Posted to Ben Finklea's blog on December 9th, 2009

How Search Engines and Shoppers Get Scammed

The internet is immense and very engaging. According to PEW Research Center for Internet & American Life Projects’ September 2009 survey of Internet User Demographics, 77 percent of total adults use the internet, and 73 percent of American adult internet users use the internet on a daily basis. It is quite baffling to think the amount of people surfing the web every day, and how many of them who are up to no good.

As of today, there are only 16 shopping days left for Christmas, and if you are ordering online, that window is much narrower. As the Internet’s popularity for holiday shopping increases, so does the risk of getting taken advantage of identity theft. Cyber criminals are growing more successful at stealing people’s identities by setting up fake websites to scam millions from unsuspecting online shoppers. Don't be one of them.

Cyber criminals set up scam sites that resemble popular news stories (Tiger Woods) or legitimate e-commerce stores. These fake sites then trick the search engines in ranking them well in the SERPs, between or above legitimate sites. They accomplish this feat by search engine optimizing for keywords, creating a deep site architecture of “links”, and using black hat techniques that are otherwise illegal. Here is some sure signs of a fake site out for your identity.

1. Too Good To Be True

Articles on the site that claim participants can make thousands of dollars a month simply for posting links on certain websites. Participants are asked to pay money upfront for startup materials that will never be delivered, while the bank account is getting cleaned out.

2. E-mail “Phishing”

Some online scammers try to lure people giving away their personal or financial information in “phishing” e-mails or through messages on Twitter or Facebook. The e-mails usually are from a rich prince in Africa how needs to transfer his savings to you to avoid some tragic event. On social sites, you will get messages from from friends that seem out of character and are wanting you to check out a strange link. Delete, delete, and then delete again!

3. Fake Domain Names

Many fake sites pose as legitimate websites with a domain name that is just a slight variation of the real site’s URL. They will lure you in with a ‘hot topic’ news article, i.e. about Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson. They can also copy the website of a legitimate e-commerce site and try and coax out your bank account information. If the domain's checkout process doesn’t have an “https”, than it is not secure and a very good sign that the site is fake. You can look up domains at to see if it is a scam site or not.

Even Search Engines Get Scammed

Even the search engines are getting tricked. Phony sites have been known to pop on as high as #1 on Bing and as high as #2 on Yahoo, ahead of legitimate sites who have been optimizing their buns off. Google appears to be a bit better about filtering out the fakes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be duped. Criminals have been able to game Google’s system by hacking into trusted websites and stuffing them with scam links. This makes search engines, even Google, believe that legitimate sites are fraudulent.

The Dark Side of SEO

The success of fraudulent sites hangs a dark cloud over search engine optimization. They are using, in some cases, legitimate SEO tactics to achieve rankings and appear SEO-friendly to the engines. But they are wading deeper into dark waters, as their techniques turn them to the dark side of SEO. The battle is far from over, but, as Luke Skywalker once taught us, the good guys will prevail in the end.