Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Comment Spam as Marketing Strategy?

The advent of blogging has been a boon to the free press, but it's also been capitalized on by unethical marketers who try to use blog comment sections to spam their way to a top ranking in Google. Thankfully, this practice has been made a lot more difficult thanks to efforts by Google and others.

But are rogue marketers using the same tactics to do the opposite: use "comment spam" to bump web pages that criticize a product or company out of the top rankings by Google since the search engine penalizes pages that "stuff" keywords and links?

In one of the more explosive media-related blog stories in a while, Nick Lewis thinks he has the evidence to prove that CNN is using comment spam to drive down the hit rankings of web sites that criticize it.

Last week, CNN attempted an unusual marketing campaign in the blogosphere. The campaign combined blackhat search engine optimization techniques, viral marketing tactics, and guerrilla comment spam. Unlike the majority of comment spam, this spam appears to only target blogs that have discussed CNN in the past 3 months. So far, 13 separate instances of the spam have been found. Most alarmingly, CNN may have also left malicious keywords at least 3 out of 13 with the intent of using Google's keyword stuffing detectors to censor them. As of now CNN has not returned my request for a confirmation or denial. [...]

Does CNN has the ability to carry out targeted spamming campaigns? Yes. In fact, they already have carried out similar campaigns, and my source is no less than "the paper of record."

Why would CNN care about blogs? Well, first of all I cite that prior to Jordan’s ousting, Jon Stuart’s appearance on Crossfire. Indeed few events could have made a clearer argument to CNN that they are at the mercy of the blogs. Consider this: according to the ratings, the now famous episode of Crossfire only reached about 400,000 viewers via cable. However, the online video of Stuart’s reached an estimated 5 million people [4] – and there was nothing CNN could do to stop it. Re-read that statistic and ask yourself, “Is it likely that CNN understands the power of weblogs?”

Many people have asked me "Why would CNN try to use keyword stuffing to censor posts that are critical? Who cares what the blogosphere is saying?" Well, as David Dunne, the director of world's largest independent PR firm explained, "Search is inextricably tied to your reputation," Dunne reminds, "Your audiences seek answers in search engines, where your messages are competing with those of NGOs, class action firms, and special interest groups." Dunne went on to emphasize that good web PR must be unified, and managing your companies reputation on Google is among the most important strategies. Dunne recommends, "You need to listen, identify trends, and watch communications around a brand to gain insight and the opportunity to respond on multiple levels."

CNN is in the process of a major transformation that began when Eason Jordan resigned. And for the record, I thought those who attacked Jordan behaved like a lynch mob; and I consider his ousting to not be a success for the blogosphere, but rather a mark of shame. That said, CNN’s new management is a bit more open to accepting that blogs are powerful, and here to stay. Indeed, their new CEO, I think, is taking that realization one step further. I cannot emphasize how impressed I am, as much as I despise their tactics. This guerrilla marketing campaign is evidence that not only is CNN serious about using blogs to their advantage, but that they are thinking about the nature of the blogosphere on a very sophisticated level. Their competitors have not tried any strategy that comes close to topping this one.

Did this really happen? I think it very well could have. Maverick employees or rogue marketing companies have been known to do stuff like this. But would such a strategy be approved by a corporate-level exec? But then again, the Education Department's paying of radio host Armstrong Williams certainly showed that high-level people can be dumb enough to engage in a boneheaded PR strategy. So far, CNN has not responded to Lewis's accusations. That will change if this story moves beyond the blogs.