Paid Links…Paid Likes…Paid RT…Spam Free Results?

For those of you who might be a little “young” in the search engine optimization space, let me first provide a little history before I get to the meat of today’s column…

Back in 2000, there were about five search engines that were competing to be one of the “final three” that many felt would stand the test of time. Those search engines (portals) in the running included AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Excite, and Lycos. I want to thank Michael Pastore for writing this back in February 2000 on ClickZ. Notice the absence of Google on Michael’s list?

So, what happened?

Google came along with a better algorithm. It didn’t advertise. No Super Bowl commercials, which were ever-so-present from the “dot com” days. Google simply made a better widget, a bunch of geeks noticed, and the next thing you know, it rules.

For years now, Google has owned our (search) universe. I think it’s safe to say that most search engine optimizers will focus their efforts on Google optimization, and then – a distant second – get interested with what may be occurring on Bing/Yahoo.

We also know that Google has placed a great value on the links that are pointing to your website. Not just the sheer number, but also the value/relevance of the page linking to you (you want links on pages which are relevant to your topic/company/products and services).

Since Google places such a high value on links, link buying of course became a big deal. For those of you who don’t already know this, link buying is expressly against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

So, when discussions started heating up about how “‘Likes’ are the new links,” you had to know that someone was going to jump on that bandwagon. And, of course, you can also pay for someone to retweet (RT). I give credit to Bruce Clay for coining this phrase, by the way. Check out Bruce’s interview with WebProNews on the topic. Bruce mentions that he feels that within six months to one year from now, these signals could become a major part of the search engines’ algorithms.

Google has historically done an OK job with filtering many of the paid links that are out there, but what will it make of the social spamming that’s occurring?

How easy is it to even set up a number of Twitter and Facebook profiles and then auto-promote these things and have them come together, as a network, to promote brands? Are these the types of social “signals” that could one day have weight in the search engines’ algorithms? What’s easier to spam? Paid links? Or paid “Likes”? I don’t mean to call each of these “equal” (the value of the “Like” and/or retweet are certainly debatable, at this point), but what if social signals were to gain even more traction in the algorithms?

To me, social is way too easy to spam. With auto-pilot posting, auto-following, auto-growth of followers, followed by auto-deletion of folks that you follow, you can create an “authoritative” Twitter profile with ease! What about the fact that a lot of people who are growing their followers don’t even write their own material? All of a sudden, these people have built up the following of a “personality,” and people are following the “personality.” And, this “personality’s” profile is seen as highly credible and perhaps weighted differently than others.

OK…easy…for every client that I get, I set up a Twitter profile for that vertical, auto-follow a ton of folks, build up my follower base, then go back later and auto-delete a bunch of folks, and presto…I have a ton of followers and I don’t follow many. So long as I’m auto-tweeting (and retweeting), I can build credible links. Really? Is this where we’re headed?

Perhaps I’m getting a little carried away. We really don’t know how important social signals are to today’s algorithm, and perhaps there will be methods in the future of detecting “spam activity” for social efforts, much the same way that methods were put into place for paid links (though these things still tend to work well, most of the time…not that I’m a proponent of doing this, I’m not…see an earlier column on this here). But if you were to ask me what is easier to spam today, links or “Likes”/retweets, that’s an easy answer.

To Google, and the others, I want you to know…”I get it.” I understand that at the end of the day, we’re talking about time, and where people use their time. You are seeing how much time people are putting into Facebook. You are seeing how much time people are putting into video consumption. You’re in a market share battle not with other search engines, but for people’s time. This is one market that can’t expand. Everyone is allotted exactly 24 hours each day. But, be careful when trying to be “everything to everybody.” Do what you do best…deliver me quality, “spam free” results. If I want to go to Facebook, let me. If I want to read my Twitter stream, it’s OK that I do this somewhere else. When I want quality search results, I want to know where I can go for that, too.