"Parasite SEO" and AI deals are turning Reddit into a spam-infested mess

Reddit has seen an enormous spike in visibility on Google—and it's now dealing with a major spam issue

Snoo, das Maskottchen von Reddit, rüstet sich zum Kampf gegen Affiliate-Spam

Sinking visibility for affiliate sites in Google's search results and an uptick in prevalence for UGC sites have led to affiliates to focus on the latter—with Reddit in particular becoming the platform of choice. Today, OMR breaks down the situation and has receipts.

If you’re an informed consumer stateside performing your pre-purchase due diligence, Reddit’s “mega forum” invariably pops up at the top of the list for most Google's search results. When searching for “best vpn,” for example, Google lists a Reddit thread second, where a user asks the Reddit community for suggestions on the best “virtual private network” provider (a software-based tool used to disguise the location, from which a user accesses the internet).

40 bucks plus per new customer

The Reddit setup and MO will surprise no one tangentially familiar with the Internet. What may shock you to learn is that the most prominently placed comments on the Reddit post consist entirely of spam—and Google seems to give zero you-know-whats. They all contain affiliate links, where spammers receive a commission payout if a purchase is made (top dog NordVPN, for example, pays affiliates between EUR 14 and 43 per newly acquired customer, depending on the duration of the subscription). And Google is a driver of relevant traffic for Reddit threads. Search engine analytics tool Sistrix estimates that it sources more than 6,000 visitors per month via Google alone.

This all by no means only applies to “best vpn.” Reddit posts littered with affiliate spam also appear in the results of Google's US search engine for other search queries. “best bluetooth speakers:” a spammed up Reddit thread coming in third (the top comment contains an affiliate link to Amazon). “Best headphones” redirects to a Reddit thread where a disguised affiliate link to Amazon is the third top comment.

Spam in over half of Google-ranked Reddit posts?

A few months ago, Glen Allsopp (known in the SEO scene as “Viperchill”) painted a more detailed picture re: the extent of “SEO Reddit affiliate spam.” Back in February, he investigated how often forums and user-generated content platforms such as Reddit appear in 10,000 product-related search queries. Lo and behold, not only does Reddit appear in the search results for more than 75% of search queries, sometimes multiple times, but 51% of these Reddit threads are full of spam links.

How did we get here?

In the USA, the declining quality of Google's search results has been the recipient for criticism for years. "If you’ve tried to search for a recipe or product review recently, I don’t need to tell you that Google search results have gone to shit. You would have already noticed that the first few non-ad results are SEO optimized sites filled with affiliate links and ads,” wrote author and software developer Dmitri Brereton in 2022 in an article that generated heaps of awareness under the headline "Google Search is Dying."

Google darlings: UGC and forums

Brereton did offer a workaround to combat the spam-filtration. “If you want to know what a real person thinks about the latest Lenovo laptop, you need to include 'Reddit' in your query (or Hacker News, Stack Overflow, or any other community you trust)." Apparently Brereton was not alone in that assessment. In a blog article from February 2024, Google even acknowledged that more and more users were adding “Reddit” to their search queries in order to find out the opinions of disinterested people.

By the time of that public statement, however, Google had long since hatched plans to react to the trend—and presumably to prevent users from searching directly on Reddit at some point without going through “middleman” Google. For one, Google began increasingly integrating entries from “discussions and forums” into search results (forum operators can provide additional structured data to gain more visibility). For another, Google has apparently tweaked its own algorithm to rank user-generated content platforms such as Reddit, Wikipedia and Quora higher, thus increasing their visibility in the standard search results.

reddit_sichtbarkeitsindex.jpg

Reddit's visibility on US Google according to Sistrix

Google catapults Reddit past Facebook and Instagram

The result: Reddit has seen visibility spike on Google in the English-speaking world since July 2023. In the overall rankings for most visible websites, it has gone from 80th place to 5th place, ahead of Facebook and Instagram. In Germany, Reddit currently ranks 116th in terms of Google visibility according to Sistrix, where Google does not yet have any dedicated discussions and forums entries in the search results.

In the USA, there is currently no end in sight to Reddit's growth in terms of visibility on Google. On the contrary, Google is apparently currently testing an even more prominent integration of forum entries such as those from Reddit:

"Mit 'Parasite SEO' in drei Stunden bei Google nach vorne"

On the one hand, this development has brought Reddit enormous traffic growth; from daily traffic of 57 million in July 2023 to its current 82 million daily (!) active users (according to company figures). On the other hand, so-called niche sites and other websites of affiliate publishers are losing their previous visibility as a result.

Apparently this is why some of them are now spamming Reddit and other user-generated content sites such as Medium.com and Linkedin with their links, because they appear high up on Google. "Google is simply pushing us in this direction. They're pushing all the high-quality affiliate sites down and Reddit ranks better than anything else,” says Stewart Vickers, for example, who also calls himself ‘SEO Jesus,’ in a video on YouTube in which he explains how he allegedly got to the top of Google's search results within three hours with ‘Reddit Parasite SEO.’

Unpaid mods to shoulder the load

For its part, Reddit is doing all it can to keep spam off its threads. For example, they have implemented a slew of preventive measures including keeping new accounts from posting straight away and excluding the sharing of links in some sub-forums initially. In addition, Reddit has given the community power to influence the visibility of posts and comments via upvotes and downvotes, which in theory could limit the visibility of spam. And lastly, there is an army of unpaid moderators and “admins” deployed by Reddit who are tasked to delete spam whenever, wherever they see it.

Reddit's most recent “transparency report” does not paint an overly dramatic picture of the volume of spam on the platform, stating that a mere 7.7 percent of posts, comments and private messages are said to have been deleted for spam reasons. That figure should be taken with a grain of salt, however, as the report it’s based on only took into account the period from January 2023 to June 2023. If you recall from six paragraphs prior, Reddit’s major Google boom only began in July 2023, ergo when the spam problem also took off. Moreover, our own empirical evidence and Glen Allsopp's investigation both strongly indicate that Reddit moderators are unable to detect all the spam, at least not immediately.

ChatGPT spearheads spam spike on Reddit

As tutorial videos, such as the one by “SEO Jesus” Stewart Vickers show, spammers repeatedly employ an array of simple tricks to outsmart Reddit's security measures. For example, older Reddit accounts and upvotes can be bought online. There are services that allow users to conceal the fact that they operate several accounts via the IP. Some spammers also try to disguise their affiliate links by first linking to another page and then redirecting automatically.

To be clear, spam has always been a persistent issue on Reddit—the platform did have scores of users before the visibility spike from Google—and a single post on the homepage could generate a lot of organic traffic. The increased visibility from Google simply means that it’s an even more attractive platform for spammers to inundate with affiliate links. Further exacerbating the spam problem is everyone’s favorite boogeyman: AI. The widespread availability of generative artificial intelligence has made it easier to publish fake posts and comments at scale. A year ago, for example, mods of the Cybersecurity subreddit reported the emergence of ChatGPT-generated comments

Reddit, Marketing Kingmaker?

The current AI boom would seem to indicate that spam will only become more prevalent moving forward. Both Google and OpenAI have entered into deals with Reddit operators and are now training their AI models on Reddit data. So if savvy marketers are looking to be a part of AI content generated by AI, featuring on Reddit would figure to be a good place to start.

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Author
Scott Peterson
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