A new low in SEO scams?

There are honest business models, and dishonest business models. Honest business models include businesses who manufacture useful products and sell them to consumers, or perform a useful service for a reasonable price. Dishonest business models include pyramid schemes (such as Mary Kay and Amway), Ponzi schemes, and alternative medicine.

But there’s also a third category of business models: the bottom of the barrel. These businesses exist almost exclusively on the Internet and, boy, are there a lot of them. These types of businesses include:

  • Selling spamming services
  • Selling botnets to spam more efficiently
  • Pretending to be a charitable organization during a disaster
  • Gaming (exploiting) affiliate programs from web hosts or porn sites
  • Affiliate programs from affiliate programs from web hosts or porn sites
  • Selling e-books about how to sell SEO services
  • Selling e-books about how to game affiliate programs
  • (and the list goes on…)

But now, it looks like a new contender has stepped forward:

  • Translating random web pages in exchange for link placement (resulting in improved search engine rankings)

Before I describe the scheme fully, let me start at the beginning. Last week I received the following email:

Dear Sir,
I am writing to inquire regarding your web page about running in Linux where I have found a lot of useful information. My name is [name redacted] and I’m currently studying at the Faculty of Computer Science in Belgrade. Here is the URL of your article: http://diskdigger.org/linux

I would like to share it with the people from Former Yugoslav Republics: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I would be grateful if you could allow me to translate your writing into Serbo-Croatian language, that is used in all Former Yugoslav Republics and to post it on my website. Hopefully, it will help our people to gather some additional knowledge about computing.

I hope to hear from you soon.

[name redacted]
Tel: +381 62 300604

Wow, someone wants to translate one of my pages into another language! What an honor. However, after the initial flattery wore off, I noticed a few things that didn’t seem to add up:

  • The page that this person chose to translate is fairly obscure. It almost seems like it was chosen at random. A native speaker of “Serbo-Croatian” wouldn’t gain anything from it without a lot of background knowledge.
  • A language like Serbo-Croatian is itself fairly obscure. I would guess that a Serbo-Croatian citizen who is remotely interested in “computing” will most likely speak English to begin with, so this kind of translation would be useless.
  • The verbiage in the email sounds a little too boilerplate, with phrases like “a lot of useful information” and “additional knowledge about computing.”

So, what could be this person’s real motive?

If we follow the link in her signature, we see that she is affiliated with “WebHostingGeeks”, which appears to be a web hosting review site that makes money from web host affiliate programs and paid reviews. This certainly makes it a traffic-driven business model, and it therefore has a lot to gain from any kind of SEO “scheme.”

After doing a Google search for “WebHostingGeeks” combined with the name of the person from the email, we see a plethora of results where the scheme repeats itself over and over: dozens of seemingly random web pages translated into Serbo-Croatian, with a link back to the WebHostingGeeks site.

And the pieces fall into place. Here’s how the scheme works:

  • A webmaster receives an email from a foreign-sounding person, asking for permission to translate one of their web pages.
  • The webmaster feels honored, and replies “absolutely!”
  • The translator translates the page (using Google Translate, maybe with a few touch-ups), and asks the webmaster to add a link to the translated page from the original page.
  • The webmaster, blinded by pride, puts a link to the translated page onto the original page (and often blogs about what an honor it is to be noticed in such a remote corner of the world!).
  • Over time, if enough credible web pages add these kinds of links, then the malicious target of the links (i.e. WebHostingGeeks) will climb straight to the top of Google search results, precisely because it’s linked to by oh-so-many respectable sites.

Indeed, after some extensive Googling, it’s surprising just how many very respectable websites have been fooled by this scam. Just do a search for “webhostinggeeks translate serbo-croatian”, and you’ll see for yourself.

“Traditional” SEO schemes have their place among the bottom of the barrel, but this is surely a new low. I actually commend them for almost getting one past me.

I call on all webmasters out there: if you’ve received this kind of offer to translate one of your pages, and added a link to the “translated” version of your page, please remove it, and show the scammers that we’re smarter than them. These shady business practices are mired in obscurity, and that’s where they belong. Please share this information with anyone who may be affected.

Update (Nov. 2013): I’ve been contacted by the person who sent me the original email, and she requested that I remove her name from this post, since it’s been having a negative effect on her online reputation (she is no longer associated with WebHostingGeeks). So then, not only does she appear to be a real person, but she claims that WebHostingGeeks paid her to do these translations by hand (not using Google Translate). Could it really be worth all that trouble just to gain a tiny bit more Google rank?