(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:
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:
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.
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.
[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.)