Thursday, October 6, 2011

Peter at Leafbox Tea Writes on Spam Blogs

This post is a follow-up post to the post Tea Spam: "Boutique" Spam". I received a wealth of responses to this post, some in private. Several different people pointed out a connection between a tea company and the spam site using automated posts, which I described in my earlier post. One of these responses I agreed to publish on my blog, because it was too big to put in the comment box on the original blog post. This was written by Peter of Leafbox Tea. Upon issuing this post, I received a cease-and-desist letter from the said company, after which, upon consulting with Peter, we removed mention of this company's name.

If you are curious what company it is, we encourage you to do your own research; the information we used to research this post is all in plain view and the public record.


The following reply was authored by Peter. As a disclaimer, I will say that it does not represent my own views, but I will say that I think the viewpoint is worth reading and reflecting on. I do not agree with everything communicated in the reply, and I clarify a few points below.

But at a very minimum, it is clear that the tea company in question has some relationship to the spam site, as the company is advertising there without affiliate links, and is located in the same physical neighborhood. In the spirit of Wikipedia I would like to assume good faith. If the sites are separate, and the advertisement is paid advertisement, then it consists of paid links, which is a violation of Google's guidelines, and is an unethical "black-hat" technique to manipulate search ranking. If there is a relationship, then the whole site is such an operation. I would like to encourage the owner of this company to (a) clarify his relationship to the site (b) if he runs the site, take it down, or at least, remove the automated content and leave only the legitimate, uniquely authored content, or, identify the source of the content and how it has been modified. (c) if he does not run the site, to cut off any relationship he has with the site -- including stopping advertising on it.

In the long-run, this will actually be beneficial to this company's business, regardless of whether or not the sites are affiliated. Google is good at detecting link schemes, and it explicitly says so in their webmaster guidelines. Following these guidelines helps to maintain an image of public integrity, and also protect their placement in search rankings, by either shutting the site's automated spam content down (if they run it), or by distancing themselves from the site and helping to shut it down (if they do not).

Peter's Reply:***This posting has been redacted by its original author due to the issuance of a cease-and-desist letter. All direct indications of the company and principals in question have been removed.***

I love that you brought this up because that site was brought up earlier this year by a very popular online tea personality. That person linked that site to a currently operating online tea company. I will do the same here, because it took me about ten minutes to confirm that connection with some Google-fu. It is owned by the tea company XXXXXXXXXXXX. The owner of XXXXXXXXX has threatened libel suits for anyone calling him a spammer.

A note about that offending site: It is not intended for human viewers and everything about it is probably automated - it is intended only for Google. When you look at it from a SEO (search engine optimization) point of view, it is a very nice piece of work.

Google checks sites that are updated frequently, no doubt that Google is crawling that thing several times a day. There is a correlation between the SEO keywords used on that site (loose leaf tea) and the keywords used on XXXXXXXXXX (also loose leaf tea). Both sites feature this prominently. However, Google gives a lot of weight to what it calls Authoritative Sites but it doesn't distinguish (yet) from robot created sites and human created sites. The constant flow of content, and the offending site is developing itself as an authoritative tea site (even if humans never visit it) - as it goes up in age and rankings, the sites it links to also go up in rankings.

Now, I did check some of the articles through google and of the five I checked, all were copied from places that are intended to be copied (i.e. When looking for plagarism, I find it easier to grab a large chunk of text from the article and search it in Google. If all of the sources for the site are material designed for this purpose, then he is not plagarizing - its just an aggregation of material meant for that.

I won't go so far as to call the owner of XXXXXXXXXXX a spammer, but in terms of website building - I do think that what he has done is absolutely unethical as a tea industry businessman. He may be thinking that all he has done is built a cog in the great Google machine, but when real humans spend time on his attractively designed site - he is doing a great diservice to tea drinkers and consumers because of the amount of cheap, unsubstantiated, and inaccurate information posted there.

Now, how do I know that the site is owned by XXXXXXXXX? What is my evidence?

~ There are five ads on the left side of the blog. Only one is not an affiliate ad, the one that links to XXXXXXXXXXX. I do think there is a certain irony in him being an affiliate advertiser for his competitors...(affiliate ad links don't affect Google rankings - he wants Google to give credit to the links to XXXXXXXXXX)

~ The physical addresses for each business carry much in common. This is all public information made available on the respective websites. Both companies show an address in the city of Carol Stream, Illinois in the zip code of 60188. Maybe a coincidence, but it gets better. XXXXXXXXX's business address is in the 600 block of Kamiah Court (which is, according to mapping, a neighborhood of single-family homes). The business address of the offending site is 780 West Army Trail Road #178, which is the address for the local UPS store nearest Kamiah Court. In fact, that UPS store is located in the closest shopping center only about a 5 minute drive from his house. It is actually less than a mile away. The #178 would be the post box number inside the store should anyone want to send him a letter. I do not believe this is a coincidence.

~ I have not called the phone numbers I found for each site - Offending Site: 773-458-0092; XXXXXXXXXXX: [removed]; but I strongly suspect we would get [removed] on the line for either one of them. Reverse lookup puts both phone numbers in Carol Stream, Illinois.

My thoughts on this are that, as a member of the community, with a vested interest in the expansion of the tea industry through ethical means and accurate information, XXXXXXXXXX should be boycotted as a tea company until they remove the offending website.

I see nothing illegal taking place there, but I do see badly written articles, that are often written without any substantiation or supporting material. There are also calls to "Trust us" on the offending site, which I find rather repulsive. Additionally, the sources these articles come from exist solely to serve as another cog in the Google SEO machine - and they only exist in the first place to manipulate Google rankings for those who write them.

There is a lot of unethical practice when it comes to SEO, I do think this offending site qualifies by not properly displaying what it is - an aggregator. In fact, the About page blatantly lies about the creation, writing and origin of the articles, because, as we've shown, the creators of the site do not write them.

Again, I am calling for a boycott of XXXXXXXXXXXXX until the offending site is removed or corrected to state that it is an article aggregator, that the articles are not original to the site and that they are sourced automatically from around the net and serve no purpose but raise Google rankings.

A few clarifying points:

Back to Alex again: it actually is illegal, a violation of copyright law, to publish content from EzineArticles and most other article directories, in a modified form. I am an author on EzineArticles: you can visit my author profile, as well as a number of other websites. The terms of this site clearly specify that publishers must (a) credit the original author and the source of the article, and (b) publish the article as-is, without any modifications. If these terms are not followed, the publisher does not have any legal right to use the article, and publishing it constitutes copyright violation.

I don't know the original sources of these articles. It is conceivable that they are from a source that allows free republishing, or that the site owner has obtained the original author's permission. However, the use of automated software to write articles written for search engines and not humans is unethical and is a violation of Google's webmaster guidelines.

I also want to point out that Google actually is remarkably good at identifying computer-generated content. Search is the company's primary product and focus, and they have whole teams of intelligent people. "Black-hat" search engine optimization practices can only hurt a company in the Google's team adapts to them, these practices will end up penalizing rather than rewarding sites that use them. The same is true for other companies in the search business, including Yahoo and Microsoft (Bing).

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