Tuesday, August 26th, 2014...5:03 pm

The Age of Digital Extortion: Will Google Care?

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Recently, I’ve got a complaint from somebody I’ve been consulting about their site having been a target of scammers trying to extort money out of them by threatening to destroy their business online. Given the recent news of mass extortion emails (and Google’s reluctant reaction), it’s difficult to surprise anyone with a story like this, but this case is slightly different, though nevertheless worrying and potentially dangerous.

In my client’s case, they have suddenly discovered hundreds and hundreds of links from low quality sites they could swear they had never placed. Those sites were mostly directories, often using the same template and had one thing in common – this notice:

Paying for removing a link from a directory is nothing new – since link removal became a thing, I suppose the workload of the editors even of some decent quality, manually edited directories has increased a lot (because at some point, directories became the scapegoat and the mother of all evil linkbuilding). Some of those directories originally had a fee for link placement, too. But you actually had to try pretty hard to get into some of them back in the day – that is, the really good ones. Now, suddenly getting links you never wanted and being charged to get rid of them is a totally different story. And remember, we’re not talking of 1 or 2 links like that – rather hundreds and even thousands. How about paying $3-4,000 or even more for link removal from completely useless clonned sites? That’s when it becomes painful…

But wait, it gets even worse. Paying to get those links removed DOES NOT GUARANTEE they will not appear on those same sites again after a month or two – or if not on the same sites, then likely on other countless sites owned and run by the same scammer. The scammer has got bloodthirsty, they probed and got the money once, what’s to stop them from milking the same money cow again and again and again? And if the victim refuses to pay, threaten to ruin their online business. Threaten to ruin their business if they speak up, too.

No surprise you don’t hear many people talking about this kind of scam – yet, it’s a lot more dangerous than those extortion emails I have mentioned above. In case of those emails, the scammer is only threatening to build nasty links and it is not exactly known if they ever carry out their threats – whereas in this case, the victim’s site has likely suffered already and they are going through link cleanup to try and recover their hurt rankings. Or, if they have been “lucky” enough to discover the links before the harmful effect took place, they are worried about potentially losing rankings. To many businesses, getting into a situation like this is really devastating – a true case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

Don’t blame the governments for the complete lack or slow adjustment of new age digital laws covering cases like this and allowing for prosecution of the scammers though, blame Google. By trying to make it easy on themselves and manipulate every online player into playing by their rules, Google have created an unprecedented field for scams of all sorts threatening the very existence of countless small businesses. It is Google who made it possible to create a disgusting, scam-based business model with crazy ROI ($10-15 per domain registration per year, slap a bunch of domains on the same IP – the scammers don’t bother with quality for their “networks”, their goal is to make it as spammy as possible, screaming penalty – add tons of links for a bunch of victim sites, if only 3-4 of them pay for link removal off each site this already becomes profitable). If Google were not a de facto search monopoly in most countries, the impact of their business decisions would not have been so painful on other businesses.

The solution is rather simple. Actually, there are 3 possible solutions:

1. Probably most preferable for everyone involved, including Google. Google creates a method for submitting complaints about scammers like this extorting money out of their victims (and no, don’t tell me disavow already solves it – it doesn’t, it only creates an extra workload for the site owners with no guaranteed outcome and no way to ensure the offending sites will ever have any serious action taken against them – like, for example, deindexing the scammer’s complete network and NOT counting the links from those sites against any site they link to). Then – and this is very important – Google allocates a team of specially trained people skilled at tracking down all sites of the same owner to investigate and take targeted action against the offender. You were all smug talking about “breaking the spammers’ spirits” – how about breaking the criminals’ business model you helped create?

If not, here are the other 2 options:

2. Class action law suit against Google for making it possible to hurt people’s businesses in this manner. And before you dismiss this suggestion as unrealistic and such that is not going to bring any positive result, think of the recent advancement of the EU legislation in trying to regulate Google. To quote but one recent case, you may or may not be a fan of the controversial “Right to be Forgotten” – but it is nevertheless a legal decision that Google has been forced to comply with.

3. Victims whose businesses have been destroyed hunting down the scammers and lynching them, thus eliminating the problem physically (don’t take me wrong, I am neither calling for nor advocating this solution, I am just theoretically speculating that this is something that CAN happen if Google does not take any action to stop the extortion).

Your move Google!

Please share the hell out of this to make Google respond.

3 Comments

  • I totally agree with this, Google are becoming the champions of the brand and the scammer.

    Meanwhile everyone else suffers, the thing is though – without that law suit, will they do anything?

    To Google this just means more businesses will need to turn to PPC with AdWords. I think when we look at things in that way, ‘what’s good for AdWords’ we really can start to see through some of Google’s decision making process, as poor as that is.

  • Hey Irish,

    good article, and you raise good points.

    Thing is about point number 1, I know a handful of good people at Google “…skilled at tracking down all sites of the same owner to investigate and take targeted action against the offender…”.

    The problem is, they’ve all left in the last two years.

  • That’s really sad Martin…