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Blackhat SEO 'cheats' Reddit

Shill vote scheme cooks up upvotes

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A London-based "blackhat SEO" has demonstrated a means of gaming the popular link-exchange site Reddit, using fake accounts to artificially boost voting on selected stories.

In a blog post, the blackhat known only as Esrun – who also claims to work for a London-based search marketing agency – offers up a video in which he creates fake accounts in semi-automated fashion and uses scripts to execute shill votes. With these scripts, he writes, he was able to encourage votes from (real) users and drive links to the top of selected news category pages.

With one test, he says, the method drove 40,000 page views to a link in about eight hours.

"The fake votes push the story up so that a lot of people see it," he writes. "It will get an initial surge of traffic because people think it’s already been voted up by other genuine users. Then, provided it’s genuinely interesting, it will get genuine votes and comments from there."

Esrun did not immediately respond to a request to discuss the matter.

Now owned by American publishing house Conde Nast, Reddit is similar to that (waning) Web 2.0 poster child, Digg. You submit news and other links to the site, and users can then vote them "up" or "down" the site's virtual ladder, with the most popular links turning up on the main home page or sub home pages dedicated to specific news categories. Naturally, prominent placement means more traffic, and as with Digg, there's ample incentive to game the system.

In a recent months, following a redesign, Digg's traffic has plummeted, according to stats from online research outfit Hitwise. And over the same period, according to Google Analytics stats shared by Reddit lead developer Christopher Slowe, Reddit's traffic has surged. Slowe's numbers show the site's traffic growing 26 per cent from 1 August to 22 September.

During that period, the site received nearly 911,000,000 page views.

Esrun summited his "cheating Reddit" blog post to, yes, Reddit, and needlessly to say, it's receiving a fair amount of traffic. But there's some disagreement on how effective his methods really are.

"I still stand by what I've said before that these upvote scripts are useless," says one commenter. "If the content isn't good enough to rise on its own, sure a 100 upvotes may help, but it's not going to get 1,800 upvotes and 1,000 comments. Most people will be like, 'meh', and ignore. And even if you did use this script and people went crazy upvoting it, you probably could have got there anyway without the script."

But this isn't far from what Esrun says in his post. "If the content isn't at least semi-interesting in the first place then (unless it's in a small subreddit), it's not going to go very far," he responds with a comment of his own. "However, with this kickstart of votes, your content only needs to be a little bit good to get huge votes rather than the usual 'really good' that's required."

As an added twist, Esrun's scripts give downvotes as well as up. "Varying the votes has two advantages – firstly it helps the votes look natural, and secondly it puts the story into the ‘controversial’ area," he says in his post. "So even if the story doesn’t have enough votes to hit the front page of the section it was submitted to, it will still get a lot of traffic due to being high up in the controversial section." ®

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