Affiliate marketing scam spells trouble for Fairfax Digital

Affiliate campaign found to violate Google’s terms

Australian new media giant Fairfax Digital has come under fire for its connections with a fraudulent search marketing campaign. The campaign, which drew traffic to Fairfax-owned RSVP.com.au by manipulating search engine results, has sparked debate on issues in the $1b affiliate marketing industry.

The scam was discovered last week by blogger Mark Fletcher, who also founded and owns dating Web site 3LOVES.

"We were just doing some searching and saw that a '3loves' site came up in Google's search results," he said. "We clicked on the link that was there in the natural results, and it took us across to RSVP."

Fletcher's investigations into Google's cache of the linked page revealed RomanceDating.com.au, a cloaked page rife with keywords to do with 3LOVES, sex and dating. When viewed from a normal Web browser, however, Web surfers were simply redirected to Fairfax Digital's RSVP dating Web site.

The cloaking technique was similar to that once employed by BMW's German Web site, in which the page displays itself differently depending on if it is being viewed by a Web browser or a search engine. It was this technique that led to the delisting of BMW.de from Google in February last year.

"That cache is evidence of very clever SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] tactics that are being used - not only for 3LOVES but also for other online dating sites - all designed to capture interest in those sites and funnel it across to RSVP," Fletcher said.

Besides 3LOVES, Fletcher has discovered some 15 other dating Web sites that were targeted by the same marketing campaign, including Adult Match Maker, HornyMatcher and ezifriends.

Romancedating.com.au was found to be operated by a 'rogue affiliate' of Melbourne-based affiliate network, Commission Monster, of whom Fairfax Digital is a client. The affiliate network operates by recruiting publishers who create and manage Web campaigns, and offers commission-based payments on the traffic generated by each campaign.

According to Commission Monster's Strategic Director Peter Bojanac, the network was unaware of its rogue affiliate's dubious tactics until coming across its mention in Fletcher's blog.

"Basically, how we found out about it was through his [Fletcher's] blog," Bojanac said. "We ceased the campaign under the terms and conditions of Commission Monster, killed all the links and investigated into that particular campaign."

RSVP Marketing Manager Lija Jarvis said that this has been the first incident of search engine manipulation involving Fairfax Digital in its two-and-a-half years of affiliate marketing, and will not deter its marketing strategy or affect its relationship with Commission Monster.

"We've always been very, very careful about validating our affiliates," she said. "In the two-and-a-half years in which Fairfax Digital has been applying affiliate marketing, this was the first time we've had an issue and he [the rogue affiliate] was banned from the network as soon as the issue was in light."

Although the cloaking techniques employed by the affiliate advertiser were comparable to those leading to BMW.de's delisting, Jarvis is confident that RSVP is too far removed from the offending Web site to be penalised by Google.

"Google won't penalise somebody who hasn't done the manipulation," she said. "This is a situation where RSVP do not own the domain that has manipulated the results and therefore, we can't be penalised for someone else's doings."

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