Adversarial Information Retrieval -- That's Spam to You and Me

  |  November 19, 2007   |  Comments

If a searcher finds what she's looking for, is it ever OK for search marketers to bend guidelines?

As I've said before, one man's spam can often be another's cutting-edge SEO (define) tactic. No, I don't condone spam in the true black sense of redirecting an innocent end-user query to an adult-related site or something like that. But you have to admit, in the highly competitive field of SEM (define)/SEO, some tactical ingenuity gets tarred and feathered, when perhaps it should be applauded.

I have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the SEO arena who are candid in their disregard for search engine guidelines. After all, these are guidelines, not laws. Many SEO firms loudly blow their trumpet about doing ethical SEO. But who can really say that going beyond search engine guidelines is unethical?

Being ethical relates to moral conduct. If someone busts a search engine guideline here and there, is that immoral? Let's face it, if an innocent end user keys in a search term at any search engine, and that search engine returns a totally relevant result, regardless of how it got there, what could be unethical about that? As long as the end user experience is good, it seems like a pretty happy-all-round scenario to me.

Bear with me for a moment. Having worked in conventional media/marketing before the Web arrived, I recall tactics we used in print and broadcast media. Where we had more marketing muscle (dollars) than our clients' competitors, we'd frequently blanket-buy media to keep them darn near invisible. Ethical? Moral? Or just tactical?

In my opinion, the search engine spam debate is similar to the e-mail spam debate. I don't know about you, but I get two kinds of e-mail spam: good spam and bad spam. True, most spam I get is rubbish I have no interest in. But every now and again, I get the odd unsolicited piece of e-mail in my inbox and think, "Now that's interesting" (and, no, I'm not talking e-mail of the appendage-enlargement type).

It turns out that, according to a Pew Internet study from earlier this year, although people are getting more spam in their inboxes than ever before, they're also less bothered by it. However, overall, people have less trust in e-mail because of spam.

Does the same thing apply on the Web? One could argue that the presence of spam in search engine results could have the similar effect of people losing trust. But that could only happen if they actually knew it was spam. What if we go back to my earlier scenario about totally relevant spam. How could the end user ever be aware that, to a search engine, this is a bogus page, if, in fact, to the end user it's exactly what she was expecting to see?

A Microsoft research paper last year suggested that 13.8 percent of English-language Web pages in its study were classified as spam. (Being the person who coined the black-hat/white-hat terminology, it made me smile to see it being used in a scientific research paper.)

To the average end user, search engine spam is a little like Google's PageRank. But ask the average end user if she knows what PageRank is, and she won't have a clue. Ask her if she's ever seen a spammy result at a search engine, and you'd probably get the same head-scratching response.

It's probably safe to say that just about anyone who ever used a search engine has been served up some irrelevant results. But a lot of that depends on the searcher's skills. The interesting thing is, most people I know who bend the search engine's guidelines are serving up totally relevant pages. They're crafted to get the end user into some sort of transaction. And that's usually likely to happen only if the end user lands on a quality page.

I did a little searching in the online gambling space for a very competitive keyword. The number-one result showed a page size (weight) of 17K. (Most search engines show the weight of a page below the snippet.) I pulled the page down and checked it myself, and it was actually 53K. Cloaked? You bet (no pun intended). But would the page served up satisfy the end user? It surely would.

I've been in this business for a very long time, so I can spot these things a mile away. But how would a happy-go-lucky online gambler ever know the difference? And if it comes to that, if the content is exactly what he was looking for, would he even care?

Keep in mind, I'm only thinking aloud. Don't head off to the nearest spam software site because you think I gave it the OK. I certainly didn't. And I certainly don't want Matt Cutts poking me in the eye with his pencil at the next conference.

Instead, the topic simply came to mind after reading the essay, "Adversarial Information Retrieval: The Manipulation of Web Content." That's spam to you and me.

Meet Mike at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

ClickZ Live Chicago Join the Industry's Leading eCommerce & Direct Marketing Experts in Chicago
ClickZ Live Chicago (Nov 3-6) will deliver over 50 sessions across 4 days and 10 individual tracks, including Data-Driven Marketing, Social, Mobile, Display, Search and Email. Check out the full agenda and register by Friday, Oct 3 to take advantage of Early Bird Rates!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Grehan

Mike Grehan is currently CMO & managing director at Acronym where he is responsible for directing thought leadership programs and cross platform marketing initiatives, as well as developing new, innovative content marketing campaigns.
 
Prior to joining Acronym, Grehan was global VP, Content, at Incisive Media, publisher of Search Engine Watch and ClickZ, and producer of the SES international conference series. Previously, he worked as a search marketing consultant with a number of international agencies handling global clients such as SAP and Motorola. Recognized as a leading search marketing expert, Grehan came online in 1995 and is the author of numerous books and white papers on the subject and is currently in the process of writing his new book “From Search To Social: Marketing To The Connected Consumer” to be published by Wiley later in 2014.
 
In March 2010 he was elected to SEMPO’s board of directors and after a year as VP he then served two years as president and is now the current chairman.

COMMENTSCommenting policy

comments powered by Disqus

Get the ClickZ Search newsletter delivered to you. Subscribe today!

COMMENTS

UPCOMING EVENTS

Featured White Papers

IBM: Social Analytics - The Science Behind Social Media Marketing

IBM Social Analytics: The Science Behind Social Media Marketing
80% of internet users say they prefer to connect with brands via Facebook. 65% of social media users say they use it to learn more about brands, products and services. Learn about how to find more about customers' attitudes, preferences and buying habits from what they say on social media channels.

An Introduction to Marketing Attribution: Selecting the Right Model for Search, Display & Social Advertising

An Introduction to Marketing Attribution: Selecting the Right Model for Search, Display & Social Advertising
If you're considering implementing a marketing attribution model to measure and optimize your programs, this paper is a great introduction. It also includes real-life tips from marketers who have successfully implemented attribution in their organizations.

Jobs

    • Internet Marketing Campaign Manager
      Internet Marketing Campaign Manager (Straight North, LLC) - Downers GroveWe are looking for a talented Internet Marketing Campaign Manager...
    • Internet Marketing Specialist
      Internet Marketing Specialist (InteractRV) - DallasInternet Marketing Specialist InteractRV - Anywhere Telecommute, USA SEM | SEO | Content Creator...
    • Tier 1 Support Specialist
      Tier 1 Support Specialist (Agora Inc.) - BaltimoreThis position requires a highly motivated and multifaceted individual to contribute to and be...