What, Exactly, is Search Engine Spam?

There’s a subtle boundary that separates acceptable search engine optimization practices from the shadier techniques used by spammers. How can you recognize the difference between white-hat and black-hat techniques?

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2004 Conference, December 13-16, Chicago.

This panel was somewhat controversial among the purist search engine optimizers attending the conference, who object to any session that offers insight into black-hat techniques. But the session was not intended to teach tricks to fool the engines but to show how using spammy tactics can hurt a site, and ultimately do not pay in the long run.

Search engine spam defined

The first step to determine if you are playing with fire is to understand the philosophical question, “what is considered spam?” The attendees were presented with a fairly clear definition of search engine spam from Tim Mayer, Director of Product Management for Yahoo Search. Yahoo defines spam as “pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor-quality search results.” This is similar to the definitions offered by Google and MSN as well.

Shari Thurow, Webmaster/Marketing Director from GrantasticDesigns.com suggested various questions that site owners should ask themselves related to content and their optimization techniques. While acknowledging that these were “obvious” questions, Thurow said “they just don’t get asked enough.” She strongly suggests that site owners make sure that the content benefits the target audience—site visitors—and is not just thrown on a page to skew the search engine ranking algorithms.

Sixteen flavors of search engine spam

Thurow next presented a slide that contained a comprehensive list of sixteen tactics that are considered search engine spam. These techniques include:

  • Keywords unrelated to site
  • Redirects
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Mirror/duplicate content
  • Tiny Text
  • Doorway pages
  • Link Farms
  • Cloaking
  • Keyword stacking
  • Gibberish
  • Hidden text
  • Domain Spam
  • Hidden links
  • Mini/micro-sites
  • Page Swapping (bait &switch)
  • Typo spam and cyber squatting

Yahoo’s Mayer echoed Thurow’s warnings about spamming the engines. He explained that Yahoo (and the other engines) take spam very seriously and spend a great deal of time and effort trying to eliminate spam techniques.

There is a fine line that exists between “optimization” and “over optimization,” said Mayer. However, he clearly has both feet firmly planted in reality and understands that, in many product categories, it is the norm to use more aggressive techniques and those who “need” to legitimately compete in that space, may have to venture into the grey zone themselves.

Mayer summed up this sentiment providing what I believe was the quote of the conference: “If you’re being entirely organic and going after ‘Viagra,’ it’s like taking a sword to a gunfight. You just aren’t going to rank.”

Tim has since clarified that his comment was not—and is not—a license to use spam techniques, but simply an acknowledgement that in hyper-competitive categories like gambling and travel, aggressive optimization exists and isn’t as overtly obvious in those situations than in less-competitive categories.

How to report abuse

There are two schools of thought when it comes to reporting search engine spam to the engines. There are those that report every occurrence they come across and those who don’t report it because they believe it will only be replaced by a spammy site that’s simply using subtler techniques. Either way you look at it, Mayer indicated that Yahoo takes spam reports very seriously. He said they helps keep Yahoo clean, and assists the company in tuning its algorithms to detect new spam techniques as they are adopted.

To report search engine spam use one of these options:

Google, MSN Search and Yahoo Search all have formal spam reporting systems in place; click the links for each engine for more information.

The main purpose of this session was to shift the focus of search engine spam away from specific techniques, and emphasize that the real problem has more to do with the intent of a search engine optimizer. Bottom line: A spam site is one which uses techniques in a determined manner to subvert the search engine’s algorithms, to artificially inflate their search engine rankings. And if they catch you, expect no mercy.

Bill Hunt is the CEO of Global Strategies International.

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