Search engine optimization companies have started targeting Google's +1 feature -- you can now pay companies to "+1" your website.
SEO companies, such as SEO Shop, are now offering packages of Google +1's. SEO Shop sells its +1's at Plussem.com, where you can purchase 50 +1's for $10, 250 +1's for $30, and 2,000 +1's for $170. SEO Shop has, naturally, gone to great lengths to conceal its activities from Google itself.
The Value of +1
Google's +1 was announced back in March, presumably as a way for the company to combat the ever-present Facebook "Like" button. When users "+1" a website, they are essentially telling their connected friends that they "like" and "recommend" that site.
Initially, Google +1's only appeared on Google itself, but in June the company rolled out the +1 button to the entire Web. This expansion indicates Google could be ready to use +1 data to tweak its rankings -- after all, it seems plausible that the search giant would be interested in staying current with trending topics.
To ensure you get what you pay for, SEO Shop says that all of the +1's you purchase come from real people with verified accounts (verified through a manual process). Each +1 also comes from a unique IP address, and +1's are spread out over several days. In other words, Google will have a hard time discerning which +1's are legitimate, and which ones are generated by a company such as Plussem.
A Shady Practice
How Plussem gets all of your +1's isn't too clear. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal writes that the outfit is paying "a ton of very poor people with Internet access in developing countries a tiny slice of the money you would have to spend on traditional marketing." While this is probably speculation, I imagine it's also pretty close to the truth.
Paying for +1's is also a violation of Google's +1 policies. According to Google's +1 website, "Publishers should not promote prizes, monies, or monetary equivalents in exchange for +1 Button clicks."
I think it's pretty safe to say that the only reason SEO Shop is undertaking an effort such as this is because of the success of Google+. Before Google+, there really wasn't much of a value in gaming Google's social recommendation system -- but now, with +1 playing such a significant role in the hottest new social network, it's valuable. And, of course, on top of all that it (might) be connected to search relevancy.
Is it kind of scummy that SEO Shop is doing this? You bet, but there is money to be made in getting companies good search placement. The onus now appears on Google to figure out methods to detect these false +1's, or the system might end up just like Digg, Reddit, and others, who have seen similar spam issues with their recommendation systems.