This is a story of a free advertising network, tens of millions of links and some highly lucrative search engine rankings.
Most importantly it is a story about how Google is apparently turning a blind eye to the sites gaining rankings from the network while penalising those who naively give out the links. The situation is much the same as the current war on paid links except without the publicity.
About the Coop
For those of you who are not aware of the history behind the Coop here is some background. The network was launched in 2005 by Shawn Hogan from Digital Point and it quickly expanded with tens of thousands of sites in the network within the first year.
I won’t link to the Coop directly, even with nofollow, but you can find it at http://www.digitalpoint.com/tools/ad-network/ Don’t try searching for the network on Google, they buried the page years ago.
The system works as follows:
Advertisers create text or image ads which are placed automatically across the tens of thousands of sites in the network, publishers are given some php code that they embed on every page on their site. This code displays the ads along with a 1 pixel x 1 pixel tracking gif such as http://ads.digitalpoint.com/t-141940-3493-18407-138217-140167.gif
Advertisers usually create adverts using anchor text such as “loans”, “credit cards” and “mobile phones” but you will find adverts from almost any industry in the network. The adverts are showed in rotation so the links sometimes don’t appear more than once, just enough time for search engines to see them.
Publishers are given “weight” depending on how many pages the ads are being displayed on and the PageRank of those pages. Sites with strong PageRank and tens of thousands of indexed pages offer a huge amount of weight that the publisher can use to advertise any number of sites across the network.
The key is that you can run the adverts on a low quality spam site and use the weight to point links at a clean white hat site to boost it’s rankings.
During 2006 it became apparent that hosting these kinds of adverts was a bad idea both from a users perspective and from an SEO perspective. Having 4 or 5 footer links to sites out of your control isn’t a good way to build your brand and some sites were apparently losing PageRank and suffering ranking penalties because of the network.
It wasn’t long before people started buying high PageRank sites with thousands of pages purely to gain more “weight” for their Coop networks. Sellers were selling sites with stats about their Coop weight and others even started renting “weight” to other people if they had some to spare. A whole economy was born.
Millions of links = top rankings
I don’t intend to out any sites in particular but if you look at the top ranked sites for any industry and find one that has millions of links then take some time to check those links using Yahoo Site Explorer. If you find some that have the tracking gif then those are coop links.
Sites using coop links to build rankings are not hard to find because they dominate a lot of the most lucrative industries. Of course Google is likely to say the sites rank based on other factors but if you see a site ranking number 1 that has 25 million keyword rich anchor text links do you really think they are there naturally?
Since Google started to crack down on link selling and other manipulative schemes in 2006 the Coop has been getting smaller. Nowadays the system is comprised of thousands of low quality donor sites and perhaps a few hundred major players making millions every year from this free network.
A thread from June 2006 on Threadwatch shows how the situation was being played out:
There seems to be a growing number of webmasters who run Digital Point’s Coop on their site seeing heavy penalities placed on their sites’ SERPs in Google. Is it a coincindence, related to recent Google heaves or is it a definite Coop based penalty? The waters seem muddy at present (come back Matt…) and many are sceptical that it’s a penalty aimed at Coop users.
Personally I’ve lost 4 sites over the last 48 hours, the only thing they have in common is they run Coop ads. 2 that were there last night aren’t today. They’re not scrapers, there’s no cloaking or keyword stuffing and the content is all original – just like Google likes. None the less they don’t appear for themselves where they were once #1.
nuevojefe responds by saying:
Haven’t you heard how the game’s played? You take a crappy, large site, with some decent PR (ya know, the PR you got from the two $30/month PR7 links you bought just 2-3 months ago for the brand new site), you add the script to it, you then point the weight you get at a quality site that has other (good) inbound links, some content, and bam! you’re successfully ranking and pulling in the big bucks. Works a treat with all those webmasters putting the links on their bread and butter quality websites who are now linking to you!
We tried the coop network. Our site was wiped from Google and it took some serious grovelling to get back in again.
The site has been live for 5 years and has tons of organic inbound links – so the argument that only “link poor” sites will be penalised is not correct.
Never going near such a thing ever again
Clearly being a donor site is not advisable.
What should Google do?
In my view Google is quite right to hurt sites that sell links or host Coop adverts. Doing this is against their guidelines (whether people like it or not) and Google has to take action if people break their rules otherwise there is no point having rules.
What isn’t acceptable is for Google and other search engines to allow large sites to buy or manipulate their way to the top and remain penalty free while smaller sites are being put out of business. I have no doubt that if I was to point 25 million links at one of my websites it would be de-indexed within days if not hours.
Why is this network working so amazingly well 3 years after it was launched? Is Google really powerless to stop these links from counting?