SearchTHIS: Spam, Unprofitable Spam

Most people associate spam with one of two things: a deplorable food-like product, or email that is just shy of being vile. Spamming a search engine is equally as obnoxious. One would think with all of the progress the industry has made in the past year or so, we would all be grown-ups and play by the rules by now.

The problem is there are no rules. There is no book of guidelines brought forth by the likes of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) against creating bogus pages to help with search engine rankings. There are no standards and best practices committees to help site owners define spamming techniques and avoid them. So how does one do so?

Search engine spamming represents the deep, dark black magic of search engine optimization (SEO) that no one likes to talk about. It is the white whale, pink elephant and snipe hunt incarnate. Purveyors of insidious listing techniques are thought of as the lowest of the low. When search engines discover spammed pages or spamming search firms, listings are often sent to ranking Siberia, permanently.

So why would a site engage in a spamming practice and how can you avoid being a spammer? For the answer, we’ll have to dig into the search engine marketing (SEM) underworld.

What’s In the Little Blue Can?

In 1642, Blaise Pascal invented a mechanical calculator to help his father with math. Since then, we have searched for shortcuts to help speed up the process of making calculations. Search sites send spiders or crawlers out to the Web to index sites using complicated algorithms. Spiders view site content and meta architecture, among other things. All search engines purport to offer uncorrupted results for an unbiased, efficient user experience, based on these algorithmic calculations.

I should amend my earlier statement: Everyone likes to talk about spam, but no one wants to go on record about it. Some of the worst practices I am about to review were once thought of as a great way to get higher rankings. I talked to many a search marketing firm when preparing this week’s venture into search marketing science. A few of them admitted to using spamming techniques in the past, and at least two had suffered the consequences and were still trying to make reparations with search sites. Only one seemed bitter about the punishment they received. None of them would let me use their names.

Here’s a rundown of perceived spamming techniques, and possible ways away from them.

Cloaking: Generally speaking, cloaking is defined as "misrepresenting site content, specifically for the benefit of a search engine spider." Essentially, content seen by the search spider is different than the content seen by humans. There are lots of really neat ways to cloak, and most search sites can detect and spank cloakers. You can even use them to hide your doorway pages. A Better Way: Every page on your site should be built to be seen. Focus on creating rich content, and assign relevant labels to your images and text.

Doorway Pages: A doorway contains lots of keywords on a page often hidden by text in the same color as its backdrop. The idea is, of course, to help with ranking the page with keyword repetition, yet once a user clicks into this page said user is sent to another destination. A Better Way: Control keyword usage in metas by keeping them succinct and relevant.

Mirror Sites or Pages: Not quite an elgoog page, mirrors often depict hijacked content to fool users and search sites into believing someone else’s content is your content. A Better Way: Build pages for people, not search engines. Steer clear of using any other firm’s trademarked terms.

Rapid Fire Submission: There is always some jackass sitting in a dorm room -- brain clogged with the latest campus recreational drug -- figuring out ways to automate search submissions. Problem, search engines don’t like it when you crawl them, and they hate when you try to hit them with a phalanx of submissions. A Better Way: Bite the bullet and follow submission guidelines. Avoid anyone who offers a "tool" for doing so.

Link Farming: Affiliates are often blamed for developing link farms. Search engines, like Google, often rank sites according to how many links to the site exist. Unfortunately for these sharecroppers, search engines will also evaluate the quality of these links. A Better Way: Issue guidelines for your affiliates and police their activities. Focus on building strong relationships with business partners and reputable sites for link popularity with your rich content.

These techniques can be called many things. I have heard doorways referred to as "bridges" or "skip pages," link farms referred to as "free for alls" or "bazooka links." But in the end, they all mean the same thing: bad news for search rankings. The unique, creative naming practices for these activities may make them difficult to spot, but if you see some semblance of this “new math” in your search marketing offering, find a different calculator. I am sure Pascal would thank you.

Most Certainly Uncertain

One man’s spam is another man’s relevance. Like Steven Wright said, "There is a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot." You may believe a search optimization tactic is not in the spam pond, but the search site does. Most search engines have spam or submission guidelines posted somewhere on their sites. Each one has slightly different requirements, which is part of the problem. If it is OK to use one technique for one search, but not OK for another, what should you do?

First, contact your search marketing congressman -- i.e. your favorite SEM pundit or industry activist -- and ask him to help lobby for standards. Hint: See if you can get some of that tobacco money to help the fight.

Second, evaluate techniques against each search site’s guidelines and execute the practice which will best suit the site or group of sites having the highest-targeted traffic impact.

The problem with thinking of new and creative ways to fool search engines is, they are always one step behind (or ahead) of you. If you think your optimization solution sounds like spam, it probably is. If you have any doubt, check with them. Or ask your search marketing firm for documentation from the search site proving said technique is approved, condoned or otherwise appropriate.

Spam Pathology

While major search sites are a bit too busy with counting revenue from paid listings or discovering really neat ways to raid email for bonus bucks, to discuss the practice of users illicitly garnering search positioning, one immutable truth wakes me up in the middle of the night at least once a quarter. Some search firms are still spamming. All too often, I -- and many of my colleagues -- find ourselves in the position (no pun) of defending our techniques against the spammers.

Despite the negativity, possible penalties and efforts of credible search marketers, the cornerstone of the spammer’s sales pitch is a guaranteed ranking fantasy. The truth is, guarantees in optimization are implausible, but defending the truth is always difficult because reality is never as exciting as the dream.

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brand: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Service and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and the iMediaLearning Search Tour.