It seems that whenever one logs on, the bombardment begins — unsavory content, dubious offers, unscrupulous operators, and in-your-face interruption marketing. So whether you’re marketing by e-mail, discussion boards, blogs, or search engines, it’s critical that you as a legitimate marketer dissociate yourself from the rising tide of spam — not just in the inbox but in the search engines as well.
In fact, there’s never been a better time to develop and begin adhering to search engine optimization (SEO) ethics guidelines. Why? Because over time, it’s become a lot more difficult to “game” the search engines and a lot easier to fall victim to a search engine penalty or outright ban. And from that it’s hard to recover.
Search engines don’t think much of SEO as a practice. After all, it’s a practice that’s intent on manipulating the search results in the favor of a particular Website, which may be at odds with delivering the best search experience possible to the searcher. Nonetheless, as far as the search engines are concerned, there is an acceptable side to SEO and an unacceptable side.
In general terms, all types of actions intended to boost a site’s search engine ranking without improving the true value of a page can be considered to be spamming.
Each search engine has different published guidelines (for instance, Google’s Webmaster Guidelines at http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html, Yahoo! Content Quality Guidelines at http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/ysearch/basics/basics-18.html, and MSN Search Guidelines for Successful Indexing at http://search.msn.com/docs/siteowner.aspx?t=SEARCH_WEBMASTER_REF_GuidelinesforOptimizingSite.htm) and varying tolerance levels for sundry SEO tactics. Anything that violates these guidelines, pollutes the search results with irrelevant or useless results, or would embarrass you if discovered by your Google AdWords or Overture rep is unsustainable and should be stopped.
There’s a big difference between “search engine friendly” and crossing the line into spam territory. “Search engine friendly” can mean, for example, that the site is easily accessible to spiders, even if it is database-driven; HTML code is streamlined to minimize the amount of superfluous code; important headings, such as product names, are set apart from the rest of the text (with H1 tags, for example) and contain relevant keywords; link text is contextual, instead of just “click here” or “more info” references.
Contrast these with the following search engine spam tactics:
serving content to the search engines that is useless, incomprehensible, unsuitable for human viewing, or otherwise devoid of valuable content (for instance, “doorway pages,” which SEO vendors may refer to by more innocuous names such as “gateway pages,” “bridge pages,” “jump pages,” “attraction pages,” “advertising pages,” “channel pages,” “directory information pages,” “search engine entry pages,” “satellite sites,” “minisites,” “magnet sites,” or “shadow domains”). Whatever you call them, by definition they are created for the sole purpose of boosting search engine ranking.
duplicating pages with minimal or no changes and resubmitting them to the same search engines under new URLs or domains (even worse if the content is spread across a plethora of domain names full of keywords or common typos).
resubmitting the same pages multiple times, bulk-submitting all the pages of your site, or using an automated submission tool or service.
machine-generating content to chosen keyword densities.
“pagejacking” (hijacking or stealing pages from other sites and using them as fodder for search engines).
targeting obviously irrelevant keywords.
using keyword-rich but nonsensical gibberish (also known as “spamglish”).
presenting significantly different page content to human visitors than to search engine spiders.
participating in “link farms” (less organized and with more links per page than directories) or reciprocal linking schemes with irrelevant sites for the purpose of artificially boosting your Google PageRank importance and “link popularity.”
peppering Websites’ guest books, blogs, or forums in bulk with keyword-rich text links for the purpose of artificially boosting your PageRank importance.
concealing or obscuring keyword-rich text or links within the HTML of a page so that it is not visible or accessible by human users (within comment tags, noscript tags, noframes tags, colored text on a similarly colored background, tiny font sizes, layers).
making overly keyword-rich or long H1 tags, title tags, or link text that detracts from the user experience.
incorporating others’ copyrights or trademarks into your pages’ HTML in ways that infringe on those copyrights and trademarks. (Note: If your copyright is being infringed, you can use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA] notification process outlined by Google at http://www.google.com/dmca.html, by Yahoo! at http://docs.yahoo.com/info/copyright/copyright.html, and by MSN at http://www.microsoft.com/info/cpyrtInfrg.htm.)
otherwise “overoptimizing” Web pages (for instance, repeating the same keyword phrase in all the standard places — the title tag, the H1 tag, the first alt tag on the page, the meta description, the first sentence of body copy, and the link text in links pointing the page).
These unethical tactics are questionable in terms of effectiveness. They’re also dangerous in that they involve a risk of being penalized by or banned from the search engine, a risk that’s only going to increase as engines become more aggressive at subverting and removing offenders from their indices. The search engines detect these tactics not just by automated means through sophisticated spam-catching algorithms but also through spam reports submitted by searchers — and yes, by your competitors. Speaking of which, you too can turn in search engine spammers, using Google’s form at http://www.google.com/contact/spamreport.html, Yahoo’s at http://add.yahoo.com/fast/help/us/ysearch/cgi_reportsearchspam, and MSN Search’s at http://support.msn.com/feedbacksearch.aspx.
A lot of times marketers don’t even know they’re in the wrong. For example, a prominent multichannel merchant engaged an SEO vendor who used the undesirable tactic of doorway pages. Consequently, a source at Yahoo! confirmed to me confidentially, unbeknownst to the merchant, nearly all its vast online catalog was banned by Yahoo! Over the course of time this certainly must have cost the merchant a small fortune.
Marketers can even get caught in the crossfire without necessarily doing anything wrong. For example, search engines much more heavily scrutinize pages that show signs of potential deception, such as no-archive tags, noscript tags, noframes tags, and cloaking — even though all these can be used ethically.
There is a popular myth that SEO is an ongoing chess game between SEO practitioners and the search engines. One moves, the other changes the rules or the algorithm, then the next move is made with the new rules in mind, and so on. Supposedly if you don’t partake in this continual progression of tactic vs. tactic, you will not get the rankings lift you want.
For ethical SEO professionals, this is patently untrue. Search engines evolve their algorithms to thwart the spammers. If you achieve high rankings through ethical SEO tactics, you’re likely to achieve sustainable results. For example, our client Guild.com, a direct marketer of artisan decor items, has consistently been at or near number-one in the rankings for “glass vase” — a top-selling product category for the company — since we optimized its site in 2003. Along the same lines, another client, online solutions provider Homestead.com, essentially hasn’t been touched from an SEO perspective for more than 12 months. Yet the site maintains a top-three position for the ultracompetitive search phrase “Website hosting,” most of that time sitting at number one.
To rid the online world of search engine spam, we can start by keeping our own houses clean. After that, let’s rally together as an industry and create ethical standards for SEO, as the New Zealand Direct Marketing Association did (see http://www.marketing.org.nz/cms/lib/64.pdf). And I’d also advise you to police your affiliates, ensuring they abide by ethical SEO standards and removing them from your program if they do not.
Search engines change much less than you might think. Seeing this as a chess game is a shortsighted view. Search engines want to provide relevant search results to their users. Trying to fool the search engines and take unfair advantage using parlor tricks isn’t a sustainable approach for anybody — the SEO vendor, the online merchant, the search engine, or the search engine’s users.
Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts, a Madison, WI-based Web development and marketing agency.
IN PLAIN ENGLISH
A GLOSSARY OF SEO TERMS
Web spammers, link farms, or any other sites or schemes that exist to try to circumvent a search engine’s ranking rules and artificially boost a site’s ranking. Most engines penalize or ban sites that link to bad neighborhoods.
A sort of bait-and-switch tactic in which Web pages are designed with codes, keywords, and other verbiage that are hidden to general users and visible only to search engines; in other words, the site visitor sees one page, and the search engine spider views something else. Most engines penalize or ban sites that practice content cloaking.
Submitting all of your Website’s URLs — in other words, every single page of your site — to a search engine. Most engines forbid this practice.
Placing excessive keywords into page copy and coding that may hurt the usability of a page but is meant to boost the page’s search engine ranking. Hiding keywords on a page by making them the same color as the page background and loading tags with repeated keyword phrases are examples. Most engines penalize or ban sites that practice keyword stuffing.
A page that is simply a collection of other, often unrelated links. Such pages exist solely to try to boost a site’s engine ranking: Google and some other engines calculate a site’s popularity in part by the number of other sites that link to and from it, with more-popular sites often ranking higher than less-popular ones. But the engines also take into account the quality of the linked sites, not just the number of sites that are linked. Therefore linking to link farms is ineffective at best; at worst an engine will penalize or ban a site for doing so.
Coding used to render text visible only to nonframes-capable browsers. A typical Website visitor therefore most likely would not see the text set off by the tags — but a search engine spider would, since most spiders can’t crawl frames.
Capturing data from another company’s Web pages that weren’t meant to be viewed by outsiders; SEO spammers do this to determine coding patterns of competitors that they then use to try to outrank them on search engine listings.
A Website directing a search engine spider to a page that is different from the page seen by site visitors. If a user clicks on a sneaky redirect page from a search engine, he will be redirected to a page different from the one described on the engine’s listing results. Most engines penalize or ban sites that use sneaky redirects.
To learn more about search optimization strategies, check out the Catalog Age Webinar “Natural (Organic) Search Optimization: Hard Facts, Real Lessons, Insider Secrets,” featuring NetConcepts’ Stephan Spencer, at http://catalogagemag.com/webinars/natural-search-engine-optimization-webinar/