Paid links, spam and fake-accounts were not invented by SEOs

Recently, I came across an interesting Wikipedia article. It turns out that professional predecessors of paid links, spam and fake-accounts have already been around for nearly 200 years. Back in around 1820, Monsieur Sauton offered paid applause for theatre plays and other public events, in Paris.

A person paid for clapping was called a claqueur (French claquer = “clap”). All of the claqueurs in a theatre were called “the claque”. It was their task to “secure the dramaturgical success”

It is quite astounding how specialised the claques – who were also called “Chevaliers de lustre” (knights of the chandelier) by the Parisians – were in the 19th century. You could request the following:

  • Chauffeurs (heaters): They spend their days standing in front of the announcements and had to speak highly of the plays to passersby.
  • Chatouilleurs (ticklers): They talked positively about the play before the start and during breaks.
  • Connaisseurs (appreciators): They had the task of speaking positively about the play throughout the actual play.
  • Rieurs (laughers): Their task was to infect those around them with their “spontaneous” laughter.
  • Pleureurs (criers): Their task was to sob during heartfelt scenes.
  • Tapageurs (attention-drawers): Their task was to applaud heavily.
  • Bisseurs (“encore”-shouters): After the play, they yelled “Da capo” and “Encore.”

It is not surprising in which times the claqueures were born. It was the time when both the industrialisation and the capitalistic economy took Europe by storm. Seeing how you could increase the success of public events and plays by using artificial audience-signals, it was near inevitable that this would turn offering these signals into a professional service industry.

In TV shows we have laugh tracks (recorded laughing and applause) which are used to animate laughter in the audience and increase their excitement for the show. The first laugh track was used in the Hank McCune Show in September of 1950. Studio audiences are being professionally “heated up” before the show, for exactly the same reasons. In the 1990’s, when numerous game- and talk-shows emerged, there was a huge demand for “warm-uppers”. Christian Oberfuchshuber, one of the most prominent warm-uppers in Germany, recalled the times as follows, “Anyone who was able to hold a microphone the right way up and got along with the audiences fairly well got the job”. Today, the big hype is over and there are only about 10 professional warm-uppers left in Germany, who can make a living in the profession.

The same phenomenon now gets repeated online. Only the way of how the applause is dispersed has evolved with the medium:

  • Paid Links: Are supposed to feign editorial recommendations and manipulate Google’s search results by inheriting PageRank and through the use of attractive link-texts.
  • Link Slingers: These are websites which are set up mainly to create artificial links. The most well-known types are web-catalogues, article-directories, artificial blogs based on expired domains and social-bookmarking-platforms. With these, the fakes will sometimes take up surreal dimensions, where “the claque” actually makes up the entire audience for that specific “(internet-)theatre”.
  • Paid Ratings: They are supposed to make the seller-profiles on shops, Amazon products, Google Places and business directories look better. This can also work in reverse, where competitors target their rivals with negative ratings (dissing). The study “Fake It Till You Make It“, by Boston University marketing professor Georgios Zervas, assumes that about 20% of Yelp-ratings are either written by competing restaurants or paid raters.
  • Spam- and Fake-Comments: Their purpose is to steer a discussion towards the desired direction, which may well be advertising related. A few years ago (when it still used to work well) they were readily used to easily create artificial links.
  • Forum Spam: They basically have the same function as spam- and fake-comments. The only difference is that you find them in forums and question-and-answer websites, instead of on guestbooks.
  • Paid Friends: They are used to fake a larger statistical influence for a social media profile, by adding a large number of friends or followers on – for example – Facebook, Twitter or Google+.
  • Fake-Accounts: These accounts are also called sock-puppet accounts and are needed to drop spam- and fake-comments. They are mostly created in masses through automated means and then sold in large packages of thousands as “friends”.

It is essential for the survival for all internet-offers, whose main added value comes from ratings, opinions and other user signals, to fight spam and fakes. Here, useful spam-filters make for a competitive advantage.

Google is continuously getting better in filtering out the internet-claqueures by evaluating additional sources of data and filtering out their signals. For this, it is surely very useful if you do not only have the search-data from the most successful search-engine but also from Google Chrome, one of the most widely used browsers and if you own Android, one of the two leading operating systems for mobile devices. Thanks to these, you are able to gather a lot of data for useful filters which most of your competitors can only dream of.

Services like Yelp are challenged by new competitors like Foursquare, who has a more effective spam-filter in the form of a local check-in and access to more profile-data.

Even though the “fake versus fake filter“ race is a continuous cat-and-mouse game, there is a lot of evidence which points to fakes and spam having already passed their zenith, when it comes to search engine optimization, and that they are slowly going out of style. Just as the claqueures went out of style in the first quarter of the 20th century. A look at the winners and losers in the SISTRIX Visibility Index for the last few year also emphasises this idea.

We can only hope that the reputation of the SEO-industry will increase thanks to these developments, as SEO has so much more to offer than distributing spam and fakes. A search-engine-friendly and barrier-free website design, as well as a market-oriented focus for the content, in regards to the demands of the search-engine users, helps to make the web better, not worse. Sadly, this positive side of SEO is sometimes overlooked in public.

At the same time, it is unlikely that the web will ever be free of spam and fakes, just as TV shows will keep using laugh-tracks. Their distribution will always depend on how well the spam-filters work in the respective industries and how lucrative it is to offer such filters – and, of course, how lucrative it is to find a way to get around these filters.

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