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"walls of the city" logo conceptualized by Oleg Volk and executed by Linoge. Logo is © "walls of the city".

online ammunition retailers – a hypothesis

Exhibit A:

luckygunner76254r

Exhibit B:

bulkammo76254r

Exhibit C:

gunsforsale76254r

Exhibit D:

ammonet76254r

(Note: All images were screencaptured at 1800 on 07JUL11, and may no longer be representative of the sites.)

Exhibit E: The first product listed on each of those pages – 20 rounds of 180 Grain FMJ Sellier and Bellot 7.62x54r ammunition – all have the same identical product number: 1708. (You have to "View Source" to track down the numbers, but they are there.)

Exhibit F: Run this search – "gunsforsale.com lucky gunner". The post titled "Please Welcome LuckyGunner.com as the Newest Sponsor" shows up as a return, but is mysteriously absent. However, its cache is not:

luckygunnergunsforsalesponsor

Exhibit G: Use the above search and click on "Show more results from gunsforsale.com". The post titled "LuckyGunner Drops Prices" shows up as a return, but is mysteriously absent. However, its cache is not:

luckygunnergunsforsaleprices

Exhibit H:

Andrew: So what’s the first thing that you do, Brian? You come in there, they put all this on your shoulders. What do you do?

Brian: Immediately start reaching out to the bloggers. So in our particular space, you had just a ton of sites that all had really solid back link profiles. I’d say there’s probably at least 100 active bloggers that have page rank five sites where they’re talking about guns. You start reaching out to them and working with them to promote Lucky Gunner through their sites. Holistically from a marketing standpoint, you want to get that community of influencers pushing us to their . . . twofold, to their actual readers but then also linking to us because it was building our back link profile very quickly as well.

[...]

Andrew: So you were just asking for links and they’d link back to you?

Brian: Yeah. You go in and you could say . . . essentially, we had the benefit of the good will of we had stuff in stock that people wanted. So you’d reach out to the bloggers and say, “Hey guys, we’ve got this. Do you want to do a blog post about 380 hollow point ammo that we’ve got some of?” And they would be like, “Awesome. You guys have got it?” Link to it and then, “Would you add us to your blog roll as a resource as well?” And so you do that enough times and you start to develop both a deep link profile in the sense of links into the categories or the products that you want to rank for and then also links into your homepage. There was definitely more to it, but that was I think the tipping point of what really drove the sales very quickly was getting the bloggers engaged.

[...]

Brian: We’re good at SEO.

Andrew: What do you do? Make us good. I want to learn a little about what you did.

Brian: There’s a couple strategies. One is article marketing still really works well. If you think about SEO from a pyramid strategy with your root domain being at the top of the pyramid and then sequentially you want to get the back links into the lower parts of the pyramid to really target that stuff. I don’t know. Mixergy’s not really a good case study.

Lucky Gunner is but I’m trying to think of one where . . . let’s use Lucky Gunner because that’s what we’re talking about. You’ve got a homepage that you want to rank for a term like “cheap ammo” or “ammo” or “bulk ammo,” but then all these different calibers like you’re talking about you want those things to rank because in aggregate the traffic at the caliber level is so much bigger than it is at the head terms. So you go out and you do a lot of article marketing and link building into your particular caliber pages. So we were doing pay-per-click and dumping as much cash as we could into pay-per-click.

But we were, and continue to do, link building into sort of the mid-part of that triangle if you think of it as the site structure because that is the area where you can really move quick on Google. It doesn’t matter what the site is, but you can move really quick on Google if you target medium terms rather than just head terms. If you’re trying to rank for “payday loans,” it may be impossible to try to rank for “payday loans” out of the gate. But if you wanted to rank for payday loans in Santa Monica, California, the opportunity to rank there quicker is better. And then in aggregate is going to be able to more than make up for the volume at the top there for “payday loans.”

(Note: Brian Crane is the co-founder of Lucky Gunner.)

Hypothesis: Lucky Gunner, GunsforSale.com, Ammo.net, and BulkAmmo.com are all the same company, owned by the same entity (said entity may be one of those companies named), but that entity wants to minimize, obfuscate, or otherwise completely omit any connections between those storefronts.

Rationale 1: All four webpages are literally selling the same products – the same inventory, the same prices, even the same product numbers… the only difference between them is that the product names vary slightly and sales are irregular amongst the sites. The above Exhibits only highlight one particular type of ammunition, but the congruency spreads across all four webpages’ inventories in their totalities.

Rationale 2: The co-founder of Lucky Gunner is on-record stating that their entire business model, and the reason they have made so much money in the industry, is search-engine optimization (SEO).

Rationale 3: Google penalizes heavily for duplicate content.

Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar.

[...]

However, in some cases, content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic. Deceptive practices like this can result in a poor user experience, when a visitor sees substantially the same content repeated within a set of search results.

Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information. This filtering means, for instance, that if your site has a "regular" and "printer" version of each article, and neither of these is blocked with a noindex meta tag, we’ll choose one of them to list. In the rare cases in which Google perceives that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we’ll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved. As a result, the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site might be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.

Rationale 4: Google penalizes sites that solely exist to redirect you to another site.

However, some webmasters attempt to improve their page’s ranking and attract visitors by creating pages with many words but little or no authentic content. Google will take action against domains that try to rank more highly by just showing scraped or other auto-generated pages that don’t add any value to users. Examples include:

• Thin affiliate sites: These sites collect pay-per-click (PPC) revenue by sending visitors to the sites of affiliate programs, while providing little or no value-added content or service to the user. These sites usually have no original content and may be cookie-cutter sites or templates with no unique content.

Rationale 5: It is the worst-kept secret of the internet gun community that Lucky Gunner is a "drop shipper", in that they maintain no inventory as a company. Instead, they provide what is commonly referred to as a "front end" – a storefront that people interface with – to sell products that some other company is warehousing and shipping (the "back end"). This makes their job remarkably easy (just maintaining the webpage and providing customer interface), but also makes it very easy to open multiple, disjoint, parallel storefronts that all feed off the same inventory.

Rationale 6: If a customer were to have a poor experience with one of the above four webpages, the odds of them using one of the three remaining webpages are high, given they all have equivalent prices.


Alright, so what the hell does all this mean in plain English? Well, to begin with, you should be well-aware by now that this is entirely conjecture on my part as I put together various pieces of congruent information – connecting the dots, so to speak. Apart from what I have presented here, I have no "hard" evidence, only a startling sequence of coincidental coincidences.

But say you were an entrepreneur interested in making some money, and noticed an up-and-coming market that was not fully exploited yet. You are not interested in the vagaries, difficulties, and complexities of maintaining your own inventories, logistics chains, suppliers, and whatnot else, so you cast about for a warehouser and order-fulfiller, and then open up a front-end webpage selling to this market as a drop-shipper (but you do not really use those words, given the negative connotation they have understandably developed). In order to make as much money as you can in as little time as you can (hey, you are an entrepreneur, and who likes waiting around for money?) you set your prices to a competitive level, do your best to stock things that people have a hard time finding, and then reach out to members of the market community, pointing out those prices and that inventory, and drumming up interest for your site.

So those folks link to you, intrigued by what you are offering. But it turns out that just those folks linking to you is not quite enough to bump you in the search rankings as much as you might like. Buying links is out, due to ethical quandaries. Black-hatting your site is definitely out, given how intelligent the Google-bots have gotten over the years. And throwing out transparent redirect-sites are out for the same reason. So what are you to do?

Well, you open "competitors" – different domain, different name, different look, different feel, but the same exact back end behind it all, and the same people making money from it. Given that everything obviously identifying the sites is different, Google cannot very well accuse you of "duplicate content". Given that there are no apparent connections between all the sites and they are each independently-functioning front ends, there are no "thin affiliate sites". Given that they are "competitors", they will get ranked on Google separately, as different search returns, and so you will effectively flood search engines with your identical products… just branded in slightly different ways.

And just to make everything look "organic", you start teaming up some of those "different" websites with pre-existing weblogs that you have already had advertiser relationships with… but in order to ensure that there can be no obvious connections made between StoreFront1 and StoreFront2, those bloggers have to go back through their archives and nuke anything even obliquely indicating such.

But we are speaking entirely hypothetically… just like the idea that Lucky Gunner, BulkAmmo.com, GunsforSale.com, and Ammo.net are the same company is purely an unproven hypothesis.

Is any of this illegal? Of course not – all of those sites, so far as I know, are independently-incorporated companies who pay the same exact warehouser / order-fulfiller to do the heavy lifting. Is any of this unethical? Well, that entirely depends on your concept of "ethics", but Google certainly seems to think so – why else would they have chosen to use the words "manipulate our rankings and deceive our users" (see above quote) or "manipulate search engine rankings or garner more traffic via popular or long-tail queries".

And that choice of words completely describes why I am writing this post – I consider it manipulative and deceptive for one company/organization/entity to maintain four separate storefronts that are all basically the same exact store, and not make that connection clear to its consumers. I have only briefly touched on the number of ways that kind of situation could be exploited, but i am sure you can imagine additional twists on the theme.

Once again, the hypothesis is only a hypothesis, and the above explanation is purely hypothetical, but each of the exhibits are factual recordings of the situation that you can go out and verify for yourself, and I trust you will, because you know what they say about knowing. If any of the websites / companies / entities named in this post would like to provide evidence that the hypothesis is somehow flawed or outright wrong, I would be all ears, and would be more than willing to retract this post and put up another documenting how this streak of coincidences is just that and nothing more.

[1700 Update] I would just like to thank Alan at SnarkyBytes, ernunnos, and Reddit user testu_nagouchi for linking to this story. Suffice to say, it is getting some exposure. [/Update]

[1615 12JUL11 Update]  Additionally, I would like to thank Jon at Misanthropic? Me? Inconceivable. and Peter at Bayou Renaissance Man for the links as well. If I have missed your links, please let me know. [/Update] 

[0700 15JUL11 Update]  The above hypothesis has been confirmed[/Update]

(Note: All links to Lucky Gunner, Ammo.net, GunsforSale.com, and BulkAmmo.com are "rel="nofollow"".)

(Courtesy of some friends who convinced me to finally connect the dots that were bouncing around inside my head.)

24 comments to online ammunition retailers – a hypothesis

  • Phssthpok

    Not surprising in the least. I worked a weekend ‘warm body job’* at a web hosting server farm as a side job some years back, and I got to see behind-the-scenes as many as six sites run by the same entity for such things as BMX/motocross gear, skate equipment, and paintball gear. It’s actually quite a common practice, and easy to spot once you know it’s out there.

    *The web hosting company advertised that there was a live person on site 24/7 to maximize up-time. Over the weekends I was the person for 12hrs during the day. I did a security/systems check walk through once an hour, and played MMORPGS with a fibreoptic spinal tap to the internet. The most technical thing I did was reboot a particularly troublesome server from time to time…other than that if anything happened, I called the on-call tech. Easiest $10/ hour I ever made

  • Logan

    Wouldn’t this be the same as price fixing if there are more than one corporate entity involved?

  • [...] Linoge has an interesting post about online ammo seller(s). [...]

  • Sleazy is as sleazy does.

  • Now, they could at least provide us with some kind of value proposition: if each of those “front end” sites was incorporated in a different state with no internet sales tax. Then you could order from the company from a state that you don’t live in.

  • The whois registration info for luckygunner.com and bulkammo.com go to the same PO Box

    c/o LUCKYGUNNER.COM
    P.O. Box 821650
    Vancouver, WA 98682
    US

    c/o BULKAMMO.COM
    P.O. Box 821650
    Vancouver, WA 98682
    US

    Gunsforsale.com is out of Texas, but clearly has a formal relationship with the luckygunner crew, which undoubtedly extends to “wrapping” their storefront. (It’s almost certainly the same backend code, and if they’re smart, the same front-end too, with some different images and CSS. I’m not motivated enough to go looking at source code, but it would be pretty obvious.)

    Ammo.net has addresses in CA and UT on the domain, but appears to be out of Georgia.

    Y’know what? Let’s look at the source. Yup. Same guys. Within the first couple of lines of both you see…

    http://cdn6.luckygunner.com/skin/frontend/luckygunner/default/favicon.ico
    http://cdn1.ammo.net/skin/frontend/ammonet/default/favicon.ico
    http://cdn1.gunsforsale.com/skin/frontend/gunsforsale/default/favicon.ico
    http://cdn2.bulkammo.com/skin/frontend/bulkammo/default/favicon.ico

    These are all just “skins” on the same backend site. They all have the same structure from there on out too, with the same javascript, etc.

  • MCI used to do that with long distance calling cards, toll free dial around, and 10-10 dial around long distance. It allowed them to get the business from people who hated MCI, and wanted to use someone else. Other carriers undoubtedly did the same thing. Sorry, no links, as all my evidence is anecdotal from back in my MCI days over a decade ago.

  • nippynappy

    Gunsforsale.com and ammo.net are hosted on the same server. And luckygunner.com and bulkammo.com are hosted in the same data server. Definitely the same guys.

    http://pastebin.com/raw.php?i=xPQ6VKrp

  • @ Phssthpok: Oh, I am certainly not saying that this is an unusual practice, I was simply trying to call it out when I saw it…

    Still, that said, that sounds like a hell of a job if you can snag it!

    @ Logan: Corporate law definitely is not my strong suit, but I would imagine there would need to be actually-separate businesses involved for price-fixing to hold true… Dunno, though.

    @ alan: Pretty much.

    @ Tirno: This is true. The primary reason I have never purchased from Lucky Gunner was that in addition to shipping, I would have to pay Tennessee sales tax and the TWRA excise tax on ammunition. If I am going to pay the latter two, I might as well go down to my local store/show, pay a comparable price, and avoid shipping.

    Still, if that was their goal, they could have at least been up-front-and-honest about it.

    @ Jason: So the address does not really mean anything, given that my WHOIS mailing address is handled by DreamHost, and I would imagine a lot of people share that same physical address with me.

    As for the file structure, that could simply be the default for whatever ecommerce software they are using, but the odds of all four companies using the same software are… well… kinda low. Not impossible, though.

    @ Link P: Yeah, that is one of the main reasons I object to this practice – if I were to have a bad experience with one of these companies, I would almost certainly buy from another, given the prices are the same. But, in the end, I am still giving money to the company that I had issues with.

    Catching people coming and going ain’t shiny.

    @ nippynappy: So being hosted on the same server is indicative of nothing more than using the same hosting company – after all, Weer’d’s site, JP’s podcast’s site, and this blog all even have the same IP, but I only “own” one of those. But it certainly does increase the number of interesting coincidences…

  • VERY interesting, thanks for the post and it looks like you hit a home run with this one!

  • This is common in other areas-a nearby mall had 4 jewelry stores, all owned by Sterling Jewelers, and Luxottica is the largest maker of eyeglass frames, they also own most of the major opticians, including Sears Optical, JC Penny optical, and Eyemed vision plans.

  • [...] Linoge reaches the same conclusion I did and ties all the evidence into a nice neat package. I had the same idea he did, but I haven’t really paid all that much attention to the whole LuckyGunner thing as I don’t buy from them or any of those other places (and I’m far too small for them to approach  about advertising, or offer me swag or a spot at a shoot or anything spiffy like that ;-) – feel free to pass a link to my site around so that can change  *g*). [...]

  • Nice work, Linoge! I’ve linked to your post on my blog at:

    http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2011/07/thats-some-nifty-detective-work.html

    Hope you get lots of exposure on this one as fellow bloggers spread the word.

  • I just checked — bulkammo.com sent me traditional spam last October, claiming that they read my blog from time to time. Possible, but very unlikely. They asked for a link, and were very specific even down to the anchor text they wanted me to use–more signs of Google manipulation.

  • So order one of the same thing from all 4 and see if they all drop ship from the same place…

  • @ Old NFO: If one is going to throw out a hypothesis like this, one needs to ensure that one’s little ducks are in a nice little row… There are still a few holes I would like filled, but that is always the case with these kinds of things.

    @ sevesteen: Funny how the things work in the background, is it not? When people start getting specific about exact structures of links, I start getting a little suspicious, especially when they are not paying for them. As is often the case, “works” is not always synonymous with “right”, though…

    @ Peter: Thanks for the linkage!

    @ North: The short answer? Too cheap. The longer answer is that I do not want my money going to support that company, in case that was not already obvious ;). I was kind of hoping my readers still had some packing slips laying about and could compare notes, though…

  • [...] So now the only question is why the proprietors of Lucky Gunner (now that we know that storefront is the “master”) are keeping the various internal interconnections quiet…?  But, really, I think we already know that answer.  [...]

  • [...] Linoge So why have I written the past two posts about Lucky Gunner’s apparent silent ownership of various other ammunition-supplying webpages out there?  Things like this rank pretty highly towards the top of the “reason” [...]

  • Brian Johnson

    You can get a we bit more information if you digg a bit on the founders of Lucky gunner by name. here is an article you should read http://mixergy.com/luckygunner-brian-crane-interview/
    .
    I have meet Brian from Lucky gunner and these guys are sharp business people. They also do give back to the blogging community. SEO is not a criminal activity. That been said I think what Lucky Gunner has been doing as of late could be in potental breech of Google webmaster guidlines. If there is a master in our web universe at the moment its google. If you piss them off your web business can vaporize….

    Brian Johnson
    Ammoland.com

  • @ Brian Johnson: I think you will find that Exhibit H, blockquoted above, was lifted wholesale from Brian’s Mixergy interview… ;)

    And you will not see me denying that LG has done some good for the firearm-owning community – you will find a post floating around here somewhere thanking them for their support of last year’s Gun Rendezvous raffle when PayPal decided to go and be jerks. Likewise, SEO, in and of itself, is not my probelm – I exercise a small-scale version of it here on this site, what with the way links are arranged and so forth.

    My problem is, and always has been, the inherent deception behind the notion of operating multiple storefronts under the same overarching company, without disclosing that arrangement. That set-up, for example, can be – and has been – used to spam unsuspecting gunnies from one domain, and when they swear off using that particular domain (as some have), they will probably continue to use one of the other domains, not knowing that they all feed back to the same company. Well, is the domain to blame for the spamming, or is the company behind all of them at fault? And do you really think it is the domain they do not want to do business with, or the company responsible for them?

    As I have said somewhere, if LG had added so much as a, “Ammo.net is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lucky Gunner, LLC” at the bottom of their various sites, you would have heard nary a peep from me.

    And do not worry – back on Monday, I submitted an email through their customer service line. I am curious to see if they will respond to it (their system has acknowledged receipt), though I will follow up with a direct email if I have to.

  • @ Linoge:
    You and I are in agreement. I do not think that this is a good business practice. I personally would not buy from a website without more personal information published on the site to confirm the entity. I myself have been in the ecommerce business since 1996 and I have worked with thousands of small and mid size companies. Publishing your identity on the website is critical to the sites credibility. I also was the webmaster / web consultant for Aimsurplus.com for 8 years so I have a lil background in the ammo business and Aim took a different approach buy offering exceptional customer service and great prices, that worked for them and they grew. DO I think LG is doing the right thing, no Google webmaster guidlines identify this approach to marketing and they reject it http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769.

    I am indefferent to LG and their approach, they have advertised with us in the past and we appreciate thier business, They have sent us articles to publish and we published them when we thought they were a value to our readers. They do sponsor some gun shoots and they have invited ammoland to the meet ups. I dont think SEO is a crime and its clear that LG is all about SEO. setting up some “no follow” links will allow a pro gunner blogger to remain positive with LG while remaining pure to their objections.

    I like reading about this on walls of the city because I have known about this issue for a long time and too many gun bloggers seemed oblivious to what was going on. As pro gun people, bloggers and information providers I think we have a responsibility to keep our enviroment clean of nafarious people or people who may be less then honest in their practices and discussion amoungst us all is the only way to achive that function.

    So thanks for the reveal. its good work by all.
    Brian johnson

  • [...] Really Complicated | hellinahandbasket.net on On “killing over stuff”Brian Johnson on online ammunition retailers – a hypothesisLaughingdog on shots from the dragonNorth on a clockwork ideaTam on a clockwork ideaLinoge on online [...]

  • @ Brian Johnson: We are indeed in agreement :).

    Hopefully you do not mind, but I yoinked your comment in its entirety for a new post… I think your last paragraph sums up nicely some of the points I was trying to make.



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