Yes, there is, surprisingly, a very active dark side of social media “marketing” in a number of business sectors. For business marketing online, it is a highly competitive place. Witness the large volume of SEO agencies and the vast volumes of SEO “how-to” content. Toss in the rise of social media channels and the perhaps even larger amount of content around how to engage in marketing through social media, it’s little wonder there is a darker side.
We’ve completed well over 200 research reports across a multitude of industry sectors; from consumer goods to ball-bearing manufacturers, finance and tourism. In almost all of them we have encountered what we’ve come to term as Digital Dark Marketing.
These tactics vary, mostly it’s been about companies using SEO tactics, legitimate and black hat SEO means, to push down their competitors in search engines. Increasingly though, we are seeing similar activities across social media channels. Sometimes it is simply the usual aim of improving a company or products visibility over a competitor – this is fine and is part of the benefits of a capitalist society. A business may also hire, unknowingly, a black hat SEO firm as recently happened to a firm in New York (ironically the article is in Forbes, who has just been accused of link spam themselves – link to article below.)
Where is gets darker however, is when nastier tactics are deployed. These range from hiring people to place negative reviews of a competitors product or service all the way through to using tactics that get a competitor pushed into Google’s “sandbox” or listed as spam for the domains web address and company emails. As we looked back at our data over the past three years of research projects, we estimate about a 11% increase, CAGR, over the past two years and forecast an 14% CAGR increase in the coming three years. Not massive amounts you might think, but enough.
There are no regulations over these tactics. Tier 1 consumer search engines like Google or Bing do not have the algorithms or methodologies to know if a dark marketing tactic is being used. Gathering the evidence of these tactics is also not easy in manual form. To trace the activity and create a path of evidence is a significant challenge and most businesses barely understand social media and are still learning how it can help them in legitimate marketing – even the firms consulting on social media are still learning. It is still a nascent sector of the online world in business terms for marketing.
Some of the tactics we’ve seen are;
Link Spamming or Spamdexing: An ongoing point of pain for search engines who are constantly “tweaking” their algorithms to stay one step ahead of these annoying folks. This tactic can be used to push down a competitor in a search engine or cause the company targeted to be “sandboxed” by a search engine in a reverse link spam operation.
Paid Negative Reviews: This seems to work in two ways. 1) is by a firm or an agency hired by a firm, paying people to slam a competitive product or drive down reviews on ranking/rating services or sometimes staff will of the company will do this themselves and 2) finding existing negative reviews of competitor products/services and “promoting” them across ranking/rating sites and other social media services (e.g. using a false Twitter account to promote a negative instance.)
Pay Per Click Fraud: Some companies will find someone or an organization to click on competitors ads in search engines or other sites/services to maximize their ad budget quickly, then place their ads afterward.
Content Realignment: Fancy term we have for taking a competitors own “content” about their product or service and altering it, then placing it on the same social media channels where they placed it, but your name is mentioned. Slightly obvious but rarely gets detected.
Paid Bloggers: A company may find a blogger willing to provide a highly positive review of their product/service and subtly or overtly “slam” their competitor. They may provide the content and the blogger may admit they are being paid to write the review but may be unaware of how they are being manipulated. There are those who have no scruples at all however, and will do as the company bids and not declare their actions. Some laws are being developed to counter this, although the intent of the law is really to hold all bloggers responsible for their statements as general consumer protection.
Blind Party Linking & Ads: Companies may unknowingly be participating in this kind of action. This is when they are “sold” links or advertising by seemingly legitimate online marketing firms or individuals. The business doesn’t understand what is happening and simply thinks it is buying ads and links. Forbes magazine was recently accused of Link Spamming.
There are a host of other tactics, some as obvious as trying to get a competitor kicked out of a social media service all the way through to “flooding” a competitors hosting service or using bot or DOS (Denial of Service) attacks. The industries where see the most of this activity is financial products (mortgages, investing), insurance (home, auto, life), electronics manufacturers and online retailers. Other sectors however, are not immune.
How do you know if your company is being targeted? It’s not easy. It takes some time and effort, but a digital media research firm that understands social media marketing, SEO and search engine marketing tactics and Web technologies can help. Evidence is hard to gather for legal retaliation we have found, but you can develop strategies to fight back. Some online reputation management services are good, but they are too often just “real-time” and do not have the ability to track history and miss many social media channels.
There is an “information war” taking place in Cyburbia today. From spammers in email and websites for pirated or black label goods through to competitive anti-marketing tactics. Unfortunately this just adds to the challenge companies face with their online presence, yet as time goes by, can ill afford not to understand.