Sometimes I listen to podcasts while I am on the elliptical machine at the gym, and one of my favorites is Make Me Smart with Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal from NPR’s Marketplace radio show. It sounds sort of boring, but it’s not. However, it is as educational as it sounds. The two hosts choose an obscure or complex topic from the world of business or science (bitcoin, blockchain, etc.) and explain it in a fun way so that regular people can understand.
On a recent episode, Make Me Smart teamed up with a cyber security expert to track down the origins of a seemingly random piece of spam that came to the podcast via a form on their website. It wasn’t one of those “military flashlight” emails or “refinance your home” emails. It was one of those strange messages that is made up of words that almost form sentences but don’t quite make it, like somebody arbitrarily spliced together episodes of Sesame Street with no regard for the result.
Those messages always make me wonder, “who is writing this stuff and why?” The folks at Make Me Smart were similarly curious, and the findings were very interesting but hardly surprising. At the root of the scam was an Asian dating website (isn’t it always?). With this unscrupulous service, lonely users pay big bucks with the promise of finding online happiness but never get what they are looking for.
Now humans can be gullible, but eventually we catch on. That was the case with the dating website. Searches like “is [shady site domain name] a real dating site?” and “is [shady site domain name] a scam?” started to dominate Google, eventually becoming more popular than the site’s actual domain name. That presented a problem, but spammers are nothing if not industrious, so they rolled up their sleeves and developed an entire fake website devoted to “answering” those questions. It was actually called “is [shady site domain name] for real” or something to that effect, and while it provided “both sides to the story,” the verdict was, of course, that the dating site was just fine to use.
Google, however, isn’t as easy to fool as lovelorn web users. The developers still needed to get their new site to the top of the search results in order for it to help their old site make money. That’s where the spam comes in. You see, those jacked up sentences in the spam are filled with odd keyword combinations that match up with similar information on the fake “is it real?” website, and by spreading them out via spambots, they managed to fool Google into thinking that a lot of people where interested in it. Over time, the “is it real?” site became the top search result, even more popular than the original dating site it was created to support. Mission accomplished, spammers: your disinformation site has overcome all of the real information on Google.
Not only do I find this interesting from a technical standpoint, I find it fascinating from a human nature standpoint, as well as a historical standpoint. The web has matured so much that the idea of simply starting over has become inefficient for these folks. Instead, they’re working the system to maintain and build on the equity in their original (admittedly shady) brand.
What’s the takeaway from all of this? First, put Make Me Smart on your podcast list. It’s fun, and you will have cool stuff to talk about at parties. Second, don’t give up on your own brand. The rules seem like they change every day, but if you’re diligent, they can work in your favor. We can help. Drop us a line or give us a call. We won’t create spam for you, but we can leverage your brand in new and interesting ways online.