The Stanford Daily and search spam
UPDATE (6/7): We've been remiss in not following up on this. In fairness to the Daily, and for the record, the mangers at the paper pretty quickly took down the questionable ads and third-party web pages. They'll have the summer to figure out what to do next.
Blake Ross points to yet another example of an otherwise reputable web site that is hosting third-party web pages with questionable content designed to game Google. In this case, it's the Stanford Daily newspaper, the student publication of Stanford University. Ross apparently stumbled across the pages after noticing diet pill ads next to a staff-written story about the growing use of diet pills among youth.
The Daily had hidden the links to the articles on its home page. But they could easily be found by Google. And because stanford.edu is presumably a reputable domain name in Google's world, some of its good reputation is transfered to the web pages it links to and helps them score a higher PageRank.
There are a couple of issues at play here. One is whether a college newspaper should be taking ads from companies that hawk diet pills (as well as online poker sites and other questionable products). And the other is whether the paper should be renting out its web servers to host content for marketers that are trying to game Google.
This technique got a lot of play in March when Andy Baio wrote about it in relation to blogging software WordPress. Later, Baio wrote about how Syndic8.com, an RSS feed index, was using the same technique. In both cases, marketers were paying the web sites to host their pages on subdomains, and the web sites were using the money to support their shoe-string operations.
We chatted today with Eric Eldon, the Stanford Daily's business manager. It turns that Search Engine Watch's Danny Sullivan contacted the paper about the practice in April and wrote about it here (the full story is behind a subscription wall). Eldon made a couple of points to us. One, the Daily is independent of the university and operates as a separate non-profit. Two, the Daily has struggled with the same issue as all newspapers - a decline in print advertisers.
"It's another form of revenue for us,'' he said about the diet pill and other ads than run on its site.
That said, Eldon said he was not entirely comfortable with some of the ads and would be discussing whether they are appropriate with the rest of the staff. Regarding the hosted third-party web pages, he said he had not been aware of them until we brought them to his attention today. Although Search Engine Watch wrote about this practice in April, it appeared that Eldon did not fully understand the implications of it. Eldon said the hosting deal could have been arranged by a staff member who did not completely understand what the paper was getting into.
We're beginning to wonder how widespead is this practice. Someone suggested to us that college newspaper web sites are especially vulnerable to this type of marketing because they are often desperate for money and staffed by relatively inexperienced ad managers. We'd love to hear more about this. In past instances, Google has considered these hosted pages search spam and punished the responsible web sites by temporarily removing them from its index. Will it do the same to the Daily -- at the university that's the alma mater of its two founders?