Search Engine Spam

  |  December 8, 2003   |  Comments

What it is and how to avoid it.

Mention the word "spam" and most people will associate it with email. People hate when they receive hundreds or thousands of unsolicited email inquiries.

What many do not know is search engine spam has been a problem for years. Have you ever typed in a travel-related query at Google or MSN Search and found the top results all go to the same company?

Spam is just as irritating in the search industry as it is in the email industry.

What Is Search Engine Spam?

Tim Mayer, VP of Web Search for Overture, stated, "FAST (which Overture acquired last year) considers spam to be pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor-quality search results."

Inappropriate content is content not related to the actual search query. An extreme example is an adult-content site that places the keywords "Disney" and "Barney the Dinosaur" on its pages to trick visitors into coming to the site.

Redundant content is the process of delivering the same, or very similar, content repeatedly to the search engines. Affiliate programs, cloaking, and doorway pages are common marketing strategies that deliver redundant content to the search engines.

Poor-quality content is content not meant for human viewing. For example, some computer-generated Web pages contain so much gibberish, if an end user were to view that page, she would never purchase the product or service being promoted. Search engines don't want gibberish in their search results.

Tricks to Avoid

If a search engine representative discovers you're deliberately trying to trick the search engines into giving a page higher relevance than it deserves, the individual page, even the entire site, can be penalized.

Most of the time, a search engine engineer will modify the algorithm so the spam pages will no longer appear at the top of search results. In more extreme cases, the page itself, or the whole site, will be removed from the search engine index. Therefore, avoid the following types of spam:

  • Hidden text and links. To appear at the top of search results, the words your target audience types into a search query must be visible on your Web pages. One way to place keywords on your pages without changing the look and feel of your site design is to hide the text (white text on a white background, for example). Avoid this practice.

    Make sure all content on your Web pages is meant to be seen or detected at all times by your target audience.

    For example, the text in a drop-down menu isn't meant to be visible on a browser screen unless a visitor either clicks on the menu link or places the cursor over the menu. That initial invisible text is meant to be viewed and used for navigating a site.

    However, placing text on a site that is not meant to be visible and/or used at any time is, in all likelihood, a spam technique.

  • Mirror pages and sites. Avoid all companies that build pages tailored for each search engine. Search engines have duplicate filters to detect identical or near-identical content. They eliminate pages and sites that are identical.

    Affiliates often build sites offering identical products and services, particularly Amazon.com affiliates.

  • Doorway pages. Gateway, doorway, attraction, envelope, and hallway pages are not created to benefit site visitors. They are created specifically for obtaining high search engine positions.

    Doorway-page companies generally create thousands of pages for a single keyword or keyword phrase. The pages are fed to search engines, often through the free submit function. Since doorway pages contain redundant and poor-quality content, search engines eliminate them once they are detected.

  • Cloaking. This is the process of delivering specific Web pages to search engines that are different from pages end users see. Since cloaking often hides protected copyrights and trademarks, irrelevant content, and low-quality pages, search engines commonly ban the IP address of the cloaked content.

    Not only is the cloaked Web site banned from the search engine, the company that hired the cloaking company is also penalized.

  • Link farming. Many firms create multiple Web sites whose sole purpose is to link to each other, commonly called free-for-all (FFA) Web sites. If you participate in a link farm or a "Submit Your Site to 100,000 Search Engines" program, your site and all other participants can be penalized.

  • "Instant" link popularity. Any search engine marketing (SEM) firm that promises "instant" link popularity is probably participating in FFA link farms. Link development takes time. The quickest, most legitimate way to get quality link popularity is through the major directories.

  • Automated submission and query tools. Be sure the SEM firm you hire has permission from the search engines to perform automated submission and queries. Google, in particular, is very strict about automated queries, which is one reason position-checking software is not recommended.

Are Sites Really Banned From Search Engines?

If your site has disappeared from search engines results, 9 times out of 10 the disappearance is due to technical reasons.

Have you recently redesigned your site? Was your server functioning properly when the search engine spiders requested a page from your site? Does your site have a navigation scheme and a URL structure that the search engines can follow? Has a disgruntled employee placed the Robots Exclusion Protocol on your server that has instructed the search engines not to spider your site?

Once technical reasons are eliminated, it's possible your site has been either penalized or blacklisted.

Search engines do penalize and ban sites, even ones you might not suspect. Companies with well-known brands often hire unethical search engine marketers who guarantee top positions. These company sites get banned regularly. After the ban, the companies purchase a new domain on a new IP address and begin the spam-ban cycle all over again.

Advertising agencies, amateur Web marketers, and Web hosting companies now offer SEM services for their customers. Before you hire them, make sure the marketing firm does not use spam methods to obtain top search engine positions.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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