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Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

15 Shades of SEO Spam

 

Spam, in almost any form, is somehow bad for your health. The vast majority of web users would agree with that statement and nobody would even think of the finely processed luncheon meat-product made by Hormel. Even the word itself is infectious in all the worst ways, being used to describe the dark-side and often deceptive side of everything from Email marketing to abusive forum behaviour. In the search engine optimization field, Spam is used to describe techniques and tactics thought to be banned by search engines or to be unethical business practices.

While writing copy for our soon to be revised website, the team put together a short list of the most outrageous forms of Spam we had seen in the last year and a short explanation of the technique.

Please note, we do not encourage, endorse or suggest the use of any of the techniques listed here. We don’t use them and our clients’ sites continue to rank well at Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask. It is also worth noting Google has been the dominant search engine for almost five years. Most of the spammy tricks evolved in order to game Google and might not apply to the other engines.

1. Cloaking
Also known as “stealth(ing)”, cloaking is a technique that involves serving or feeding one set of information to known search engine spiders or agents while displaying a different set of information on documents viewed by general visitors. While there are unique situations in which the use of cloaking might be considered ethical in the day-to-day practice of SEO, cloaking is never required. This is especially true after the Jagger algorithm update at Google, which uses document and link histories as important ranking factors.

2. IP Delivery
IP delivery is a simple form of cloaking in which a unique set of information is served based on the IP number the info-query originated from. IP addresses known to be search engine based are served one set of information while unrecognized IP addresses, (assumed to be live-visitors) are served another.

3. Leader Pages
Leader pages are a series of similar documents each designed to meet requirements of different search engine algorithms. This is one of the original SEO tricks dating back to the earliest days of search when there were almost a dozen leading search engines sorting less than a billion documents. It is considered SPAM by the major search engines as they see multiple incidents of what is virtually the same document. Aside from that, the technique is no longer practical as search engines consider a far wider range of factors than the arrangement or density of keywords found in unique documents.

4. Mini-Site networks
Designed to exploit a critical vulnerability in early versions of Google’s PageRank algorithm, mini-site networks were very much like leader pages except they tended to be much bigger. The establishment of a mini-site network involved the creation of several topic or product related sites all linking back to a central sales site. Each mini-site would have its own keyword enriched URL and be designed to meet specific requirements of each major search engine. Often they could be enlarged by adding information from leader pages. By weaving webs of links between mini-sites, an artificial link-density was created that could heavily influence Google’s perception of the importance of the main site.

In the summer of 2004, Google penalized several prominent SEO and SEM firms for using this technique by banning their entire client lists.

5. Link Farms
Link farms emerged as free-for-all link depositories when webmasters learned how heavily incoming links influenced Google. Google, in turn, quickly devalued and eventually eliminated the PR value it assigned to pages with an inordinate collection or number of links. Nevertheless, link farms persist as uninformed webmasters and unethical SEO firms continue to use them.

6. Blog and/or Forum Spam
Blogs and forums are amazing and essential communication technologies, both of which are used heavily in the daily conduct of our business. As with other Internet based media, blogs and forum posts are easily and often proliferated. In some cases, blogs and certain forums also have established high PR values for their documents. These two factors make them targets of unethical SEOs looking for high-PR links back to their websites or those of their clients. Google in particular has clamped down on Blog and Forum abuse.

7. Keyword Stuffing
At one time, search engines were limited to sorting and ranking sites based on the number of keywords found on those documents. That limitation led webmasters to put keywords everywhere they possibly could. When Google emerged and incoming links became a factor, some even went as far as using keyword stuffing of anchor text.

The most common continuing example of keyword stuffing can be found near the bottom of far too many sites in circulation.

8. Hidden Text
It is amazing that some webmasters and SEOs continue to use hidden text as a technique but, as evidenced by the number of sites we find it on, a lot of folks still use it. They shouldn’t.

There are two types of hidden text. The first is text that is coloured the same shade as the background thus rendering it invisible to human visitors but not to search spiders. The second is text that is hidden behind images or under document layers. Search engines tend to dislike both forms and have been known to devalue documents containing incidents of hidden text.

9. Useless Meta Tags
Most meta tags are absolutely useless. The unethical part is that some SEO firms actually charge for the creation and insertion of meta tags. In some cases, there seems to be a meta tag for virtually every possible factor but for the most part are not considered by search spiders.

In general, StepForth only uses the description and keywords meta tags (though we are dubious about the actual value of the keywords tag), along with relevant robots.txt files. All other identifying or clarifying information should be visible on a contact page or included in the footers of each page.

10. Misuse of Directories
Directories, unlike other search indexes, tend to be sorted by human hands. Search engines traditionally gave links from directories a bit of extra weight by considering them links from trusted authorities. A practice of spamming directories emerged as some SEOs and webmasters hunted for valuable links to improve their rankings. Search engines have since tended to devalue links from most directories. Some SEOs continue to charge directory submission fees.

11. Hidden Tags
There are a number of different sorts of tags used by search browsers or website designers to perform a variety of functions such as; comment tags, style tags, alt tags, noframes tags, and http-equiv tags. For example, the “alt tag” is used by site-readers for the blind to describe visual images. Inserting keywords into these tags was a technique used by a number SEOs in previous years. Though some continue to improperly use these tags, the practice overall appears to be receding.

12. Organic Site Submissions
One of the most unethical things a service-based business can do is to charge clients for a service they don’t really need. Charging for, or even claiming submissions to the major search engines are an example. Search engine spiders are advanced enough to no longer require site submissions to find information. Search spiders find new documents by following links. Site submission services or SEO firms that charge clients a single penny for submission to Google, Yahoo, MSN or Ask Jeeves, are radically and unethically overcharging those clients.

13. Email Spam
Placing a URL inside a “call-to-action” email continues to be a widely used of search marketing spam. With the advent of desktop search appliances, email spam has actually increased. StepForth does not use email to promote your website in any way.

14. Redirect Spam
There are several ways to use the redirect function to fool a search engine or even hijack traffic destined for another website! Whether the method used is a 301, a 302, a 402, a meta refresh or a java-script, the end result is search engine spam.

15. Misuse of Web 2.0 Formats (ie: Wiki, social networking and social tagging)
An emerging form of SEO spam is found in the misuse of user-input media formats such as Wikipedia. Like blog comment spamming, the instant live-to-web nature of Web 2.0 formats provide an open range for SEO spam technicians. Many of these exploits might even find short-term success though it is only a matter of time before measures are taken to devalue the efforts.

Search engine optimization spam continues to be a problem for the SEO industry as it tries to move past the perceptions of mainstream advertisers. When under-ethical techniques are used, trust (the basis of all business) is abused and the efforts of the SEO/SEM industry are called into question. Fortunately, Google’s new algorithm appears to be on the cutting edge of SEO Spam detection and prevention. Let’s hope 2006 is the year the entire SEO industry goes on a Spam-free diet.


14 Responses to “15 Shades of SEO Spam”

  1. Rachel

    Thanks for the great info! Some of this was very helpful and alerted me to things I didn’t know!

    You mentioned that 301 redirects are considered spam by search engines. What redirects do you recommend implementing to handle a URL change without coming off as spam?

  2. Jim Hedger

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for catching a one-line error in the piece. What I should have said was that the 300-series of redirects is there to help refer spiders (and live-visitors) to pages or documents that have temporarily or permanently moved from one address to another. The 301 is the correct redirect for permanent redirection, the 302 for temporary.

    There is a method for stealing traffic that relies on the use of 301′s and 302′s, the most predominent being the abuse of the 302. Google looks for abuse of redirects.

    Thanks again for finding an error and forcing a correction.

  3. Peter Graves

    Hi Jim,

    Your definition of email spam looks a bit broad to me. Properly used opt-in email is a highly effective and ethical marketing technique. I regularly get marketing emails from Google, Amazon, eCademy, Facebook, and plenty more. All these emails contain a URL linking back to a page on their web site, a “Call to action”. I do not object to them as I signed up for them, and they provide me with useful information. Are all these organisations to be penalised for spam?

    Regards,
    Peter Graves

  4. nolimitdomains

    Wow!~
    Thank-you for that great info!

  5. millca

    Nice article. Question though about Organic Site Submissions. That was all new info to me. What about submitting your site to DMOZ.org? Is that no longer necessary as well?

  6. Ross Dunn

    DMOZ.org still requires submission and it is worthwhile to do so. Just find the best directory(s) that match your service/product(s) and submit your site to an editor. Unfortunately DMOZ has a history of poor editorial review so getting in is a bit of a crap shoot. Good luck and thanks for reading!

  7. Raj

    when talking about spam not the least but the last I can consider about one reason, but not sure?

    the hosting company (who provides dns and ip to your site)

    can hosting company be the reason of spam?

    you get more than 90% junk and spam emails on ur website domain email ids? is it sign of spamming?

  8. Anonymous

    I’m sorry if this comes off as a bit brash but this list is horrendously misleading to a noob.

    One major point I take issue with…

    alt attributes – according to Matt Cutts and everyone else in the webosphere who knows anything about development know to use the attribute when you want to describe the character or image in question. Presupposing that every developer or web marketer for that matter use of tags and attributes in a spammy way in their HTML is foolish and obtuse at best.

    Yes it is something that black hatters would use in 2004 but Google’s algo can pick that kind of amateur stuffing up with ease today.

  9. Seo Chat

    Some webmaster use refer-spam

  10. michigan seo

    Its a very informative piece of information and its really very helpful helpful for any seo professional.

  11. Yellow SEO

    Thanks Jim,

    Great collection of what would be considered as SEO spam, I would also add these pesky link exchange emails you get requesting reciprocal link exchange like the one below:

    Hello,
    I have found your website XXXXXXXXXX.XXX by searching Google for
    “Some random content”. I think
    our websites has a similar theme, so I have already added your link
    to my website.

  12. canada bodybuilding

    I have been reading a great deal of articles all over the web, and this one just confused me. Some of the techniques you listed as spam are what some other reputable sites have claimed to be some of the ideal ways of better your SEO.

  13. Jonathan - SEO Specialist

    @canada

    Yes, that’s true, but it’s because many of these were techniques that worked in the past (and in some cases have limited effects now).

    However, Google especially continually works to prevent its search algorithm being abused – so the value of these techniques was heavily discounted.

    A good example is the link farm one. A few years ago, you could pay to get 10,000+ links from a link farm in a few days and your site would rocket up the rankings. However, google developed manual and automatic techniques to identify likely link farms, and pretty much totally devalue any links from them. As no actual humans ever used the links, they became worthless.

    Blog comments are going the same way. Many are “NoFollow”, and google discounts them anyway by programmably recognising blogs. That said, blog comments CAN be useful – if you make helpful, on-topic comments, you may get some genuine, human traffic from even a nofollow link. In my experience SOME blogs still also pass a small amount of link juice.

  14. Ross Dunn

    Hi Jonathan, thank you for the detailed comments!!

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