Aplus.net Admits Cloaking Customer Sites to Improve Search Ranking

Aplus.Net admitted Friday that it had manipulated customer web sites to try and improve its ranking in the Google search engine, inserting "hidden links" that made it appear that more than 17,000 sites were linking to Aplus.net's home page. The technique may have helped Aplus.net achieve a first-place Google ranking for the term "dedicated servers."

The San Diego web hosting company said the links had been installed by a company hired to optimize Aplus.net's search engine ranking, and that it had completely removed the hidden links from customer sites. "We didn't apply enough control over what our subcontractor was doing," said Ivan Vachovsky, CEO of Aplus.Net. "We have changed our procedures so that it never happens again."

Aplus.net used a technique known as "cloaking," detecting when Google's spider was visiting any of its customer sites, and then inserting HTML code with the terms "Web Hosting," "Dedicated Servers" and "Domain Names," all linked to aplus.net.

Aplus.net customers who discovered the practice went public with their complaints on the Web Hosting Talk and on Google Answers online forums. After a story appeared on Web Host Industry Review, the company issued a press release saying the practice was being halted.

In addition to the top ranking for dedicated servers, Aplus.net currently has a 10th-place ranking in Google for "web hosting." But the company insisted that "any effect, both positive and negative, related to the placing of the links is pure speculation." To support its contention, Aplus.net pointed to its ranking for the third of the three terms hidden in customer pages. "We are on page 40 for the 'domain name' keyword," Michael Nieman, VP of Sales at Aplus.Net, said in the press release. "This is worse than before the so called 'optimization.' On the customer side we have yet to see any evidence of any negative effect."

But Google's policy statement makes it clear that Aplus.net's practice could have placed its customers' listings at risk. "Actions such as cloaking, writing text that can be seen by search engines but not by users, or setting up pages/links with the sole purpose of fooling search engines may result in permanent removal from our index," Google notes in its advice to webmasters.

Aplus.Net is the Internet Services Division of Abacus America, Inc., and hosts more than 77,000 hostnames, according to data from our April Hosting Provider Switching Analysis.