There was once a time, before the age of Youtube and Facebook, when the wild webpages roamed free across the vast expanse of the internet. Unhindered by order or broad and powerful search engines, intrepid geocities pages and the rare business site eked out a meager existence of carefully collected links and networks. The notions of an entire business based on the web or of individuals making a fortune just from enough page-views were rarely considered. Visitors wandered the web, or truly “surfed” it, aimlessly searching for the next cool thing. It was a time before browser apps, before tabs, before Windows XP.
Those days of untapped internet wilderness are long-gone. Google is most people’s homepage. Facebook generates enormous sums of revenue from ads alone. Content-aggregators like Reddit and Tumblr drive popularity in wide swings. And any business without a functioning website isn’t just behind these days, they’re considered practically prehistoric.
To keep my metaphors straight (and I’m sure you’re already sick of them, but too bad), the internet is no longer a wilderness. It’s become a battleground.
The Battle for Reddit
We’ve all heard the internet success stories like Facebook, started by a few guys in college, now worth billions. Though Facebook emerged in an era of established search engines like Google, the landscape is still different now. These days new websites aren’t just shared by word of mouth or even by their presence on Google (though obviously that presence is incredibly important – and thus so is SEO), but also by the modern content-distribution services like Twitter, Tumblr, and even Facebook itself.
Reddit is another such content-driven website. On Reddit, users submit links to communities called “subreddits” organized around topics like technology, gaming, videos, humor, or even relationships. Other users see these new links and can choose to “upvote” or “downvote” them, increasing or decreasing their popularity rating by 1, respectively. Higher scores mean a link is more likely to be seen. In this way Reddit aims to be a democratic system for sharing popular content, and it’s gained a reputation to match its self-description as “the front page of the internet.” With more than 70 million monthly visitors, Reddit has huge clout, and it has driven popular surges of content like Gangnam Style or Grumpy Cat.
Yet like any other democratic system, Reddit has to be wary of vote-manipulation. Especially since on Reddit, the first few votes are crucial – they usually create a snowball effect. In 2010 the website Quickmeme.com launched and quickly saw huge success on Reddit. By 2012 it had nearly 70 million unique visitors a month. This meant huge ad revenue for the owners of the website, as much as 1.6 million dollars a month. Quickmeme owed the vast majority of its initial and continued to success for Reddit, where links to the site had been submitted over 1 million times. But recently Quickmeme saw competition in the form of Livememe.com.
Reddit moderators, tasked with keeping the website running correctly and free of manipulation, noticed that Livememe links were disappearing. After more close investigation, they realized that Quickmeme links were being automatically upvoted 6 times as soon as they were posted — and that its competitors, like Livememe, were being downvoted the same amount. Using programs to vote on links automatically is considering rigging and practically a cardinal sin on Reddit. The moderators discovered that one of their own, a user and moderator by the name of “gtwo8”, was actually Wayne Miltz, one of the owners of Quickmeme. Miltz was using bots to rig Reddit in his favor and abusing his moderator powers to delete popular links to his competitors’ sites.
Cheaters Never Prosper
The fallout for Quickmeme has been severe. After the story broke, Reddit instituted a permanent ban on links to Quickmeme’s domain – an enormous blow to a website that grew and continued to live and breathe off of Reddit. Quickmeme has already suffered a huge drop in traffic for the ban after less than 2 weeks.
This isn’t the first time that Reddit has had to ban domains for trying to cheat the system, but when there’s so much money at stake, it isn’t that surprising. There are even those who claim that large corporations use the site as an unofficial advertising model, creating dummy accounts and posing as consumers to post positive reviews and comments for their product (and even a subreddit dedicated to pointing out likely suspects). When the XBox One announcements generated huge consumer backlash a few weeks ago, almost any positive talk of the product on Reddit was labelled as propaganda by Microsoft Employees.
But the true story is that Reddit isn’t alone. Far from it; these days the internet is perhaps the largest single source of media for most people, and definitely the fastest growing. And with more ways to track users, target advertisements, and manipulate popularity than were ever present for billboards, TV, or radio, the internet is a veritable cornucopia of business opportunities. And for every person trying to play a fair game, there’s someone trying to cheat the system. Whether they’re rigging votes on a site like Reddit or using Black-Hat SEO to try and push their site up Google’s rankings, cheaters will abound.
The internet is a battleground. But the sneaky, deceptive tactics – the cheating employed by sites like Quickmeme and others – inevitably catches up to them. After all, Quickmeme didn’t start off cheating – they first became popular because they relied on a tried-and-true strategy: offering a service that no one else did. Only when they resorted to dirty tricks did they fall from grace. And as long as the internet remains as profitable as it is, these tricks will continue – and as long as Reddit, Google, and others keep their eyes open, these tricks will fail.
The internet may be a battleground – but that doesn’t mean we’re losing.