Search engine spam is a hot topic. Search engine marketing (SEM) experts far and wide hotly debate the issue. What's generally considered to be search engine spam is common knowledge to tenured SEM professionals. The major search engines publish broad guidelines regarding the SEM tactics they consider spam:
Yet many highly reputable SEM firms still spam.
As a corporate SEM specialist, I've been directly involved with firing several SEM firms that have spammed the search engines.
Why would a search engine marketer put an organization's Web reputation at risk by utilizing questionable SEM tactics? The answer is obvious: It's all about profiting from others' ignorance by dancing between the lines of what's right and wrong.
Why aren't the major search engines more transparent about spam penalties? Why don't they provide clear, concise definitions of search engine spam? Because the search engines can't reveal the secret ingredients that make up their algorithms. Everyone would abuse such knowledge.
When I discover an SEM firm practices questionable SEM tactics, there's only one thing to do: Fire it. Although my penalty for an SEM firm that spams the search engines is completely consistent, how I actually go about firing them varies according to the degree of their spam tactics.
As an in-house SEM wonk, I'm an avowed "white hat." I employ highly conservative SEM tactics. I err on the side of caution and the desire to do right by my employer. A precise definition of search engine spam remains cloudy, but I know it when I see it. And when I see it, I must take immediate, decisive action to undo what's been done.
If the search engine spam tactic is a relatively minor infraction, I can quickly adjust any questionable elements on a Web site and leave it to the algorithms to discover the site sins no more.
Many SEM firms will agree to work on a month-by-month basis. It's usually not worth my time or energy to confront the firm in question about its spam-like ways. If the transgression is minor, I simply allow the contract to lapse and find an SEM firm that better suits my company's needs.
If the search engine spam tactic is somewhat more severe and results in a major search engine penalizing pages within the site, I again take fast action to correct the wrongdoing, then resubmit the repaired pages to the search engines.
The more severe spam offenses are typically by sites that have undergone a complete redesign. This usually means a long-term contract with the SEM firm is in place. As SEM needs change dramatically after a site is retooled, I can usually revise the project's goals and open up bidding to other vendors.
If the SEM firm tries to stand its ground on the contract, I present it with the facts and show it the business relationship has become untenable. Usually, the firm accepts that it's in the doghouse. I'll never throw a bone its way again.
If I'm called upon to resuscitate a site that's been banned by a major search engine, I hire a reputable SEM firm experienced in reinstating wayward Web sites.
It takes a great deal of begging and groveling to get a site back into a major search engine's good graces. I must lay prostrate and bare the company's soul before the search engine that did the banning. Proper penance usually requires the assistance of a trusted expert outside the company to affirm the site has cast off its demons.
Meanwhile, I fire the SEM firm that got the site banned in the first place (of course). I complete due diligence before I confront the wayward SEM firm with a timeline of the facts. I seek legal advice, if necessary, to break any and all contracts with the firm. And I work with legal counsel to pursue damages against the rogue SEM firm.
Room for Improvement
If a site is banned by a major search engine, it's because the site owner employed obvious spam tactics. Disreputable SEM firms sometimes attempt to sidestep accountability by blaming the site's owners for implementing their recommendations. A blame game ensues.
I hope some day soon definitive culpability in such matters will be determined by the courts. Unfortunately, SEM misconduct cases rarely make it out of the boardroom and into the courtroom. Corporations dread a lawsuit might reveal a lack of knowledge about a critical element of their online business. Consequently, some of the worst "black hat" search engine marketers continue to operate with impunity.
Currently, an ounce of prevention is the only defense from falling prey to marketers who spam search engines. In my next column, I'll present a few ideas about how to avoid hiring an SEM firm that employs questionable strategies.
Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.
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P.J. Fusco has been working in the Internet industry since 1996 when she developed her first SEM service while acting as general manager for a regional ISP. She was the SEO manager for Jupitermedia and has performed as the SEM manager for an international health and beauty dot-com corporation generating more than $1 billion a year in e-commerce sales. Today, she is director for natural search for Netconcepts, a cutting-edge SEO firm with offices in Madison, WI, and Auckland, New Zealand.