December 4, 2006 4:00 AM PST

The big Digg rig

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Digg became one of the top sites for tech news because it lets Web-savvy geeks decide what's newsworthy, offer up stories they like and vote on their favorites.

Now, dubious Internet marketers are planting stories, paying people to promote items, and otherwise trying to manipulate rankings on Digg and other so-called social-media sites like Reddit and Delicious to drum up more links to their Web sites and thus more business, experts say.

"People are trying to basically take advantage of Digg by artificially promoting a story with fake diggers or some other methodology of link swapping," Digg Chief Executive Jay Adelson said.

Unlike traditional news sites where editors decide what the news is, Digg emerged two years ago as an alternative where readers post links to stories from other Web sites that they think are newsworthy. The users hit a "digg" button if they like it or a "bury it" button if they don't like it. The most popular stories appear on the front page. Users are encouraged to comment on stories, and they can give comments a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The egalitarian nature of these aggregation sites has led a number of online publications, including CNET News.com, to add "Digg" and "Delicious" buttons that allow their own readers to recommend their stories to other users of the aggregation sites.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that marketers and spammers are a half-step behind. Since popular stories on Digg get linked to by blogs and other sites, marketers are doing everything they can to get content from their sites featured on Digg. The more links back to a Web site, the more it rises in search engine rankings and thus the more money that site can make.

Some marketers offer "content generation services," where they sell stories to Web sites for the sole purpose of getting them submitted to Digg and other sites. This combination of spam and blogs is called "splogs." The stories often feature topics and keywords in headlines that are likely to appeal to the Digg crowd, such as "geeks" and "Apple."

Lazier but still tricky marketers merely scrape content off legitimate sites to put up on their own sites in a technique called "link jacking." In essence, they are hijacking the links that should go back to the original site, experts say.

In a posting last week titled "The Spam Farms of the Social Web," blogger Niall Kennedy detailed how a suspicious item recently made it among the top five stories on Digg before the community "buried" it. The Digg user submission links to a story entitled "Geek's Guide to Getting in Shape: 13 Surefire Tips" written by "Dental Geek" for the i-Dental Resources blog. The blog site has links to other pages with ads that offer content creation marketing services and which collect money for dental plans sold, Kennedy said.

Digg isn't alone in these problems. News aggregator Reddit and Delicious, where users swap Internet bookmarks, are also susceptible, Kennedy said.

Thankfully, "the weight loss story never made it off the new page on Reddit," said Chris Slowe, senior programmer at Reddit, which was recently acquired by Conde Nast, owner of Wired Digital.

Slowe said he is aware of attempts to manipulate aggregation sites but said Reddit users are good at "self policing." For instance, users will band together and vote down stories promoted by suspicious users, he said.

A representative for Delicious, which is owned by Yahoo, had no comment on whether or not there have been attempts to rig that site.

Money driving ingenuity
Companies charge as much as $15,000 to get content up on Digg, said Neil Patel, chief technology officer at the Internet marketing firm ACS. If a story becomes popular on Digg and generates links back to a marketer's Web site, that site may rise in search engine results and will not have to spend money on search advertising, he said.

Another way to get Web links to a suspicious site is to get inside help from users at a social-media site. For instance, spammers have tried to infiltrate Digg to build up reputations and promote stories for marketers, experts say.

Other scammers are trying other ways to buy votes. A site dubbed "User/Submitter," purports to pay people 50 cents for digging three stories and charges $20 for each story submitted to the site, plus $1 for every vote it gets. The Spike the Vote Web site boasts that it is a "bulletproof way to cheat Digg" and offers a point system for Digg users to submit and dig stories. And Friendly Vote bills itself as an "online resource for Web masters" to improve their marketing on sites like Digg and Delicious.

"Digg has become a big enough phenomenon that it does move ideas and in some cases generates enough traction that people can then buy into a product or a stock," said Kennedy, an independent researcher working on search technologies. "A fake story will affect the (PlayStation maker) Sony brand."

Kennedy was referring to an item headlined "Just out from Reuters 650,000 PS3s to be recalled!!" posted on Digg on November 20 that made it to the front page within hours, according to a blog posting titled "Limitations of Socially Driven News," written by Digg user Muhammad Saleem.

Digg executives say they are on top of the situation.

"There is technical information that only we could know that flags us when someone is attempting to manipulate" stories and rankings, said Digg's Adelson. "It happens every single day." Adelson declined to go into details on how the system works.

In addition, Digg's 680,000 registered users serve as cops and fact-checkers, he said. "By merging the algorithms and the people I believe we have a foolproof system."

For now, it's a cat-and-mouse game for Digg to stay on top of the rigging attempts.

"Digg and others are working hard to deal with this kind of abuse," Jupiter Research analyst Barry Parr wrote on his blog this week. "But until it is eliminated, the credibility of social-news sites will be in question."

See more CNET content tagged:
Digg, aggregation site, Reddit, marketer, geek

14 comments

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Bad title for article
When I see Big Dig I think of Boston and ceiling tiles dropping and killing people.

I suspect others see it the same, this article should have a different title.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Boston?
I don't live in Boston so I'm not familiar with ceiling tiles dropping. The one thing about the title is it uses "Digg" and not "Dig"... That is something unique to the website, something that can easily be overlooked.
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
Link Flag
Three rhyming words = good title.
not living in boston i have no idea bout ceiling tiles either.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Link Flag
Digg's Foolproof System?
As a Digg user, I suffer through any "PS3 Sucks" thread garnering over 1000 votes, even when completely untrue. One article actually titled "The PS3 Cannot Do High Definition" and still topped 1000 votes (a ton by digg standards). Even the article the headline linked didn't make this false claim.

This extends to negative stories about George Bush, positive stories about the Nintendo Wii, negative stories about O'Reilly and Limbaugh, etc.,etc.

So where is the foolproof system for patently false stories? And when digg users just do what's popular, how does "self policing" even come into play? It's a hugely problematic system, and for "digg executives" to claim they have the problem in hand is akin to ebay saying they police auctions.

-Pie
Posted by EatingPie (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nothing Foolproof...
However, I think the PS3 "does" have hardware problems: the 1080P feature is crippled by a defect. Haven't you heard?

But yet, we have to read through all the "astroturf" and splogging and spluuge of deceit. The "jack Campbells" in that, they posted "jack" the thread and even have numerous IDs and assists to post "credulous" info and references. Still irks me that Google news has news titles with pictures that are scary (unrelated, or hardly close). All to attract the viewer and not be an actual image from the story.
OT- BTW, I predicted months ago that the Wii would outsell MS and Sony's over-hyped consoles. But do you hear that Nintendo sold 600K units in a week? Um, that is $150,000,000.00 at retail. $37,500,000.00 in profit for the 25% markup goes to who? And how about the ebay resellers getting $500+ for it. Jeesh, if half the Wii's sold were resold, look at all the money Nintendo lost because of their hype-machine!
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Link Flag
Good comments
Great comments, Pie Eater :) I agree. I'm also concerned with the top digg stories, I see quite a pattern with who the top "posters" are always.
Posted by sutherlandandrew (1 comment )
Link Flag
Doing everything they can?
If they are doing everything they can, where are all the law suits?

Stuff like this really pushes my buttons, and again there should jail time for prople perpetrating scams like this.
Posted by Mergatroid Mania (8395 comments )
Reply Link Flag
More on Digg!
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://tnerd.com/2006/10/03/diggcom-puzzled-are-we-ready-for-web-20/" target="_newWindow">http://tnerd.com/2006/10/03/diggcom-puzzled-are-we-ready-for-web-20/</a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://tnerd.com/2006/10/03/diggcom-how-to-make-money-from-diggcom/" target="_newWindow">http://tnerd.com/2006/10/03/diggcom-how-to-make-money-from-diggcom/</a>
Posted by syed.abbas (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Wal-Mart Manipulates Digg
I saw some blatant Digg manipulation by Wal-Mart right before "Black Friday". An article about Wal-Mart "accidentally" posting its Black Friday prices got 700 diggs almost instantly. Anyone who tried to point out it was spam got voted down instantly. I also saw a Wal-Mart splog pointing to the Digg article. I found the splog while I was looking for other bloggers with an interest in recent Wal-Mart PR escapades. I left several comments on these blogs, but no one seemed interested. I also left TWO notes for WOMMA about it. I don't understand why everyone would see the Wal-Mart flogs as shady but no one is pursuing their Digg click-farming.
Posted by teraphim (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
digg guys are always cheating
digg guys are always cheating people they are getting free money from visitors without doing anything
Posted by janssendavid (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Digg Corruption and the Anti Digg Website Allsux
Well, Digg corruption is incredibly widespread. It has been reported in Wired, Wikipedia, Slashdot and other reputable sources. But for the full story on recent events you should really check out <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://allsux.com" target="_newWindow">http://allsux.com</a> ... that has both personal stories and professional links related to Digg and its incredible behaviors.
Posted by derami (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I now use subbmitt.com instead...
Digg has gotten way out of control.
Posted by nazzdeq (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Digg.com is great, along with reddit.com. I also like thuhm.com and mixx.com.
Posted by manders2000 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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