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.
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.
Netscape.com’s Propeller 330 links.
Starting August 11, this is one of the most extensive examples.
del.icio.us 88 links.
November 8. He promoted his jewelry site here, as well.
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.
Yahoo! Answers. 20 links.
Starting in July 2007, the month after he started at SiteLynx, he begins posting only Times links as answers.
StumbleUpon. 12 links.
This appears to be his wife’s account, he started posting Times links exclusively on January 9.
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.
IndianPad 11 links.
Started January 17.
Treehugger’s Hugg.com. 105 links.
Started September 12, 2007.
Value Investing News 21 links.
November 13, 2007.
Real Estate Voices 9 links.
November 21, 2007.
Ma.gnolia.com 50 links.
Joined January 5. Promoted his jewelry site, and then nothing but Times links.
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.
Dissect Medicine 3 links.
Joined August 22, 2007.
Ecolocal 3 links.
December 13, 2007.
Sk*rt. 14 links.
September 9, 2007.
Harvard Law H2O Playlist. 55 links.
November 27, 2007.
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!