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Truth or Dare? The Use of Deceptive Site Content
Contributor: Rosemarie Wise

We've all felt frustrated when we've arrived at a web site only to find our browser is all but taken hostage by the underlying code. Web enthusiast Rosemarie Wise takes us through some of the techniques webmasters use to keep the search engines hooked and their affiliate sales high, before arriving at the inescapable conclusion that good content is the key to online success.


The online advertising industry has never looked fitter. Gone are the days when it was possible to squeeze a living out of a homepage that people rarely visited and was stuffed to the back teeth full of banner ads.

The free money once earned from the Internet advertising cash cow has all but dried up. Advertisers have since learned that visitors become blind to the typical banner sizes and locations, and that just because they appear to click a link doesn't mean to say they will buy whatever is on offer. It is getting increasingly difficult to make a living from the few advertisers that still pay per thousand impressions or offer a few pennies per click. As the advertisers work on increasing their return on investment, the number of cost per action affiliate schemes is on the increase.

The face of online advertising is changing. Both the advertisers and the webmasters whose sites they advertise are getting more and more creative. Some individual webmasters are even using their skills to master a new art - the art of deception.

Art of Deception

In their desperate attempts to get people to come and visit their site, some site owners have resorted to tricking the search engines into thinking that it is about something that its not. It is very easy to use server side technologies to make an educated guess if the software used to access a page is in use by a real person or not. Looking for patterns in the USER_AGENT string can help to identify bots, as they are more likely to contain a URL or email address; teaming this guess with a reverse DNS lookup on the IP address will produce more accurate results.

Once a visitor has been singled out as a bot they can then add extra information such as highly targeted meta tags and fake content, although normally invisible to the user, they have historically had significant influence on search engine rankings and descriptions. Thankfully the search engines have taken steps to combat the pollution that results from the abuse of the meta tags, and so they are not as important in search engine rankings as they once were.

Cloaking your content in this manner might seem like a useful way to reduce your data transfer costs. After all, if the visitor can't see your meta tags, why should you waste your money and their time sending that information to them? But they are frowned upon by many and could lead to you being banned from search engines because of the potential for abuse.

If you do decide to take the risk and use server side technologies to serve different pages depending on the browser or type of visitor, take steps not to damage any search engine rankings that you do have by keeping changes purely presentational. Don't be tempted to stuff pages viewed by the search engines with fake content, even if it is related to your topic as it will be viewed as spamming.

Blind Links

Another tactic that webmasters have resorted to is to hide the real location of the links that they use; this is known as blind linking, and can be extremely frustrating when they are not expected.

Blind linking was made popular (if not always allowed by the terms and conditions of affiliate programs) when affiliates started offering pay per click programs in an effort to cut their advertising costs.

Most savvy web surfers will recognize an affiliate link when they see one; and if given a choice, most will opt to follow a non-affiliate link unless it will benefit someone they know or someone they feel deserves it. One of the most common ways to achieve blind linking is to use JavaScript triggered by the OnMouseOver event to edit the browser's status bar.

Speaking as a visitor, I do not tend to trust a link that puts up a description rather than a URL in the status bar. If I want to follow a link that I suspect will take me to another site via an affiliate link, and it has been obviously cloaked with a JavaScript, then I will view the source of the page to try and find out where it will take me.

One of the most annoying types of blink link is one that disguises affiliate links with a URL that looks like any other on that same page. Visitors think they are going to a page within the site about something that interests them, so imagine their surprise when the page that opens up looks nothing like the site they just came from. Talk about disorientating!

What's A Visitor Worth?

Getting web traffic to your site can be hard enough, so once you get your visitors to it you should really take care of them so that they feel like they want to come back again and again. However I know that there are sites out there trying to make as much money out of their visitors as possible. Some of the tactics that some of these webmasters use to get a few extra pennies is quite unbelievable.

Undoubtedly all the tactics used by site owners 'milking it' will annoy the visitor, and the more annoyances they have, the sooner they will want to get off the site and never visit it again. Spawning pop-ups and pop-unders, blind links, clickless links, setting the homepage without consent and obvious deception or lack of content are all ways to make your visitor wish they never came across your site.

If like me, your feel your visitors are more important to you, then you will want to avoid annoying them. Put some real content on your site, that way they at least have something to look at when they stop by. You may also find it more rewarding if you are open and honest about what links and visitor actions will earn you a reward or bonus.

Don't forget that word of mouth advertising is the best way to drive new traffic to your site... bad news travels faster than good!

Authors background

The author, Rosemarie Wise, is a self proclaimed 'web enthusiast' who set up her site, Web Site Owner to share her experiences of being a site owner. 

In Rosemarie has produced a great resource for anyone who'd like to learn about, or develop their skills in web design...

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