Steering Clear of Search Engine Spam

Everybody wants to show up on the first page of search engine results for their site’s chosen keywords. How you try to do it, however, can have exactly the opposite effect, getting you penalized or even banned from the search engines. This article will give you an overview of underhanded tactics that you might be practicing inadvertently.

The problem is, whether you’re doing it inadvertently or not, the results are the same: search engines ban you either temporarily or permanently. If a significant part of your online business model depends on traffic from the search engines, you’re in deep trouble. That’s especially true if the misbehavior you committed was particularly egregious; it could take months to convince a search engine that you’ve learned the error of your ways, repented, and fixed the problem.

On top of that, some of the tactics the search engines punish as spam are really standard tricks taken to extremes. Look at it this way: a little chocolate every so often can be a good thing; a lot of chocolate too often will make you pay a price for your indulgence. So how is a webmaster, site owner, or beginning and well-meaning SEO to know where the search engines draw the line?

As a starting point, all three of the most popular search engines include guidelines on their sites for webmasters looking to rank in the index and not get in trouble. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines are the longest of the three search engines; if you’re specifically concerned with spam, you should scroll down to the quality guidelines, which include both general and specific suggestions. Yahoo!’s Search Content Quality Guidelines are shorter overall, but longer and very specific about what they don’t want to see in the sites they index. MSN’s Guidelines for Successful Indexing list only three things they don’t want to see, but these are fairly broad and general.

So what can we learn from all of these guidelines? Well, it’s a little confusing when you read them all at once. Fortunately, iProspect wrote a white paper last year titled “Search Marketer Beware: The Six SEM Tactics That Can Be Viewed as Spam.” While there are many things that have changed since that article was written, search engines apparently still treat these specific techniques as spam, if their guidelines about what to avoid are any indication.

So, using iProspect’s piece as a jumping-off point, and checking what the various search engines have to say about these approaches, here are the tactics you’d better not be using on your web site if you want to stay listed:

Link Farms: When Google came out with its new approach to search, it inspired the practice of link farms. Google’s initial algorithm put heavy weight on how many pages linked to you as an indication of the relevance of your site’s content. Plenty of legitimate sites try to get inbound links to improve their rankings. But this is one of those practices that, as I mentioned above, is bad when taken to extremes.

A link farm links to a large number of sites strictly to improve these sites’ popularity. Google specifically tells webmasters “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or ‘bad neighborhoods’ on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.” Yahoo doesn’t specifically mention link farms, but says it doesn’t approve of “Excessively cross-linking sites to inflate a site’s apparent popularity.” MSN does get specific, however, saying that one of the practices that could result in the removal of your site from its index is “Using techniques to artificially increase the number of links to your page, such as link farms.”

Misleading Content: This covers a wide range of practices. For example, I was recently doing research for a short piece on two-stage space launches that involved taking a rocket up 15 to 20 miles into the sky by balloon before it fired its engines to get the rest of the way into space. My keywords included “balloon” and “rocket,” among others. One of the sites that came up appeared to be relevant at first, but somehow when I clicked on the link I ended up at a dating site. Say what?!

If you’re trying to lure people to your site by using methods to score highly on popular keywords that only marginally have something to do with your content…stop it. Make sure your meta tags and title tags are optimized for phrases that are actually descriptive of your site’s content. Google specifically says “Don’t load pages with irrelevant words,” while Yahoo takes a more general approach, frowning on “Pages that seem deceptive, fraudulent, or provide a poor user experience.” MSN also frowns on the use of irrelevant words.

Keyword Stuffing: You hear about this all the time, and it’s the classic example of way too much of a good thing. Yes, you need to have your targeted keywords incorporated into the content of your site. It makes sense; if you’re going to have a web site that talks about dog training, you’re going to use the phrase “dog training” a lot. But if you use it too much, the search engines will think you’re actively trying to manipulate the results rather than writing good content and letting the keywords fall where they may.

How much is too much? It’s hard to find agreement on this, but iProspect recommends no more than six or seven times for every 200 words on the site, or about three percent of your content. MSN specifically hates webmasters who engage in “Loading pages with irrelevant words in an attempt to increase a page’s keyword density. This includes stuffing ALT tags that users are unlikely to view.” Yahoo!’s condemnation is more general, disliking “Pages that harm accuracy, diversity or relevance of search results” and “Pages using methods to artificially inflate search engine ranking.” Google also generally disapproves of pages that employ tricks without specifically mentioning keyword stuffing.

Hidden or Invisible Text: It’s a rule of thumb that you’re supposed to build your web site for your human visitors. Why would you put something in the main content of a page that is specifically designed to be visible to the search engines rather than your visitors? Hidden text is designed to be the same color as the background of the web page it’s on. This hides it from visitors but lets search engine spiders see it clearly. When it’s done as an intentional dirty tactic, it’s usually combined with some variation of keyword stuffing.

Hidden text is a form of “cloaking,” or showing the search engines one kind of content and your visitors another. Google comes down on both the general practice of cloaking and the specific practice of hidden text, hard. “Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as ‘cloaking.’” And on its list of specific “don’ts,” Google admonishes webmasters to “Avoid hidden text or hidden links” and “Don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects” (more on that last in a bit). Yahoo doesn’t want to see webmasters engaging in “The use of text that is hidden from the user” and Microsoft concurs, insisting that “You should use only text and links that are visible to users.”

Vanity Domains: Here’s one point on which I differ somewhat with iProspect, but I’m honestly not sure how the search engines treat this. I think it may be yet another case of a little bit is a good thing, but too much is too much. A vanity domain is another term for a mirror site. Basically, you make multiple copies of one web site, all featuring the exact same content, and put them on different servers with different domain names. That’s duplicate content, and that’s a no-no.

On other hand, it is entirely possible for a web site to become overwhelmed with visitors trying to access it (just ask anyone who has ever been “slashdotted”). In that case, one or two mirror domains might not be a bad idea. Even so, Google tells webmasters “Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.” Yahoo! hates “Pages that have substantially the same content as other pages” and “Multiple sites offering the same content.”

Doorway Pages/Deceptive Redirects: There’s nothing good about doorway pages. A doorway page is optimized for a particular keyword or phrase but doesn’t provide any content on that topic. Instead, when a user searches for that phrase and finds the site near the top, he clicks on the link, and the page redirects him to another web site that has little or nothing to do with the topic.

Why would you want to do that to your visitors? You might get a lot of traffic, but it almost certainly won’t be the kind of traffic you want. If that keyword isn’t relevant to what you’re offering, your visitors would have been expecting something completely different when they clicked on that link. They will stay only long enough to get angry, and then go elsewhere. Google explicitly condemns this practice, telling webmasters to “Avoid ‘doorway’ pages created just for search engines, or other ‘cookie cutter’ approaches…” while Yahoo spurns “Pages dedicated to directing the user to another page” and “Pages that give the search engine different content than what the end-user sees.”

Now that you know what not to do, you can look at your site with new eyes. If you’re engaging in these practices and not doing well in the search engines, you know why. It may take a while to make the fixes and get back into the search engines’ good graces, but it will be worth it. 

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