My recent pieces on the Wikipedia shenanigans around Rupert Sheldrake‘s and Deepak Chopra’s biographies have got me attuned to pseudoscientists and paranormalists not playing by the rules online. Suddenly I’m noticing examples of this left and right. (I guess that’s confirmation bias for you). And so here’s another in what will no doubt become a series of pieces on the bad guys skirting the rules online. We will get back to Sheldrake et.al. soon enough, as I have promised an update. But for now lets take a break from the topic of Wikipedia for a bit and look elsewhere.
My subject this time is Don Colbert, M.D. who practices “anti aging and integrative medicine” at his Divine Health Wellness Center in Orlando, Florida. If there weren’t enough red flags in that sentence for the skeptics reading this, know that he “has been featured on Dr. Oz” and on “many prominent Christian TV programs.” In typical fashion one of his websites tries to sell you a wide variety of supplements that make fairly vague claims about weight loss and immune support. His separate clinic website mentions chiropractic, something called “Multi-Dimensional Brainwave Therapy” and “Emotox – Allergy Testing” which apparently uses a “cold laser” to treat allergies. And to top it all off, Orac reports that he’s anti-vaccine to boot. This guy is not a friend of science.
The rule violation in this case may involve the dirty practice of buying links online. It was all uncovered by former CNN medical correspondent Andrew Holtz of Holtz Report, who ran a bit of an online sting. He caught someone trying to promote Dr. Colbert’s online store via means that certainly violate journalistic ethics and may lead bloggers to violate FTC guidelines. But does it violate Google’s rules too? Let’s find out…
Google PageRank and Links
To understand why buying links online is considered a bad thing, you have to recall how Google became successful. The innovation that made Google’s search so much better than earlier competitors was quantifying how many other sites linked to each web site via an algorithm called PageRank. Conceptually, each incoming link to your site acts as a “vote” for your site. If nobody links to your site, you rank low in the results. If thousands of other sites link to you, then you appear higher up in the results. (PageRank has gotten considerably more complex than that since it was devised, but you get the idea).
It works well in theory, but in practice there’s always someone trying to get a leg up in the game. If you’re willing to pay other sites to create hyperlinks to your site, and you have enough money to spread around, you could (in theory) push your site up in the Google results quite a bit.
This does happen, and Google takes quite a dim view of it. In fact, they released a major update to their algorithm in April 2012 – known as “Penguin” – that was specifically targeted at schemes like this. Augmented by manual user reports via a form, the Penguin algorithm can detect unnatural linking and demote the affected sites.
Catching Doctor Colbert
Medical journalist Andrew Holtz was tipped off by a subscriber to the Association of Health Care Journalists‘ private mailing list, that someone was offering cash bounties for blog posts mentioning Dr. Colbert. As Paul Raeburn recounted at the excellent Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the solicitation included several requirements for the blogs and a link to a list of “current specials” to use as content.
Following that link to specials leads to a page describing the offer, titled “DrColbert.com Paid Blogger Opp + More” and dated October 3, 2013 (but with no expiration date indicated). You can see all the details there, including that they “want to pay you to promote DrColbert.com!”
- Receive $5 Bonus just for posting about DrColbert.com
- And, DINNER is on us! Receive a FREE $25 Restaurant Gift Card as well just for posting
- Plus the opportunity to earn commission on each and every sale you generate
What do you need to do? Just write a blog post about DrColbert.com. Here are the requirements:
- Blog Post must contain unique content.
- Blog Post must be at least 100 words long.
- Adding an image increases creditability.
- Click here for current specials to use as content.
- Blog Post must include disclaimer:
- “This post was created in partnership with eAccountable. All opinions are my own.“
eAccountable is an affiliate marketing company that is managing this program for Dr. Colbert. They are what is called an OPM or outsourced program manager. The actual affiliate links pass through an performance marketing company (another name for affiliate programs) called Share-a-Sale.
Affiliate links can be a valid thing to include in your website – indeed many skeptic sites include affiliate links to the Amazon store. But paying $5 specifically for links from blog posts is a very different thing from affiliate product links, and unless you take measures to make sure PageRank is not passed, this can violate Google’s webmaster guidelines on linking. It is worth noting the offer specifically says you can earn the $5 without joining the affiliate program:
Join our affiliate program if you’re not joined yet (this is optional and not required for $5 bonus and the free gift card, but it is required for commission of sale).
Holtz wanted to prove the offer was real, but to test it out he wisely created a site (called “Fake News”) on blogspot to experiment. One reason this is important is if this is what Google calls a “link scheme” (and therefore against their guidelines) they can penalize not only the site buying the links but also the sites providing them. Holtz avoided the risk of damaging his own site’s reputation in Google by doing it this way.
He followed the rules of the offer, and waited to see if he got the promised remuneration. It took weeks, but he got the $5 via PayPal and an disappointing credit with a restaurant coupon site. You can read the details right on the fake news site linked above.
Affiliate Links or Link Scheme?
Is this just some aggressive affiliate marketing, or is it a link scheme according to Google? It all depends on whether PageRank is being passed along by the link. This is typically where the NOFOLLOW attribute on links (which I’ve written about several times) comes into play.
Holtz nofollowed his link himself as a precaution (he confirmed that for me on Twitter), but a representative of eAccountable later told Holtz that the “links we use are affiliate links and by default are nofollow, so they don’t impact SEO results.” I decided to look into that.
Now, there isn’t really a way to add the NOFOLLOW attribute automatically when you are giving a link to someone else to post. And nowhere in eAccountable’s offer page for Dr. Colbert do I see any explanation that the links should be nofollowed, nor how to do this. (Some of the other similar offers by other vendors on eAccountable do mention it).
But there are ways to prevent Google from following a link other than the nofollow tag – maybe that’s what he meant. If you click the supplied link in a browser, it quickly takes you to drcolbert.com. To determine the SEO effect, we need to see the route it takes to get there. You can do this with a command line tool like WGET, (the command cURL would also work). Here’s what I saw when I did it with WGET, interesting results are highlighted:
Tim$ wget http://socopm.us/rnSSl
--2014-01-16 11:42:24-- http://socopm.us/rnSSl
Resolving socopm.us... 188.8.131.52
Connecting to socopm.us|184.108.40.206|:80... connected.
HTTP request sent, awaiting response... 301 Moved Permanently
Location: http://www.shareasale.com/r.cfm?B=477634&U=465960&M=47025&urllink= [following]
--2014-01-16 11:42:24-- http://www.shareasale.com/r.cfm?B=477634&U=465960&M=47025&urllink=
Resolving www.shareasale.com... 220.127.116.11
Connecting to www.shareasale.com|18.104.22.168|:80... connected.
HTTP request sent, awaiting response... 200 OK
Length: 1440 (1.4K) [text/html]
Saving to: `r.cfm?B=477634&U=465960&M=47025&urllink='
WGET says it fetches the original URL from one address, which gets a result of “301 Moved Permanently” – same thing used by URL shorteners to forward you somewhere. That sends it to a second address at Share A Sale’s site with some parameters added. But then it stops there! (That’s the 200 result.) Where is the hop over to Dr. Colbert?
The above will cause a browser to navigate to Dr. Colbert’s site, but is ignored by most web-crawling robots such as Google, and tools like WGET. And if we look at the robots.txt configuration file on Share A Sale, we find this in the first two lines:
In technical language, the above says “hey out there any robot including Google” (first line) “do not index in any way the URL r.cfm on this site” (second line).
As a result, Dr. Colbert is probably not going to run afoul of Google for this. This is wise – entire sites and groups of sites have been dropped severely in Google for violating these rules before. Just over the holiday a lyrics site called RapGenius was severely penalized by Google for participating in link schemes that also were being pushed within an ostensible affiliate program.
However, there is still the ethical considerations of posting something while being paid. Even if you consider yourself a blogger, not a journalist, these can affect you. In 2009 the U.S. FTC issued guidelines for endorsements and testimonials that do include bloggers. I am not a lawyer, but that recommended disclaimer text (“This post was created in partnership with eAccountable. All opinions are my own.”) doesn’t seem to me like it would pass muster under the FTC rules.
As for Dr. Colbert’s reaction to all this attention, we can go to Ivan Oransky’s report on Holtz’s sting at MedPage Today. He mentions an email exchange in which it was said the original offer to the mailing list was posted by Colbert’s son Kevin. When questioned by a member of the list, “Colbert said they didn’t know Kevin had made such a deal, and wouldn’t be participating in the future.”
This is interesting, because that Paid Blogger offer page I linked to and quoted above is still live over at eAccountable’s site, more than ten days later. (I have also archived a copy here). If they are not participating, why hasn’t the offer been deleted or marked as expired?
Alternative medicine proponents love to accuse skeptic bloggers of being paid by Big Pharma to do battle with them online – with zero evidence offered. But this promotional program by DrColbert.com gives a glimpse of the kind of money that is being doled by the other side to promote worthless unscientific products. And it may be inducing bloggers to violate standards of journalistic ethics and FTC endorsement guidelines.
Skeptics should be on the lookout for other examples of pseudoscientists making use of techniques like this. Keep that Google paid links reporting form on your bookmarks and report what you find. Perhaps you can even run a sting like Andrew Holtz did. (But be sure to use a free throwaway site or blog to do it as he did, lest you accidentally damage your own site’s reputation in Google).
Here’s a good starting point – via Google search I see several other nutritional supplement vendors who appear to be using eAccountable. Many affiliate marketing shops like eAccountable and Share A Sale have online catalogs they use to promote their inventory – skeptics can use them to find paranormalists and pseudoscientists who are paying bloggers to shill for them.
And of course if you are ever tempted to participate in a link buying scheme – don’t. Google is on the lookout and your site can get hurt by it.
I’ll end here with the same great quote from Holtz that Oransky used to end his post:
The practice of paying bloggers to write things means you have to be very careful about trusting anything you read online. Of course, if it’s news to you that you have to be skeptical about anything you read online, then you are at grave risk for being fooled or worse.