SearchTHIS: My Plan to End Spam

According to Jupiter Research, the paid search industry has grown from $250 million to $1.6 billion in about four years. Industry revenues grew nearly 50 percent in 2003. And if you follow the IAB interactive ad revenue reports, paid search accounts for nearly 40 percent of all online ad spending.

Paid search is big money, but what about money made in the natural form of paid search?

Now, the last time I suggested doing something formal about spammers, I came under some pretty serious fire -- well, abuse actually. Most of the comments related to the difficulties search marketers faced when they approached regulating search while combating spam and how they failed in such endeavors and how I would suffer a similar fate in my attempt.

The truth is, I don’t want to do it. I want us to do it. That is to say, we can do it with a little bureaucratic navigation, a little publisher-provider solidarity and a little charging-ahead gusto. And, let me say, this is the absolute last time I will ever write about search engine spam.

State of the industry

While parked outside the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) recent Los Angeles road show stop, I caught up with Greg Stuart, the IAB’s top man. I asked why the IAB hasn’t stepped up to regulate -- or to at least help regulate and/or control -- the unpaid organic or natural listing environment. Stuart said he could go after every Tom, Dick and Harry spamming search engine, but there really is no money in it. And that’s when it hit me.

He’s right -- there is no money in it. And moreover, the major players in algorithmic search could actually give a rodent’s posterior about the natural results economy because they are currently pulling down mega fat cash with sponsored listings.

No one put it more eloquently than a now famous Google employee at Ad:Tech, Chicago when an audience member asked how to enhance natural listings. According to sources attending the session (I was on stage elsewhere), the Googler suggested in so many words that search engine marketing firms are not truthful when advising about search site enhancements for natural listings. Now that doesn’t sound like the Sergey and Larry (incidentally, if you don’t know who I am referring to here, back away from your computer and please leave the industry) “information for all” mantra bringers I have come to know and love in a most heterosexual and professional kind of way.

Upon further investigation and consultation with industry colleagues, it seems the Googler buzz forwarded to me was taken out of context. Whatever the circumstance, there are some real concerns out there about natural search optimization firms and activities, i.e. the spammers, perhaps giving the rest of us a bad name.

“You'll be spammed if we do, and spammed if we don’t”

This quote from a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spokesman appeared in the August issue of Money Magazine with the caption “on why the agency won’t launch a do-not-spam registry for fear spammers will target the list.” The FTC is working on such a list, but the future registry will most likely not appear until a system can be built or structured to certify the origin of email

So, email is on its way to being fixed, but why?

One way email spam is different from search spam is that study after study has been conducted to determine how much revenue is lost because of it and how much could be saved by cleaning it up. Along with billions of dollars in corporate costs, email spam costs the legitimately annoying and intrusive email marketing industry millions each year.

Take a pagerank from email

We can learn something from email in that email marketing suffered from a lack of credibility at the hands of spammers. Until guidelines were established, many providers were roped into the damaging spammer category. Many would argue that email’s reputation is still in the krapper, but you have to admit with movements like CAN-SPAM and FTC intervention, it is making progress.

Although efforts are underway to help clean up search engine marketing, there has been little coordinated effort within the organized industry groups. Gurus are assembling to help out but for the most part there’s only a one-off occasional effort. One such guru is the original search engine relationship guy, Bruce Clay. Bruce has offered a code of ethics for search engine marketers, an excellent first step based on common sense and best practices. The only thing missing is a universal endorsement.

Search spamming won’t be important enough to get behind an anti-spam effort until we discover just how much revenue is lost to spammers. The search marketing industry, along with top search providers, should commission a study to determine how much solid search engine marketing revenue is being lost to spammers. Then search providers will have the incentive they need to create and enforce standards and guidelines. My money is on "quite a bit," but how do we go about collecting that information -- because in the end, it is all about the money isn’t it?

Enter the COLON

We have SEMPO, the IAB and a few other organizations, but The Coalition for Organic Listing Optimization and Naturalization (COLON) would be a brand new effort to introduce collaborative efforts for collected industry groups to establish optimization guidelines standards. It would be an unbiased approach, if you will, to organizing the various efforts of industry leadership. The COLON’s efforts will be funded by multiple industry groups and efforts. 

The first tasks at hand for the new group would be aligning leadership and funding a third-party study with the goal of providing some idea of how much revenue is taken away from paid search disciplines by search spam. Of course, utilizing various revenue projection and estimation data from other sources of revenue loss will be applied to the study.

Key methods would include:

  • Conducting discovery surveys to determine what constitutes spam in the marketer’s eyes
  • Identifying small, medium and large business spending on spam-related efforts
  • Calculating costs associated with clean-up efforts once it is banned from indexes
  • Gathering additional data on where dollars would be spent if spamming was regulated out.

I used to think spamming was limited to small businesses who were ill-informed about search engine marketing activities. But lately, I am hearing more and more big brands being called out for spamming. Sooner or later paid search revenues will flatten out and it will make sense to go after search spam revenue.

I know we can’t form an industry group called The COLON I know that a universal endorsement of standards and regulations is a pipe dream. I also know that many other data points will be required to make such an effort worth while, but with all of the crap floating around with spam wouldn’t it be great if many of us could agree on a way to go, together?

iMedia columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services 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 Search Engine Strategies, August 2-5, 2004.