Monday, August 30, 2010

"Awards" and Search Engine Optimization Scams

I was recently notified through the contact form on RateTea that my tea blog was given a "Top Tea Blog Award" presented by a website that shall for all purposes remain nameless. The email, sent by someone named Amy, linked to a page that was a collection of blogs that had received this award. The email read:
"Our unique learning system uses the resources available on the blogosphere as our teaching tool, as you are smarter than us when it comes to your topic of interest, and this is why you have been awarded as a top blog."

Flattering, right? My first response was excitement--this is great that I've created a blog that others have found to be a valuable online resource. I was excited because I know there are many legitimate lists of tea bloggers and awards.

The email then requests to add a badge to my blog to announce to the world that I have received this award. The badges, conveniently provided in different sizes with cut-and-paste segments of HTML, link back to the website.

I smell a link scheme:

This immediately struck me as a link scheme, an unethical practice of attempting to boost the prominence of your website in search rankings by generating links from other websites through some sort of incentive system. The idea is that if more blogs (or other sites) link to the one website, it will perform better in search results because search engines will see the links as a sign that the site is more authoritative.

The list of tea blogs that were said to receive these "awards" showed little evidence of editorial selection. Some of the most well-established and informative blogs out there, including Tea Guy Speaks, 39 Steeps, or the Walker Tea Review, are not included on this list. But at least one blog, A Sampleing of Camellia Sinensis is included, but has not been updated since March of 2009...because it has moved--announced prominently on the blog's homepage, to Puerh Drinker (John Grebe's Blog).

This demonstrates that the list of blogs selected was either automatically generated, or was hastily generated with poor editorial oversight. It seems their idea was to create a page of links to tea blogs that could be hastily thrown together, and then get these more legitimate websites and blogs, whose authors are honest people contributing quality material, to link back to the site. There's even a little subtle pressure to reciprocate the link:
"You can let your readers know you won by embedding the badge code to one of the different awards graphics found at:
If you choose to accept or decline inclusion in our resource list, please let me know."

It's a scam. The implicit idea--not stated explicitly because it would probably offend most bloggers--is that if you don't link back, you may be removed from the list. If you were really providing a valuable resource, they'd link to you anyway, based on the quality of your site, regardless of whether or not you link back.

Looking at the Website Itself:

Then, with a skeptical mind, I looked at the website hosting this "award". It is a site selling online degrees--even up through the "doctorate" level. The about-us page does not identify any names or corporation behind the site. There is absolutely nothing that could establish the legitimacy of this website. When I clicked through one of their online degree options, it referred me to a third party e-commerce site. Very shady.

The Scam Runs Deeper:

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how far this scam had been taken. I typed "tea blog award" into google and was shocked to find three identically structured lists of tea blog awards on three identically structured websites. Suddenly, I saw some of the tea blogs that had been omitted: they were included on the other lists. Not only is this scam being used to generate links to one site--it's being used in a broader scheme involving other cloned sites selling other kinds of fake online degrees.

I then searched even more, and with more effort, found that this scam is being carried out in many different categories, not just tea. One of these sites listed 16 categories of blog awards on their page...but tea was not even included. They could be running this scam in dozens if not hundreds of different categories!

The Lesson?

Be skeptical of receiving an award like this. Be particularly skeptical of people who ask you to link to their websites. If something feels a bit off, dig deeper.

There's nothing wrong with asking someone to link to your website--I do it all the time--and I'm often very responsive when others ask me to link to or write about their sites. In fact, especially on this blog, I enjoy it! But...only if it's a legitimate site.

How to handle situations like this?

I don't link to the site--I don't even mention the site by name, because this might raise the site's visibility or drive traffic to the site--which is what the scammers want. If I've posted already (I admit, I've been roped in by scams in the past--and I was almost roped in by this one) I quickly delete the post--and instead I post about the scam, just like this post.

I would encourage others to adopt this approach. The more people get the word out about schemes and scams like this, the less they are able to works, and the better of a place the web is for everyone!


  1. Thanks for the warning Alex! Looks like they're not my cup of tea either. :)

  2. Thanks for posting this Alex! I also see these emails from time to time and I even got that same one from "Amy" last week too. I've always just deleted them.

  3. Good gravy...I received a similar email and just ignored it. I'm glad I did. Sheesh.

  4. Great warning! I will keep in mind, just in case.

  5. Thank you Alex! I'm deleting the badge from my site immediately!

  6. Tony Gebely of Chicago Tea Garden put forth this same theory. However, I posted the link anyway and have since noticed that my stats show a lot of traffic coming to my blog FROM them. Of course, I can't see what goes to them from my blog but not too concerned. We need to be cautious about what we call a scam.

  7. Since such awards don't mean much to me, I have removed all but the culinary college one. Why bother? I prefer to cross link with selected blogs. BTW, thanks, Alex, for linking to both of my blogs.

  8. Any time, thank you for blogging! =) I do think it's most important for bloggers to network with each other. That's interesting that you saw traffic coming from them...I wonder if it was from other tea bloggers browsing the list?

    I do think that lists and collections of blogs are useful for connecting bloggers with each other. Tea Guy Speaks' Tea Blog List is particularly comprehensive, although perhaps a bit overwhelming in that it's so long!

  9. I thought this was fishy as well, but they did come through with a $25 gift certificate to a restaurant. I will include your post on my post about the "award". I normally don't link to these, either, but did on this one. Shouldn't have.

  10. Oh wow...they actually sent you a $25 gift certificate to a restaurant? Did it work? I did not get any such offer when I received this "award".

    Unless they somehow received bulk gift certificates for free, I wonder how they could have done this, as they seem to have run this same award scheme in dozens of different categories, with dozens of blogs in each category, and actually buying gift certificates, even at a discounted rate, would be prohibitively expensive.