What a virtual world we travel through sometimes. A (relatively) innocent marketing ploy designed to draw in backlinks for a financial services comparison website in London has stirred up media attention ranging from the front page of Digg to coverage on Fox News.
When money.co.uk posted a story titled 13 Year Old Steals Dad's Credit Card to Buy Hookers, the idea was that it could be read as a humorous parody piece that could get attention from social media sites, yield quality backlinks, and draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors. The backlinks would help the site achieve higher rankings on search engines, especially for the target keyword phrases that would include the words "Credit Card".
The story did will. Very well. It hit the front page of Digg and rose in the "Top in All Categories" section on its way to nearly 2,500 diggs. It was reviewed over 200 times on StumbleUpon and received moderate attention on Reddit and Mixx. Outside of social media, the story was picked up by several online publications and yielded an estimated 6,000 backlinks for the site.
The problem was that most who read it didn't pick up on the fact that it was fake.
"The thing is, I tried to make it as ridiculous as possible so it would
be obvious that it would be fake," said Lyndon Antcliff, a writer and Internet marketer in an interview on Wired.com.
There is now a disclaimer on the story that says, "This story is a parody and is not intended to be taken seriously."
Some of the news sites that picked it up have removed the story, including news.com.au and GameSpot UK. Others still have the story live, including TV3 and G4TV.
In addition to the disclaimer on the original post, Money.co.uk posted an apology, removed associations with the marketing vendor, and added a sentence to their About page regarding fake stories..
A handful of articles reporting that the story was fake have been posted, but none have been promoted to the front pages of social media sites.
Through all of this, the question must be asked: Are websites being forced to resort to parody to be able to market their services? "Link Bait" is a term that comes to mind that is preached about by many in the search engine optimization world but achieved by only the most skilled. In essence, it refers to any content that, for whatever reason, can draw in natural inbound links from websites.
In this case, the link bait was obviously a wild story. Sometimes it can be a video or story that adds value and the entices related websites to use it as a resource. Other times, it can be a tool or widget that webmasters can put on their sites that will help them (and the source) achieve a desired goal.
With the heavy emphasis that search engines place on inbound links, many websites are desperate for any form of viral link-building. It may not be "ethical" through some perspectives, but it is arguably justifiable in the competitive Internet marketplace.
Until the search engines come up with a better ranking system, we can expect sensationalized parodies to continue to pop up.