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British police have shut down more than 1,200 websites selling fake designer clothing in jewelry in the past week. And along with those websites, they've taken out some of Google's top results.
Thanks to a tweet tip, the aftermath of Scotland Yard's crackdown can be seen with a Google UK search for 'ugg boots'. As I write this, no less than seven of the top 10 results on the first page for this search are inaccessible. One of the websites that can't be accessed includes the top-ranked site: okuggboots.co.uk.
The Scotland Yard crackdown, dubbed Operation Papworth, was designed to protect consumers from criminals hawking fake wares using websites set up on .co.uk domains. The body that handles domain registrations in the UK, Nominet, cooperated in the operation.
According to the BBC, Ugg brand boots were a popular target for fraudsters and complaints about fake Ugg boots had skyrocketed over the past year. More than 400 of the websites caught in the Operation Papworth dragnet were selling fake Ugg boots.
While designer knockoffs and the internet have had cozy relationship for years, Operation Papworth has exposed the fact that many online criminals are well-versed in blackhat SEO. Without top SERPs, the online storefronts being used to sell counterfeit goods to consumers would have been far less successful. But by controlling the first page of Google's results for a popular search query like 'ugg boots', one can only imagine how much revenue the fraudsters pulled in before Operation Papworth put a dent in business.
The real story here is how criminals came to own the SERPs. As I've written before, Google's ability to detect webspam and paid links appears at times to be non-existent. A quick look at the backlinks for okuggboots.co.uk provides perhaps the most shameful example of this. Out of the 400 or so backlink results displayed, most are on Chinese websites. And because link: only returns a subset of the full backlinks, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg.
The question, of course, is why Google would rank okuggboots.co.uk -- a British site -- so highly when so many of its backlinks appear to come from Chinese websites, the majority of which have .cn domains and minimal English text. An even bigger question is how Google missed the questionable nature of the backlinks themselves. The following HTML code from one of the Chinese websites was placed above the starting <html> tag of the page:
<marquee height=1 width=5 SCROLLAMOUNT=3000 SCROLLDELAY=20000>
<a href="http://www.supplyugg.com/">ugg boots</a>
Given the nature of the links, it seems pretty likely that many of these backlinks were placed on websites that had been compromised (the HTML above is from a Chinese government website). And while there's obviously no way to tell how much weight, if any, was given to these links, it's absolutely astonishing that such a blatant and unsophisticated hidden linking tactic could be used in such a widespread fashion, all while Google still gives the linked-to websites top SERPs as opposed to penalties or outright bans.
Adding insult to injury, it doesn't take much to pick up traces of another tactic used by okuggboots.co.uk: comment spam, all over the place.
I don't know how else to say it: Operation Papworth has completely exposed Google. I wouldn't go so far as to 'blame' Google for all the consumers who were undoubtedly scammed after searching for 'ugg boots' and being led to a counterfeiter's website, and to be fair to Google, policing the internet isn't an easy task. But it's really hard to imagine how Google's webspam detection could be this flawed.
One can only hope that Google is paying attention to this situation and looking at all the obvious things it's clearly not paying attention to right now. For the time being, most consumers certainly aren't aware of just how much Google seems to be letting them down, but make no doubt about it: Google's SERPs are golden because consumers trust them. After seeing this, I can't help but think that maybe that trust is misplaced. If Google doesn't recognize the value of that trust, it risks eventually losing it.
Photo credit: Mykl Roventine via Flickr.