Search engine specialist Greg Boser literally stumbled across what he describes as a major on-line scam: a San Diego search engine optimization company had copied hundreds of Web pages and then submitted them to major search engines on behalf of several high-profile Internet companies, including eToys and Barnes & Noble.
Among the pirated pages were some belonging to Boser’s clients.
Boser, the founder of Valencia, Calif.-based Web Guerrilla, was seeking sites that had established a link to his clients’ home page. Among his discoveries were links leading to Markham, Ont.-based CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. (DRT).
“We came across a listing from a competing data recovery company, and after visiting their page and seeing that there was no hyperlink pointing to DRT’s site, and also finding the listing when we did an exact search for Data Recovery Technologies, we began to suspect that [the competing data recovery company] had stolen a page from the DRT site, and was using a cloaking system to deliver the page to Alta Vista,” Boser explained.
Upon further investigation, Boser identified Green Flash Systems LLC and its founder D.R. Peck as the alleged guilty party.
According to Boser, Green Flash located pages that had both top search engine rankings and contained keyword phrases that were relevant to the businesses of its clients. Rather than reverse-engineer similar listings, Green Flash copied the pages to its server and used a cloaking system – known as IP delivery or spoon feeding – to deliver the stolen pages to Internet search engines. Surfers who clicked on the retrieved search engine listings would then be transported to the Web site of Green Flash’s clients – who were charged by Green Flash on a per-click-through basis.
Boser filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last April, claiming the company is responsible for theft from both small businesses and high-profile Web sites including Disney, CNET, and the Discovery Channel.
Leery of painting everyone who uses cloaking with the same brush, Boser added that it’s not the technology that is the evildoer in this case.
Cloaking can legitimately be used to improve a site’s ranking, but “unfortunately, there are companies or individuals who use cloaking to steal copyrighted material from other sites and attempt to use it to obtain a high search engine ranking,” he said. “Green Flash was doing this on a huge scale…they were taking traffic from little people on the Web…eToys had over 4,000 pages submitted (on their behalf).”
In an on-line rebuttal, Peck responded to Boser’s allegations on May 12. He stated he and his company had committed no intentional wrongdoing.
“Green Flash denies that it has knowingly engaged in any illegal or unethical activities in positioning its clients’ Web pages through major search engines,” the statement read. “Copying sites has never been a methodology that Green Flash has taught or encouraged.”
Peck also told ComputerWorld Canada that it was hired subcontractors and page builders who cut corners, and that he was not responsible for the pagejacking that transpired.
“Everyone thinks they’re a lawyer,” Peck deadpanned. “I never, ever, ever used the word ‘copy’ (with my staff)…I gave [the subcontractors] a chance to quality control their work and locked them out of our server. We stopped doing business and did quality control checks on our pages, (and) apparently we need to quality control our quality control efforts. In early November, 94 per cent of our work was done by subcontractors.”
However, Joseph Irrera, the former operations manager for Green Flash and the founder of his own on-line marketing company in San Diego, said Peck is solely responsible for Green Flash’s performance.
“I would have been happy to walk away from [the whole issue] now that he’s out of business,” Irrera said. “The only reason I agreed to speak with [ ComputerWorld Canada] and Boser is because of the bogus statement he (Peck) made.
“His statement that it’s the subcontractors’ and the page builders’ fault is horseshit; he’s the one who trained them.”
Irrera left Green Flash last February, prior to its self-imposed shut down, conceding that Peck wasn’t interested in the professional advice he and his colleagues offered after they realized the company’s methodologies were questionable.
“His words to me were, ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ and ‘This is how it’s done out there,'” Irrera recalled.
“We’d build 30 or 40 pages and resubmit them (to major search engines) everyday.” eToys had a total of about 6,000 (indexed) Web pages, which Irrera said is much more than average.
“In defense of [Green Flash’s] clients, no one knew what was going on,” he said.
Peck refuted Irrera’s claims and countered eToys had a tonne of phrases for virtually every toy they sold, hence pages had to be regularly resubmitted.
“What was going on was we never knew when a page would actually be indexed by a search engine or not, sometimes it would take up until two months for them to do so,” he explained. “It’s unbelievable legitimate Web sites have to go to conferences to get listed with these search engines. I find it interesting that I’m being portrayed as a bad person – I’m an honest citizen.”
Peck said everyone studies what places a top Web site at number one, adding he had visited with his attorneys prior to launching Green Flash to see where the line was drawn with regards to Web page positioning.
He said his attorneys could not define the percentage of content that has to be added before a Web site is considered new. “I believe Green Flash is being made a scapegoat for a practice that is unavoidably necessary to obtain a high ranking. If Web Guerrilla sees a particular characteristic on the source code of a Web page that shows up highly ranked in a category they want, believe me, that particular characteristic is incorporated into their pages.”
Irrera said the employed procedure involved going to a search engine and searching for a phrase that applied to a Green Flash client. Upon discovering the top four Web pages, the Green Flash page builder would then check the source code to ensure it matched the search engine and then change the Hrefs (a URL locator file in the code) to direct the search engine to identify a second domain built by Green Flash rather than the original listing.
“The data was stored on a SQL server, the Web pages were dynamically generated,” he said.
Irrera suspects the Green Flash database has since been destroyed but added he’s in possession of about 5,000 pages from the company’s database – a result of working from home and backing up files. Peck said the database still exists but has been taken off line as he concentrates on his dream of launching his own search engine – Bluewhistle.com – a vision he said he was born to see through to fruition.
As far as Bill Margeson is concerned, he suspects Green Flash stole intellectual property from his organization.
“It would appear so,” DRT’s president and CEO said. “Our biggest problem is finding proof of it all. We’re hoping to find something in our server logs. About a year ago, Green Flash advertised a radical approach to positioning strategy…it was a guerrilla tactic and it is questionable.”
Margeson added that the search engines should be making a concerted effort to crack down on Web page index flooding.
“That seems to be a real problem with new media,” he said. “We’re not a little company so we were able to resubmit ourselves back into the top 30 listings, but a smaller company would have been wiped out by this.”
a Common practice?
Peck was an invited speaker at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York last March. Irrera said it was during an impromptu moment that Peck boldly declared before an audience of about 500 delegates – which included vice-presidents of 12 major search engine companies – that it was okay to copy Web pages.
“The audience was appalled,” Irrera said, explaining it was common practice for Green Flash to hire page builders who lacked HTML knowledge. “Half the page builders at Green Flash didn’t know HTML because he (Peck) only considered changing the text, source code, key phrases, page description, and title…they were page flooding the search engines.”
Peck acknowledged he spoke at the conference but said he did not make such a statement to anyone.
“In truth, building a Web page with at least 25 per cent different (content) than any other page in the world is not that hard,” he remarked. “The reason we had started getting out of the search engine positioning business was that…there was no definitive legal standard to go by so we could guarantee that a 26 per cent different page is 100 per cent clear of conflict.”
Jordan Worth, an industry analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, said pagejacking is essentially fraud.
“You’d think users would take the initiative to do something about it,” he remarked.
When asked why people are angry with him and continue to make unsavoury comments about Green Flash, Peck responded, “The legal interpretation of [what’s acceptable] is different from personal interpretations.”