The Times (UK) Spamming Social Media Sites

Yesterday, I discovered that The Times (UK), a well-respected newspaper owned by News Corp., is involved in an extensive campaign to spam social media websites with links to Timesonline.co.uk articles.

Since 2004, The Times retained the established SEO consulting firm Sitelynx to handle their search engine marketing. Working on behalf of The Times, a Sitelynx employee posted thousands of links to community and social news websites, including Mahalo, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Metafilter, Yahoo! Answers, Ma.gnolia, and Netscape’s Propeller. His actions were done without any disclosure of his affiliation to Sitelynx or The Times and were, in some cases, posted under the assumed identity of his wife. Update: The Times didn’t know what Sitelynx was doing, the Sitelynx employee was fired suspended, and The Sun is also involved. See the updates at the bottom of this entry.

What do the creators of Del.icio.us, Metafilter, and Mahalo think of this? I asked them!

The accounts were all created by Piotr (or Peter) Wyspianski, an SEO Manager at Sitelynx since June 2007. (Though his LinkedIn resume says “Executive.”)

Before coming to Sitelynx, Piotr had a history of promoting his own business, an online jewelry store called Signature Gems, by using his profiles on sites like Myspace, Flickr, and Yahoo 360 to manipulate his search engine rankings. After coming to Sitelynx, he continued to use this technique to promote The Times. (A full breakdown of his accounts on each site is below.)

For me, it’s disappointing to see a well regarded, legitimate newspaper using these tactics to gain headway against their online competitors. Founded in 1785, The Times is one of the world’s longest-running papers, the namesake for the New York Times and the paper that originally commissioned Times New Roman. I’m sincerely hoping that The Times didn’t authorize undisclosed, deceptive spamming in their partnership with Sitelynx. It’s even possible that Wyspianski is a rogue SEO working autonomously, and Sitelynx isn’t even aware of his actions.

To find out, I contacted Graham Hansell yesterday, the founder of Sitelynx and head of strategy, but he didn’t respond. I’m not having any luck finding an appropriate contact at The Times either, but if you know someone there who can help address these questions, please get in contact with me immediately by email or IM. (Update: The Times contacted me, see more in the updates below.) This quote from a 2004 article, which seems to be The Times’ only public statement on working with Sitelynx:

Simon Christy, marketing manager at Times Online, which has just signed up Sitelynx to improve its search visibility, agrees. “In the past it has been down to the techies to get their heads around SEO, but it’s now moved into the remit of marketers,” he says. “I see it as the fundamental building block or starting point for any search marketing strategy. Once you have the natural side sorted, then you can start spending money on the PPC side.”

Each of the accounts below is used exclusively for posting links to Timesonline.co.uk, his jewelry business, or a combination of both. (In case the accounts get removed, I’ve included the date he began posting and a rough count of the number of Times links.)

Mahalo. 25 links.

Joined on January 24. Eight links were accepted, making him the 51st most popular Mahalo user.

http://www.mahalo.com/member/Wyspa03

Netscape.com’s Propeller 330 links.

Starting August 11, this is one of the most extensive examples.

http://www.netscape.com/member/wyspa03/activity/stories

del.icio.us 88 links.

November 8. He promoted his jewelry site here, as well.

http://del.icio.us/wyspa03

Metafilter 4 links.

Joined January 3. Metafilter appears to be the only community that identified Peter as a spammer and removed his account. This is how I was first tipped off to his activity, after seeing his deleted posts repeatedly in my feed reader.

http://www.metafilter.com/user/65117, deleted posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Yahoo! Answers. 20 links.

Starting in July 2007, the month after he started at SiteLynx, he begins posting only Times links as answers.

http://answers.yahoo.com/my/qa/index?show=4IPXRHFCaa

StumbleUpon. 12 links.

This appears to be his wife’s account, he started posting Times links exclusively on January 9.

http://caroline007.stumbleupon.com/

Wordsy. ~50 links.

Joined November 27, 2007. There’s no way to link directly to user posts on Wordsy, but this query shows most of his activity. Here’s his account.

http://www.google.com/search?q=site:www.wordsy.com+wyspa03

IndianPad 11 links.

Started January 17.

http://www.indianpad.com/user/wyspa/history

Treehugger’s Hugg.com. 105 links.

Started September 12, 2007.

http://www.hugg.com/storylink/9436

Value Investing News 21 links.

November 13, 2007.

http://www.valueinvestingnews.com/storylink/1654

Real Estate Voices 9 links.

November 21, 2007.

http://www.realestatevoices.com/user/view/history/login/wyspa

Ma.gnolia.com 50 links.

Joined January 5. Promoted his jewelry site, and then nothing but Times links.

http://ma.gnolia.com/people/wyspa/bookmarks

Apple Matters. 24 links.

Starting November 1, 2007, posted Times links in blog comments and forum posts for five days before never returning. Some of these may be better classified as comment spam.

http://www.google.com/search?q=site:www.applematters.com+wyspa

Dissect Medicine 3 links.

Joined August 22, 2007.

http://www.dissectmedicine.com/_profile/wyspa/

Ecolocal 3 links.

December 13, 2007.

http://www.ecolocal.com/members/wyspa

Sk*rt. 14 links.

September 9, 2007.

http://www.sk-rt.com/user.php?login=wyspa&view=history

Harvard Law H2O Playlist. 55 links.

November 27, 2007.

http://h2obeta.law.harvard.edu/213661

Find any more? Link them in the comments. (In particular, I’m stunned that he didn’t go after Digg.)

Update (January 31)

Tom Whitwell, Times Online’s Communities Editor (and author of the outstanding Music Thing blog), contacted me this morning. Apparently, Sitelynx fired suspended Piotr Wyspianski. “We didn’t realize Sitelynx were doing this kind of linkspamming,” he said. “They were paid to do link building, not just dropping bulk links.”

Also, with help from Eliot Phillips of Propeller, we identified a second Sitelynx employee that’s been promoting links for sister newspaper The Sun, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Propeller username was “silvermoon78,” which the Propeller team confirmed was created using the same IP address as Piotr Wyspianski. Looking for this username on Twitter gives us a name, Sibylle Bernardakis, the Online PR Manager of Sitelynx.

Aside from Propeller, Sibylle was submitting and promoting The Sun links on Digg.com since at least November 2006, but her account was removed late last year. On StumbleUpon, using another username, she’s posted 789 links to Times, Sun, and London Paper articles over the last two years (though only added the Sitelynx disclosure earlier today). (As some commenters pointed out, Piotr also promoted on Digg, but not often.)

After I relayed this new information, Tom said, “We just spoke to The Sun, he’s going to talk to his people at Sitelynx.”

Graham Hansell, founder of Sitelynx, instant messaged me today. (He apologized for not responding earlier, as he was on holiday.) He stated that Piotr was not fired, but suspended from Sitelynx, pending an investigation following UK HR law.

In an email to me, Graham said, “Piotr Wyspianski did indeed work for Sitelynx from July 2007 but only as an onsite SEO consultant to bring awareness and training to journalists at the Timesonline.co.uk about issues raised by the Search Engine Friendly demands of News journalism.”

“From that perspective he has been working with Timesonline.co.uk but was not authorised to distribute links even though low volume link building through online PR is a recommendation,” Graham wrote. “He has now been removed from the account and will be disciplined in due course for unauthorised activities.”

I asked Graham about Sibylle Bernardakis, “Aside from the fact that she was trained to do it and Piotr was not, what’s the practical difference between, for example, her 790 StumbleUpon links and Piotr’s 330 links on Propeller?”

Graham responded, “She has followed our policy for submissions — Disclaimers where possible, latest news only, direct linking (no redirect) to valuable content, no hidden links or promotional content.” I pointed out that it appeared Sibylle never disclosed her affiliations before she modified her profiles earlier today. Graham replied, “That I am not aware of and will investigate. I don’t believe that to be true and we are obviously reviewing our internal policy for greater transparency.” Thanks, Graham!

53 thoughts on “The Times (UK) Spamming Social Media Sites

  1. Interesting… looking at his account it seems that we accepted the eight good stories submitted to real pages/search terms, and we actually BANNED his wife’s jewelry store for being low quality.

    http://www.mahalo.com/Special:Mahaloprofile?un=wyspa03&filter=b

    So, we’re doing our job on this end…. and it’s working.

    For the record: we’re fine with folks–SEOs or not–submitting tons of links to Mahalo because we have human editors watching every single incoming link.

    If someone submits bad stuff too often their account is ignored. You can see the banned links on his account…. it’s transparent–like an EBAY trust score.

    As the person who created Propeller/Netscape I tried to do this at the social news site, but wasn’t able to finish the mission (I left AOL after starting Propeller for them). If I could do Propeller over I would have had every single link added to the system screened by a human… that’s what we’re doing at Mahalo.

    Now the only way for an SEO to “spam” Mahalo is for them to submit a *helpful* link. Which is exactly what this person is doing… the eight links he had accepted to Mahalo are all very high quality.

    Note: only *accepted* links to mahalo have No-follow removed… so his other links have zero impact on SEO.

    In effect, Mahalo is SEO proof.

    The other services? Can’t speak for them. πŸ™‚

    best j

  2. To be clear, it’s the deception that really bothers me here. If all the accounts were named “timesonline” or “thetimesuk” and they were transparent about promoting their articles, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with it.

    But by posting everything as a regular user, and not disclosing their affiliation with Sitelynx or The Times, it’s just fake grassroots promotion. You could even argue that by targeting News 2.0 sites, they’re also undermining their online competition.

    I think we’ve come to expect this kind of lame astroturfing from corporate America, but newspapers should be held to a higher standard of ethics and journalistic practice.

  3. I can see your point about disclosure. I’m posting links from Mahalo to my Twitter,Facebook, delicious, etc. all the time but I use my real name and all my profiles link or say I’m the CEO of Mahalo. You could Google my name and learn that in about two seconds.

    So, perhaps a standard could emerge where if you’re affiliated with a site you disclose it in some standard fashion (i.e. your bio).

    I know that on digg or Propeller the community typically figures out who is working for who by looking at voting history and if they feel someone is going overboard the bury/ding them.

    The thing I love about the coverage above is that our system, despite being under assault from SEOs, is working. The good got in, the bad did not.

    Long live humans!!! πŸ™‚

    best j

  4. Excellent work Andy. I love it that you don’t just blog about things that you find online, but that you go out and do real reporting. This is a great media story, and it’s fantastic that you broke the news.

  5. How hard would it have been to vary his account usernames? Sometimes the simplest of things weed out the dull from the bright.

    Cheers.

  6. Weird twist on the Metafilter angle: the recent spree of posts you mention are actually from Wyspianski’s second spammy account on the site. The first one was a little too fast and loose with the jewelry links and got banned pretty darned quickly.

  7. I love how Jason’s using this as a time to give prop’s to his own site, SEO style. At least his motive’s are clear…

  8. “The Times (UK), a well-respected newspaper owned by News Corp.”

    You realise that’s an oxymoron right?

  9. Garlic: how am I giving props “seo style?!”

    i’m talking about how i learned from propeller to mahalo how to fight these a-holes… i’ve made a bit of a career out of doing it!

    j

  10. garlic, I was just thinking the same thing. Notice that he has a difficult time forming a sentence without including the term in question.

    > wget -q -O- ‘http://www.waxy.org/archive/2008/01/30/the_time.shtml’ | tr ” ” “n” | grep ‘[Mm]ahalo’ | wc -l

    14

    Hard to pay for that kind of advertising.

  11. Interesting that there’s nothing on Myspace, what with that and The Times both being owned by Murdoch…

  12. It’s sad that this kind of crap still goes on in 2008. Even more sad that it’s coming from a respected pub like The Times.

    To back up what Jason C., it’s the deception that’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with going out and promoting articles from your publication to spread some good WOM. But you *must* disclose your relationship and identity. All it takes is a simple “I represent X” or at the very least, putting your company’s name next to your own (see my own comment here as an example).

    The WOMMA Ethics Code clearly spells out the guideliens marketers and publications should adhere to. Read the summary, if nothing else, for the Honesty ROI — honesty in Relationship, Opinion, and Identity. http://www.womma.org/ethics

    Disclaimer: I was the #2 guy at WOMMA for 18 months and am still a big fan.

  13. Still reeling from “well-respected newspaper owned by News Corp.”

    The Times is increasingly small minded and it’s sister paper, The Sun, is pure gutter trash.

  14. According to the Guardian, another UK newspaper, The Times knows nothing about this….

    editor-in-chief Anne Spackman. “What happened what as much of a surprise to us as it was to the Sitelynx guys,” she said.

    “They apologised straight away. [Piotr Wyspianski] was working on the Times account but not on link building, and he had no authority to do this. And we don’t do link spamming anyway.”

    She added that the Times was honest and open about its SEO practices and that “the shock was that someone might do this in a surreptitious way when we didn’t know anything about it.”

  15. glad you got some poor guy the sack how would you feel if he jumps in front of a train this evening

  16. I’m an web site editor and I have an account on StumbleUpon. I submit some of the articles on the site to StumbleUpon. I don’t tag anything inaccurately or misrepresent who I am, and I only post things that I actually think are worth reading.

  17. Kudos for good link-sleuthing & calling them out. I just have a hard time believing that this guy just went out and built hundreds of spammy SM links for no apparent reason. He just spent hours & hours of his time b/c he loves NewsCorp. Do you guys seriously think that this was a rogue & yet gratuitous link building effort? They are denying responsibility while I have a sneaking suspicion this guy was just doing what he was paid to do.

    And you thought his wife was mad @ him for ruining her propeller acct. This poor guy is officially up a creek.

  18. I know quite a few people that refer to SEO as “googlespamming”. If goog suddenly starts penalizing obvious attempts at SEO, that should be fun ..

    And yes – even if he used automatic posting and blogspam tools, this kind of long drawn out effort is usually company sanctioned.

  19. So what he placed links? Is it because it’s for big company/publisher? this is totally stupid… also for larger networks… who says i cannot interlink my sites? Google? no way… it’s difference between placing links and manipulating it through various aliases. if links got accepted, it surely means that they’re quality pages which are important to end-user. he didn’t go after digg because digg’s front page is controlled by 20 or so persons. so it would be harder for him to get front page on digg if he didn’t knew right people. and also… digg’s traffic is horrible and gives you a really little bit of brand awareness (just one-time killing stream, i think less than 1% diggers become regular visitors). in any case, i don’t see this to be “blackhat” or spam… he just dropped links for his client…

  20. This is unsurprising, many corporations spam social bookmarking sites such as Digg, I thought it was taken as read that this happened. The Sun is spammed onto Fark almost constantly.

  21. peppone, we should feel bad when we point out that someone does something unethical? you would prefer that everyone get away with everything?

    people need to take responsibility for their actions. jumping in front of a train doesn’t do that, but the kind of person who spams probably loves him or herself a bit too much to commit suicide over being found out for what they are.

  22. Lets dissect this..

    The guy was submitting links to site that lives on link submission. The links he submitted goes to a content rich page off his client’s site. He took care to maintain a profile with his face picture present, made useful user friendly titles and did not spam the sites with keywords. Even the human editors at Mahalo, found some of his submissions of “high quality”.

    I don’t get it. Is promoting one’s site such a crime nowadays. Is not the purpose of SEO to bring to people’s eyes useful content that might actually have meaning to them? The guy did not put up links to prescription meds or stuff for sale. I dunno. SEO to me is just a name. This article is a kick not to Piotr’s gut but to the whole SEO/ internet marketing practice. Sure, put the blame on the small guy. I think “link spamming” needs a clear definition. This guys was submitting links to relevant and related information on his site to sites that ask for related and relevant information to their site.

    I don’t think people should be self righteous and point the finger to this guy. Now, he’s at the risk of losing his job.

    I remember the adage : He among you who has no sin (who has not submitted links to content you have made on your site to a social bookmarking site or a social news site, ever); let him cast the first stone.

  23. Chris: As I said in my earlier comment, “To be clear, it’s the deception that really bothers me here. If all the accounts were named ‘timesonline’ or ‘thetimesuk’ and they were transparent about promoting their articles, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with it.”

    “But by posting everything as a regular user, and not disclosing their affiliation with Sitelynx or The Times, it’s just fake grassroots promotion. You could even argue that by targeting News 2.0 sites, they’re also undermining their online competition.”

  24. What on earth are you talking about, “spamming social media sites”??

    Social media sites invite people to submit content, and by all accounts, The Times is good content.

    There’s no sustainable charge of spamming – just poor editorial judgement on the part of social media sites. But that’s their entire content model.

    2c.

  25. This article is an absolute load of rubbish. Any respected SEO would do similar things with a client’s website that had content as rich as this.

    Are SEO’s only supposed to go after editorially earned links these days? No.

    I would agree if he was caught making doorway pages, cloaking or setting up domain farms. But getting someone fired for a legitimate SEO practice is ludicrous & you should be ashamed of yourself for costing someone their job.

    So what if he didn’t named his account timesonlineuk, that’s hardly deception. No-one needs to be transparent in this business, why on earth would ‘I’ show my competitors what I was doing & how I was doing it? So they could copy me?

    Perhaps you need to re-educate yourself on what “spamming” really is before you write article like this again.

    Stuart

  26. If he didn’t do anything wrong, he wouldn’t have been suspended. Clearly, The Times didn’t know it was going on and don’t approve of the practice either. You may think it’s perfectly legitimate, but maybe you should ask your clients if they agree.

    But what should we expect from someone who suggests spamming their crappy links on Flickr, WordPress, and MyBlogLog? You’re ruining the web. Quit it.

  27. You may call it spamming, considering that you think what this guy was doing is spamming too.

    Perhaps take a long hard look at what you’ve written & the detail you’ve gone to just to “out someone” & help them lose their job.

    Quite sad that you have nothing better to do with your time.

    And I’m the one ruining the web by providing “useful” information? πŸ˜‰ Oh wait, I’m just showing people how to spam.

  28. Stuart: Hey, you said it! In your Flickr entry, you admit that what you’re doing is against the terms of service and could get your account closed, so you advise people to create multiple accounts. If you don’t think this is spam, you’re deluding yourself.

    Why not post links to your Flickr accounts here so we can take a look?

  29. So we find out that Murdoch is prepared to use underhand and unethical companies/methods to promote his businesses.

    Please, don’t tell me that anyone finds this surpring…

  30. Ha! That is funny. I guess even large companies and respected newspapers are now getting into the SEO game. BMW was banned from Google for several days for using deceptive SEO practices. It seems that many others are doing the same types of things. Great article.

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