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Hidden Links Raise Eyebrows

Isn’t it interesting the places Lady Drama chooses to drop her robe, spinning everybody into gawking with covered mouths and gossip to spread? The whispers immediately crescendoed into a web-rattling holler across the servers-Financial Times was busted for hidden links.

And so, all the elements of drama present themselves in exquisite giddiness, those words that excite the most stoic browser of book covers-Deceit, Betrayal, Greed, Hypocrisy, Corruption. The dirt, man, the dirt. We’re on the edge of our seats to see if Google serves the search warrant to a major Internet player, or will power triumph over justice?

Ken McGaffin, an online marketer and link builder, broke the story last Friday. He used the “select all” feature on the Financial Times website and discovered links to Moneysupermarket.com-138 of them, all presented in white to match the background. McGaffin appears to have found the links by accident while doing a competitive link analysis for a client. To find the links on such a reputable site, he says, was suprising.

“Using ‘hidden links’ is one of the oldest methods of search engine spam so you wouldn’t expect to see them on a respected news site like the Financial times online, (FT.com). FT.com describes itself as ‘the world’s leading audited business website, with more than 3.7 million unique users’,” said McGaffin in his weblog.

For those of you just tuning in, using hidden links on a website is a marketing trick decidedly on the “black hat” side of the fence. It’s an attempt to manipulate search engine algorithms which take into account how many times a website is linked to by other sites. The more links, the higher the ranking.

FT.com, it would appear, sold nearly a gross of links to Moneysupermarket.com, and buried them in the background so nobody would see but algorithms.

This is a really dirty trick and many are surprised because of the size of the entities involved. Selling links is a method that many people frown upon, but selling a 138 of them and then burying them in an attempt to spam search engines has even “gray hatters” doing spit-takes.

FT.com didn’t take long to grab a towel to wipe off the egg dripping down its nose. As of Monday, FT.com has removed the hidden links and provided one very visible link. According to McGaffin, FT.com said they didn’t know how this happened.

McGaffin goes on to ask some poignant questions.

1. Why does FT.com appear to be ignoring one of Google’s top quality guidelines, “Avoid hidden text or hidden links”. Such practices are of course also frowned on by other search engines.

2. Is FT.com selling such links? And if so, who else might they sell hidden links to?

3. Is buying such links common practice for Moneysupermarket.com? If so, who else might they buy hidden links from?4. Why are the links hidden? Six partners are visible on FT.com with links to their respective websites. Why is Moneysupermarket.com not listed visibly with the other partners?

McGaffin, himself, has raised eyebrows among fellow search engine marketers. It is surprising to some that he would out someone else’s tactics. Some are calling it sour grapes.

A few comments from SEOBook’s blog:

“SEOs shouldn’t rat on other SEOs. This is a bold publicity move that I personally would never do.”

“I would have more respect for Ken McGaffin [currently zero and falling] if his article wasn’t just a whine about getting beaten in the SERP’s.”

“…placing blatent self promotion in outing does lower the trust / value factor significantly. Based on how the article reads it lends to the assumption that there was no attempt to contact the webmasters prior to writing it.”

The most interesting development in this story will be how King Google responds. Google has dropped many a site from their listings for these types of tactics. But FT.com is one of those sites with big recognition and big money. It wouldn’t be in Google’s best interest, from solely a business standpoint, to drop FT.com on its ear in the cyber street. It’s like de-listing the New York Times or Bloomburg. You might as well drop the Library of Congress while you’re at it. Search purists will definitely have their eyes on Google who champions the no-nonsense nature of their service.

About the Author: Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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Camilla Todd
Camilla Todd is Head of Digital Marketing at WNW Digital and manages Search Engine Optimisation, PPC, Social Media campaigns and Brand Awareness for WNW Digital SEO clients. You can follow her on Twitter @camilla_wnw, email her at camilla@wnwdigital.co.uk or phone on 01392 349580

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