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A Picture Paints a Thousand Visitors

I once received the strangest piece of spam. I mean, this thing was weird! The text of the message made absolutely no sense, and the email contained images of the most random things. A car crash, a cyclone, a bird at a bird feeder - just randomly unrelated things.

"How odd," I thought to myself, as I tried to imagine what in the world the spammer was trying to sneak past me. The obvious answer would be that the spammer was using an image from an external server to track who received the email. (This is why many email applications now block images from external servers; it's a way senders can track who is reading their email.)

But that explanation didn't hold water, because as I studied the email, I realized that every image was hosted on a different website - one about racing, one about weather - you get the idea.

So what was really going on here?

Some unscrupulous SEO company had promised the racing site (and the weather site, etc.) "I'll get 1000 visitors to your site," and then sent out a mass spam to 1000 people. 1000 people open the email, and in so doing, their email software calls up an image from the site, generating a "visit" on the poor, unsuspecting sap's server.

The next day, the website owner looks at his traffic statistics and says, "WOW! He really did it! 1000 visitors to my site in one day!"

But what he doesn't realize is that none of those 1000 visitors actually visited his site; they just opened an email, and then likely deleted it, never suspecting that they were unwittingly participating in an SEO scam.

The good news is, this sort of scam is harder to perpetrate now, since many email programs (like Outlook) block external images from emails. However, it is still possible. All the scammer has to do is visit a few high traffic message boards and post an image from your server. Every time someone views that thread, another hit is generated on your site.

If you're using some traffic statistics software to track what is happening on your site, be sure to study the details carefully. Typical traffic stats software will let you view "referring URLs", so you can see where the traffic is coming from. By studying this information you can find out if your SEO guy is sending you real traffic, or just pulling the wool over your eyes.