We’ve all heard of social marketing and the benefits it yields. Regrettably, it is just as easy to abuse this strategic know-how and fault your company’s reputation forever. Such was the destiny of at least 8 web hosting firms that were censored and banned on HostingDiscussion.com forum in November 2008.
During a substantial investigation at the end of November, HostingDiscussion.com team was able to identify and intercept a large group of shills. Actually, the use of the word shill is not very accurate. Our understanding of a shill is usually of someone who acts as an enthusiastic customer in order to stimulate interest of others in that particular enterprise. In our case we were dealing with individuals who considered themselves providers of social marketing services (the term they prefer), who charged web hosting companies a fee for mentioning them on various forums and social groups. The more clients paid, the more “plugs” they could buy.
The complication came as these decoys were rather intelligent and well structured in their approach. Most of them had accounts that were opened many months, even years ago, and it took them a long time to integrate with the rest of the community through continuous mixed contributions, to the point where they thought their main purpose was well camouflaged.
The concerns started to pull in when the names of all the same web hosting companies started to come up in their recommendations. Most of the time they would also throw a couple of other well recognized hosting companies to the equation – for validity purposes. For instance, you would pay a lot more attention if I were to tell you that the best Internet search engines are Google, Yahoo! and Some Other Engine, rather than just Some Other Engine. Additional difficulty came as web hosting companies shills recommended were rotated, as clients of their social-spam-loving services would change.
Forum-censored companies with largest number of endorsements: Ahosting.biz, ServerPoint, EuroDNS, WebHostingBuzz, OnTheSpotHosting, SiberName, MarbleHost, HQhost.net. Over the course of last 2 years, these companies alone were mentioned by a group of kicked-out shills more than 300 times. Ahosting.biz received the most number of mentions – 86 times, followed by ServerPoint with 55 mentions and EuroDNS with 37. The numbers are staggering and influential, but more so for inexperienced hosting consumers who might develop a preference toward any company based on just a few positive notes.
There were a flock of other companies being endorsed by the same group that were given warnings they didn’t challenge. Three of the hosting firms (not mentioned in this article), after being confronted with the results of our investigation have admitted to using the promotional services, but were not aware that it was looked down upon. Said the manager of one of the companies we approached: “I was aware of other companies doing this and just wanted to get our name out there.”
As far as we see it, a positive recommendation is not looked down upon if it is authentic. It is a different ball game, however, when you have fifteen people on payroll providing positive plugs here and there. That was, is and should always be classified as spamming. At least I think so.
Unfortunately, the boundaries between spam and Internet social marketing have been growing thinner for years. As a result, this marketing technique is still a very viable option for a lot of Internet companies to explore, and with a large number of web hosting companies out there that are not doing so great, a concern has quickly evolved into a problem many social communities face. Ours is just one of them.
From years of experience in running HostingDiscussion.com, sadly there has never been lack of firms who weren’t ready to bend the rules, even if just a little. Let’s just hope that the example of 8 aforementioned companies made here that lost ability to conduct business in our healthy community, will at least prompt the rest of them to go back to the drawing board to review their marketing strategies.