Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Spammy Rosetta Stone: Some Examples of Unethical SEO Tactics


One element that is driving up the amount of low-quality online content is the algorithm used by Google to provide search services. The exact nature of the algorithm is a closely guarded secret, but in practice several key features are well known. The brilliant intuition behind Google is relatively simple to understand: Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, decided that the best way to organize the Internet was to identify all links to all websites and view each link as a vote about the value of the destination website. Thus, millions of little hyperlinks to the BBC would indicate the importance of the website, and each of the pieces published on the site would be awarded a very high search engine ranking. It was a stroke of genius. Suddenly, the Internet was less of a jungle of spam and far more pliable to the computer-assisted human mind.

In an ideal world, responsible netizens seeking to promote their careers, businesses or products would simply create good content in order to garner readers. Some of those readers would link to this content, and good content would be rewarded by seeing its standing rise on search engines.

The problem is that each ingenious feature of an algorithm is a double-edged sword. Inevitably, an entire industry designed to game the algorithm was spawned. One very crude search engine optimization (SEO) tactic is to plant links to your website anywhere and everywhere, spreading them like Johnny Appleseed, far and wide.

A frequent byproduct of this sort of tactic is the nonsense spam blog comment. Let me explain how it works. One thing that is highly prized by Google is the conjunction of keywords with a link. When you write the phrase puppy grooming on a blog, for instance, and you add a hyperlink to a puppy grooming website, Google’s crawler (correctly) infers that the website that is being hyperlinked to is related to puppy grooming. Do that same thing one thousand times, the crawler will infer (correctly or not) that this website is the best doggone puppy grooming service in the world and its website will score a high ranking on search results.

You see where the problems might begin to arise? A perverse incentive is generated to create as many links to your website as possible in order to drive more traffic from search engines, using any means necessary.

Let me share with you a minute sampling of the spam comments that are often deposited by SEO “entrepreneurs” on my blog:

Spanish language courses are ideal for all levels of students in the Spanish language. The main question is how to find an effective course. The first thing you need to ensure is that in the academy of your choice, 90% of training time is used to mean the language speak Spanish. Do not enroll in courses where you can spend more time learning grammar and theory. It is best to learn any grammar before you go to a track.
By Free Spanish on Remembering the "Moneygeddon": Can You Say "Subpri... on 7/9/11

The bold text on this comment, created by someone with an Indian IP address, contains a link to some dubious website hawking some even more dubious software to help you learn Spanish.
The following two comments contain hyperlinks to an interpreter service called Affordable Interpreters based in California. They are typical of the pseudo-language you encounter on the Internet. It seems to have been made by a human being, but the result is more akin to machine translation:

Interesting topic! I think there is a better explanation about this post. Thanks for sharing. -seff-
By Website translation services on Is Machine Translation Killing the Internet? Googl... on 6/16/11

Oh' that was really great! Wish I can also have a mind like that. Anyway, thanks for sharing. -seff-
By Legal translation services on The Hamster Who Translated 10,000 Words a Day (and... on 6/30/11

As you can perhaps tell from the context, no attempt was made to actually read the blog posts in question.

The present post was inspired by a London-based translation agency called Rosetta Translation. It purports to have an A-list clientele including megabanks such as JP Morgan and UBS, and organizations such as Deloitte and KPMG. When taking a break from serving these multi-billion dollar corporations, someone from Rosetta Translation drops by every couple of weeks or so to leave this sort of fluff on my posts:

Yes, it is sad, during my translation studies a lot of people asked me why I even study it, if there is Google Translate and all that kind of machines! It is really annoying to explain over and over again that a translation, eg. a financial translation or any other specified text need to be handled by professionals! The market is really hard on translators!
By Anonymous on Machine Translated Information Wants To Be Free (P... on 7/7/11

Here is another example:

Is the business within translation becoming so bad? I have been dealing with financial translation services for a long time due to my company's scope of business and I have always had consistent and reliable results. Thanks,
By Anonymous on Would You Like Some Fries With Your 6,000 Words a ... on 5/24/11

The bold text indicates the place in which a hyperlink to the agency’s home page has been inserted. But note the laziness of the comment (if not the downright crummy grammar employed by a company that purports to provide language services to Fortune 500 companies). If you check back to the posts in question, it is hardly plausible that our friendly neighborhood spammer over at Rosetta even bothered to read them.

I am not claiming that there is something genocidal about what Rosetta Translations is trying to do. But I would like agency owners and freelancers who do this sort of thing to pause and think about what this says about their corporate image.

To illustrate this point, I decided to check out Rosetta Translation on the Internet. On the Payment Practices List there are no mentions of the company (a relatively good sign, suggesting it never cheated a member of the PP List). The rating on the ProZ Blue Board is actually stellar. So far so good. However, I did a double take upon examining the company’s Blue Board record: 155 people have left their evaluation of the company and every single evaluation is positive (!). On one hand, that is admirable. On the other, it is totally fishy. Obviously, the company actively cajoles its freelancers into leaving positive feedback. I mean, 155 five-star comments out of 155 people leaving feedback? Puh-leaze. Who are you trying to kid? Not once has a payment been eaten by a dog, gotten waylaid by bandits, been misplaced in Heathrow while changing flights? Not a single irate freelancer wishing you a pox on both your houses? Not even a single, solitary four-star rating? Not even someone saying the experience of working for Rosetta was so-so?

Let me put it this way: If these ratings are genuine, Rosetta is the translation world’s equivalent of Don Juan de Marco, who made love to over nine hundred women and not a single one left his arms unsatisfied. No, no, no, no. Even the most honest businessman has a couple of disgruntled clients or bitter former employees. Any investigator worth his salt would immediately come to the conclusion that Rosetta Translations is very actively seeking to game the ProZ.com Blue Board results. This is not in itself a crime, but it is certainly straying into the more grayish areas of sound business ethics.

Moving on. Rosetta Translations claims to be a member of the ATA. However, a consultation of the association’s member database (http://www.atanet.org/onlinedirectories/tsd_corp_listings/tsd_corp_search.fpl) reveals that Rosetta may be many things, but it is most certainly not a member of the American Translators Association. A major fib. It is a very big no-no for Rosetta to use the ATA logo on its website. The agency does crop up in the UK’s ATC, or Association of Translation Companies (http://www.atc.org.uk/member_list.html#r). So I guess one out of two ain’t bad. It also proudly proclaims its membership of the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies, which is slightly misleading because the body is, as its name implies, an association of associations, not of individual translation companies. True, the aforementioned ATC is a member of this European Union of Associations, but that does not make Rosetta a member, just as I am not an individual member of the United Nations.

So what do we have here? A possibly aggressive company that fibs a little about its association memberships, strong-arms freelancers into leaving positive feedback on job boards, and engages in slightly unseemly SEO practices. I’m not saying that Rosetta is staffed by scammers. I’m just saying that from my brief perusal of its online presence, I get the impression that it may be in a liminal no-man’s-land between corporate respectability and outright sleaziness. And the thread that led me to this conclusion was the gaggle of BS messages they leave on my comments sections.

So I thought I would use Rosetta Translation as a teachable moment regarding ethical SEO.

My message is this: The way you optimize your website for search engines is reflective of your quality as professional or a company. If you pollute blogs with lame comments, you are probably a lame company or a lame professional. If you provide worthwhile content that attracts real readers and not just web crawlers, you are simultaneously working to build a better, more human Web and also contributing to your business. 

(For further on this topic, see  Five Rules for Ethical SEO.)


Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

6 comments:

Polish-Translator said...

Interesting post. Now I know that I need to avoid this company.
Regarding comments: in order to fight with spammy comments Google introduced a few years ago something called Non-follow tag. Blogs with these tags have no problems with seo spammers.

Financial Translator said...

Hi. Thanks for the tip. I had not heard of this tag, but I will look it up and see how to use it. Regards

Kevin Lossner said...

A non-follow tag? Sounds like my Holy Grail.

Thanks for mentioning Rosetta, Miguel. I'm rather tired of these pests trying to post spam comments on my blog as well, and it's always irritating to see when they succeed with others.

Mary Shillue said...

Could you moderate comments and reject any from Rosetta?

Financial Translator said...

Well, yes, but I have to do it manually and these people are nothing if they're not relentless.

Dylan said...

Your title says Rosetta Stone but the copy says Rosetta Translation - are they the same company?