Desperately Seeking Search Engine Marketing Standards

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It seems that every so often, someone makes a new push to suggest that the search engine marketing industry needs to establish standards of conduct. The idea usually dies away from a lack of support. However, a new effort is underway from several different parties that might have more luck. They’ll need that luck, because the barriers to establishing standards remain substantial.

The chief challenge is that there is no definitive guidebook that “officially” defines search engine spam. This is because each search engine is an independent entity, which controls what it considers to be spam. For example, Google outright hates cloaking and will penalize for it. In contrast, both AltaVista and Inktomi allow it, in certain circumstances.

As I’ve written many times before, I don’t expect we’ll ever see such a rule book emerge. When I’ve talked to search engines on this topic, they generally come back to the issue that the more specific they are about what not to do, the more people push right up to the line or gain clues to other things that they can do to spam, which are yet “undefined.”

Even if the search engines won’t define rules, perhaps the search engine marketing industry itself can. Indeed, the pressure to have some type of standards that one can say they adhere to seems to be rising, probably as a means for SEMs to set themselves apart from the crowd.

One example is the recently posted “Search Engine Optimization Code of Ethics,” from long-time search engine marketer Bruce Clay. Most of the code is fairly common-sense items that few would disagree with: don’t violate laws; don’t violate published spam guidelines from search engines. The main bone of contention for some is that the code basically says that those following it will not cloak. The term “cloaking” itself is not used, but the description of falsely representing a web site certainly includes it.

Search engine optimization company WebSeed offers its own “Search Engine Promotion Code of Ethics.” As with Clay’s guidelines, most of this is either common-sense things to avoid or a list of commonly accepted spam tactics that shouldn’t be followed.

Some points of contention might be the allowance of limited mirror sites. Similarly, the idea that “popularity-boosting and hyperlink-tag strategies are acceptable as long as they are used to promote a content-rich, highly-relevant web page” sounds like the code is saying that creating some artificial link structures is fine, if you think a page is really good. And as with Clay’s guidelines, cloaking is seen as a no-no.

From e-Brand Management, which produces the Search Mechanics optimization tool, two recent white papers try to help webmasters understand if they are engaging in search engines spam by examining their mindset, rather than specific actions. Nevertheless, the papers still end up getting bogged down in specific techniques considered bad.

One of the white papers, “The Classification of Search Engine Spam,” succinctly states that search engine spam is “any attempt to artificially influence a search engine’s ability to calculate relevancy.”

No doubt many readers will immediately find this statement absurdly broad. For instance, even the search engines themselves will advise site owners to take care when crafting page titles and body copy and encourage site owners to build links. Technically, these are all “artificial” methods meant to influence search engines.

The author of the paper, e-Brand Managements chief technology officer Alan Perkins, anticipates this concern and immediately qualifies the statement to say that such actions are NOT spam if they are “anything that would still be done if search engines did not exist, or anything that a search engine has given written permission to do.”

The key point Perkins is trying to get across in the paper is that site owners shouldn’t be going to extreme methods to optimize pages for search engines.

“Suppose search engines did not exist. Would the technique still be used in the same way?” Perkins asks. Many would readily agree with some of his examples, though not all of them.

Once again, cloaking gets called out as spam — though what exactly cloaking is gets confused by the many definitions that are presented: agent-based delivery vs. agent-based spam vs. IP delivery vs. IP cloaking.

What I took away is this: if you are using a system of any type to deliver content to humans that is different than what a search engine spider sees, that’s cloaking and considered by Perkins to be spam.

Another effort on the standards front is, a new organization backed by long-time search engine marketer Terry Van Horne (“Webmaster T”). The group has about 100 search engine marketing individuals or companies registered as members. The aim is to promote “best practices” that search engine marketers should follow. An initial list of guidelines is planned to be released later this month.

The organization also seeks to compile a public database of search engine spammers, so that search engines and consumers can easily spot companies that are violating the organization’s guidelines. Alongside this, it also offers a list of search engine marketing companies that will presumably follow the guidelines, once established.

A different organization, the World Association of Internet Marketers, also has among its aims to help establish some standards relating to search engines. The group met in September in the United Kingdom and search engine standards-related discussions are ongoing in its members forum.

The push for standards and ethics that don’t try to “manipulate” search engines also came up in a thread at Webmaster World, where site owner Brett Tabke eschewed the suggestion that some search engine marketers don’t try to influence search engines.

“The adjustment of html page entities and content for the express purpose of ranking higher on search engines, eg: search engine optimization, is the manipulation of search engine rankings systems….I bring this up, because I’ve been reading a great deal lately from SEO ‘experts’ who are very confused about what we do for a living.”

However, several follow-up posts by others in the thread still tried to push the idea that there is “good” optimization that helps search engines versus “bad” optimization that manipulates or misleads them.

As you can see, there’s a variety of opinions about what constitutes spam. In particular, there’s a schism between those who practice what I’ve always termed “natural” optimization, which is generally working with existing pages at a web site to make them “search engine friendly,” another term I coined ages ago. In contrast, there are those who prefer to create “doorway” pages, pages usually designed to please search engines, rather than humans.

To further complicate matters, it’s not a perfect division between the “naturalists” and “doorwayists” (or would that be “doorwayers?”). There are many points along the spectrum, and even two “naturalists” might disagree on what’s acceptable, just as two “doorwayists” might.

While I doubt we’ll see agreement in some areas, the desire for some type of standards is laudable. How can the search engines help? Certainly by providing as much information as they can, without feeling they are giving to much away.

Another idea is to perhaps offer tools to let people automatically check whether a page has suffered any spam penalty. That can help those who are concerned about having “accidentally” spammed. Another thought is to consider options so that the general public can find out if an search engine marketing firm is known to have caused problems for that search engine, so consumers considering firms can be more aware.


A longer, more detailed version of this article is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member


Bruce Clay’s Search Engine Optimization Code of Ethics

Bruce Clay’s Emerging Standards Page

WebSeed’s Search Engine Promotion Code of Ethics

e-Brand Management: The Classification of Search Engine Spam

Relevancy, Spam, Technology, Cloaking and Ranking : The Ethical Guide

SEO Newsnet

There’s nothing here yet, but later this month, the new site is supposed to serve as a resource for search engine marketers looking to explain why their work is of benefit to clients.

WAIM Cambridge Meeting, September 2001

Covers what was discussed at a recent World Association of Internet Marketers meeting.

WAIM Forums

Discussions among WAIM members are here. You’ll need to create an account, then wait until authorized, in order to view threads.

Webmaster World: Search Engine Optimization Defined

I-Search Spam Discussion
I-Search, Oct. 2001

A discussion of standards and “what is spam” also happened in the I-Search mailing list, last month. Begin reading with issue 372, on Oct. 23.

Repositioning the Doorway: Part 1
ClickZ, Jan. 17, 2001

A call for standards that was issued earlier this year. Article emphasizes that within the search engine optimization industry, the definition of terms such as “doorway pages” vary, depending on who you ask.

Promoters Call For Certification
The Search Engine Report, August 4, 1998

Covers the first major push for search engine marketing standards, back in 1998. The same issues described here still remain true today. By the way, the forum link at the end no longer works.

Tapping Into Natural Traffic

Fast, simple things that you can and should do as part of your site building process, to ensure you are friendly to search engines. This is only available to Search Engine Watch members, as described at

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