic as the other Simon YouTube account “LED Flashlights,” and of the four videos the user has uploaded, all are Simon reviews.
In a bit of a blunder the videos are all repeats from the other YouTube accounts created by Simon. For one, “PoliceFlashlight” uploaded the John Mesisca video a second time – but with the official description from Simon Flashlights instead of John’s ‘opinion’ from the other video.
The company also re-uploaded one of the Conrad Stevens videos and switched out Conrad’s description for the official Simon text.
And then “PoliceFlashlight” also pilfered one of the LED Flashlight videos, again replacing the opinion piece with the official Simon description.
Step 4: Create Multiple Profiles on Wiki Answers
In our Simon Flashlights example, one of the recurring pseudonyms of their SEO scoundrel was “Jason Metcalfe.”
Mr. Metcalfe established an account on wiki.answers.com under the name “tourchlite” and as we can see from his profile page (pictured at right), he has contributed nothing to the answers wiki. However he did remember to include a link to Simon Flashlights in his profile.
For round two Simon Flashlights created a second account using another pseudonym. This time Joe Handler created a wiki answers profile for “Atomiclite” which, like Jason Metcalfe’s profile, links back to Simon Flashlights. According to Answers, neither profile has contributed anything to the answers wiki. The Handler profile was created recently, on 9/26/2016.
Of course, part two of this step is to then spam links to your new profile page on wiki answers across the Internet. Tie it in with a keyword that directly suits the product in question and voilà! You have some back-links planted on the Internet:
Step 5: Create Multiple Fake Profiles on Diigo, Bounce App, and Daily Motion, Link Back To Website
This is more of a rinse & repeat of Step 2, but across multiple sites on the Internet. In the case of Simon Flashlights, they created multiple false profile pages on Daily Motion, on BounceApp they uploaded what looks like a screenshot of Simon Flashlights homepage, and on diigo.com Jason Metcalfe created another “tourchlite” profile.
None of the profiles have uploaded content to the various sites, but all do link viewers back to Simon Flashlights.
Once those pages are created, Simon engaged in another round of comment blitzing, spreading the links to these pages around the Internet. Note in this round, Simon Flashlights decided to not use their name, and instead use only popular search terms:
After Step 1, Simon Flashlights wised up and stopped directly linking to their product pages in the spam comments.
As a spammer it’s obviously safer to not use your company’s name, instead linking to other pages which then directs visitors to the company’s website. Most webmasters won’t chase down the source of spam comments like these, which offers another layer of protection for any company employing such tactics.
Note: Ever wonder how they pick keywords to use? A quick scan of the Simon Flashlight’s Alexa webpage gives us our answer. Note the similarities between the top search keywords and the names used in the comments above:
That’s not a coincidence.
Step 6: Create 50+ Fake Profile Pages and Websites and Repeat Step Two
Simon Flashlights wasn’t done. The company created a “tourchlite” page on LiveJournal and also created a “tourchlite” profile on Storify, which in a confusing web of cross-back-linking directs viewers to a host of other company-created pages on the Internet.
A Scoop.it page of social media posts created by John Hoffman also promotes Simon Flashlights – this is a goldmine for locating dozens of bogus profiles created for Simon Flashlights. Another great source is All My Faves, which has a profile page for “atomiclite” that links to a dozen other profile pages they created. And there’s also the Simon Gravatar page, which lists another dozen websites created by the company.
From our searches and scanning we’ve found fifty different pages around the Internet promoting Simon Flashlight products (skip to bottom if you don’t need to see all the evidence):
- At least three Zillow.com profiles promote Simon products. The Zillow profile for “chandlerjoe26” links back to Simon Flashlights, as does the Zillow profile for Ian White and the Zillow profile for Jason Metcalfe.
- Simon Flashlights created a profile on Buzzfeed that links back to their webpage.
- Somebody posted an article on Slashdot.org on behalf of Simon Flashlights, which links back to their page.
- a profile for Joe Handler on Blogher links back to Simon Flashlights.
- In the Apple discussions community, the user “simonlite” was created to link back to Simon Flashlights. A second user by the name of “tacbeam” does the same, using keywords without mentioning “Simon” but linking to its website.
- Joe Handler created a profile on Quora with a link back to the Simon homepage. Another Quora profile for Ian White does the same.
- A user profile on Ideafit for Joe Handler sends users back to Simon Flashlights.
- Another profile for Joe Handler appears on 4shared.com, which links back to Simon.
- The enterprising Joe Handler also created an account on wattpad, linking back to Simon Flashlights.
- There’s a Yelp profile for Joe “atomiclite” H. which repeats a camping flashlight description as seen on other sites – and links back to Simon Flashlights.
- There’s an AboutUs page for Simon Flashlights, although the word ‘Simon’ never appears on the page. Instead the page seems to target search engines, and is titled “Highqualityledflashlights”.
- There’s a second AboutUs page for Simon under the name “atomiclite” which like the first page links back to Simon.
- Jason Metcalfe makes another appearance on about.me on his webpage he created for Simon Flashlights. The page also has a button which says “Watch my videos,” that links to his YouTube video – which turns out to be the Conrad Stevens’ YouTube video! Coincidence?
- The profile “atomiclite” on Reality Sandwich has zero posts and appears to have been created to link back to Simon Flashlights.
- An article on HomeTalk by Joe Handler also pushes Simon Flashlights, and then like Jason Metcalfe also links to the Conrad Stevens YouTube video. I wonder if Joe Handler knows Jason Metcalfe, or if either of them know Conrad Stevens?
- In his Dzone profile, Joe Handler tells us he’s the manager for Simon Flashlights – and then links back to the company’s website, of course.
- The user “atomiclite” on spruz (who is not further identified, however we know from above Joe Handler has used the ‘atomiclite’ handle before) has authored an article which includes another hidden link to Simon Flashlights (labeled “cree led t6”). In a funny coincidence, the spruz article also embeds John Masisca’s YouTube video. I wonder if Joe Handler knows John Masisca?
- Joe Handler made a profile on APSense which links back to Simon Flashlights.
- There is a profile for “torchlite” and a profile for “atomiclite” on PearlTrees, which both link to Simon YouTube videos and product pages.
- An atomiclite page appears on flavors.me, also linking back to Simon but with they keyword link text of “brightest led flashlights.”
- There’s the Joe Handler page on VisualCV which has a link for “cree led flashlights” that takes viewers back to Simon.
- On 9/25/2016 Joe Handler added a Simon Flashlights page to Medium.com, linking back to Simon Flashlights. There is also a page on Medium created for “creeledflashlights” that links back to Simon Flashlights.
- The company created “tacbeam”, a second profile on webs.com that promotes Simon products.
- Simon Flashlights created a second storify account “atomiclite” (their first was “tourchlite”) and included the same text description, link back to Simon Flashlights, and another reference to the John Masisca YouTube video.
- To cover various types of searches, Simon uploaded the same description into Google Docs with a link back to Simon’s homepage.
- There’s a Simon Flashlights profile on Crunchbase. Zero contributions to the site, but they included a Simon Flashlights YouTube video an included link to the Simon homepage.
- The keywords “best led flashlights” mark the text of the link which sends users back to Simon Flashlights on the company’s atomiclite.webs.com page. The page also includes an embedded Conrad Stevens YouTube video.
- Simon Flashlights tried to create a page on academia.edu (.edu websites can offer greater linking juice), but it was killed by the website when it was discovered to be part of a linking scheme. A user by the name of “Faith Metcalfe” tried again and got her link to Simon Flashlights to stick.
- The company created the “Best Police Flashlights” webpage on Blogspot, which repeats the Simon description and links back to the company’s website.
- On WordPress the company created the site “Brightestpoliceflashlight” and linked back to Simon Flashlights. (Also the WordPress blog “brightestledsimonflashlights”).
- On 9/26/2016 the company created a profile on Disqus linking back to Simon Flashlights.
- There’s a Simon Flashlights feedburner page which links back to Simon’s batteries and flashlight products.
- There is a second LiveJournal profile titled “atomiclite”, which like other LiveJournal account “tourchlite”, directs visitors to Simon Flashlights and includes a YouTube video from Simon. Simon Flashlights then created a third LiveJournal account “creet6ledlight”, which also promotes Simon products.
- User “atomiclite” created a page on programming website IFTTT.com, advertising the Simon Flashlight and linking to the company’s website.
- Simon tried to post the same description marketing piece with a link on scribd, but it was removed for violating the terms of service.
- Joe Handler created the “atomiclite” user on ask.fm, and like the others the user profile page links back to Simon Flashlights.
- Another Simon Flashlights article makes an appearance on padlet, including the same text description and link back to Simon as in other articles.
- Pseudonym Evan May was used to create an account on Social Media Today. The user profile page links back to a specific Simon Flashlights product.
- On Behance there’s a profile for Ian White which links back to Simon Flashlights.
- Simon Flashlights created the StumbleUpon account “tacbeam” and submitted at least seven other Simon Flashlight pages for the StumbleUpon network.
That’s fifty examples of pages created by Simon Flashlights, used simply to link and promote their products. And as long as this list is, we didn’t find every one.
This stuff works because 99.99% of Internet users out there won’t catch it. And technically, it’s not illegal (although in some cases they are violating a websites terms of service, but the violations are minor and at worst would result in having an account revoked).
Hopefully this was educational for everyone. Sadly, the lesson might be that generally, if you flood enough of the Internet with comments or links to something, it will eventually bubble to the top of search results. For the most part, this method works. And as evidenced by the dates some of these pages were created, the team at Simon Flashlights appears to still be busy creating these pages, even after doing this over a period of several months.
Has all this work paid off? Well, they’re killing it on Amazon.
Well done, Simon Flashlights. You have successfully tricked the Internet.
If the company protests the claims above or tries to say they no longer engage in such activity, we’d like to know why the “chandlerjoe26” Zillow profile (which links back to Simon Flashlights) was created on 9/25/2016. And we’d like to ask why the Disqus account or the second wiki answers profile were created on 9/26/2016 (and why they need multiple wiki answers, LiveJournal, and Zillow profiles at all, for that matter).