Web Spam: Intentional attempts to manipulate search engine rankings for specific keywords or keyword phrase queries.
But isn’t that what SEO is? Trying to get your website content to rank better in search engine results?
There’s a fine line between doing everything you can to give your website content the best shot at ranking well in the search engines vs. trying every sneaky trick possible.
The Old Days of Web Spam – Keywords, Keywords, Keywords Everywhere!
The first search engines (Lycos, HotBot, AltaVista to name a few) used a fairly basic approach to ranking webpages. For the most part, their bots scanned a website’s source code and looked for keywords.
Classic Meta Keywords web spam.
And the earliest web spammers figured out that if you just add your keyword more often to a webpage, you would rank higher in these engines. In some cases, web spammers could get completely unrelated webpages to rank for hot ticket keyword searches – simply to get more traffic. This practice became known as “keyword stuffing.”
Along Comes Google with PageRank
I would say Google’s first success wasn’t the way they indexed web content, it was the bare-bones design that made searching easy. As well as scanning results. Remember, this was their competition:
This is the cleanest screenshot you’ll ever see of Yahoo’s homepage from 1997. That’s because it’s effectively still live at archive.org :).
The simplicity of the Google homepage got visitors to what they wanted to do as fast as possible – search. By contrast, Yahoo’s homepage was designed to pull visitors in 50+ different directions, keeping them from doing any searches at all. This is one of the first and greatest lessons in conversion rate optimization!
But to really seal the deal for the masses, Google had a new technology to make not just the visual experience better, but also the actual experience of sifting through results. PageRank was the technology Google used that determined how webpages would be ranked based on the links pointing to them. The more high-quality sites that link to a specific webpage usually made that webpage rank higher for specific keyword searches.
As Google started to dominate the search market, keyword stuffing quickly became a useless web spam tactic. But, as we all know, nothing stops spam, it just adapts. Web spammers adjusted their techniques to obtaining links to compete in the search engines. And, of course, after a couple of years, web spammers figured out how to game Google by buying links, creating link farms, and filling out thousands of online directories.
Google Gets a Web Spam Team
To combat a growing problem of web spam, Google created a web spam team. The head person (and spokesperson) for this team was a gentleman by the name of Matt Cutts. Entrepreneurs that lived and died by Google traffic would commonly refer to him as “God.”*
Those who were caught trying to manipulate Google search ranking and were penalized, could supposedly write a letter to the web spam team asking for forgiveness. If the naughty spam work in question was removed, Google could re-index the offending website and keep a close eye on it from that point forward.
Matt has a blog that still hosts tons of great SEO information from his time at Google. Much of it is still relevant, and it’s the closest thing to information from the “horse’s mouth” you’ll get. Also, be sure to check YouTube for videos where Matt speaks. Again, lots of good information from him is out there if you look for it.
Matt has moved on from Google to work for United States Digital Service. Google still has a web spam team, but it has been operating less publicly as of late.
Old and More Current Web Spam Tactics
It’s probably a good time to go over some of the common web spam tactics. Make sure you’re not doing any of these:
The Old Days:
- Keyword Stuffing – Trying to cram your most valuable keyword as much as possible (without looking like a complete joke) on a webpage.
- Hidden Text – Since keyword stuffing worked, one way to get a lot of keywords on a webpage without completely ruining your user experience was to hide text :). Yep – just write a ton of garbage content and make the text white on a white background. Ta-da!
- Cloaking / Doorway Pages – Targeting highly trafficked keywords, but presenting completely different content to visitors. Basically, the numbers game approach.
- Content Stuffing – Adding huge blocks of text in really small font near the footer of a webpage so that the content gets picked up by the search engines, but visitors don’t really pay attention to it.
- Buying Links – Offering website owners or webmasters money in exchange for links.
- Widgets – Creating embeddable widgets and tools with links that point back to the widget creator.
- Article / Link Farms – Either building dozens of sites in order to amass links or submitting content to networks of sites that would publish articles that all link back to your site.
- Comment Spam – Many early comment sections allowed visitors to link back to their websites.
- Overly “Linky” Footers – One common practice was to link to high-value webpages from a website’s footer. The idea was to use the benefit of anchor text to drive link juice to these pages.
- Low-Quality Guest Posting – Some web spammers would send out low quality, pre-written content to various blogs with the hope of getting published. Similar to the article / link farm idea from a decade ago.
The Golden Rule: Please Search Engines Users and the Search Engines Will Reward You
This was said by multiple speakers during this conference. The advice still applies to this very day.
You can try to out-smart Google or you can just give users what they want: the best possible experience. Make your website mobile friendly, provide good information that’s easy to digest, and be sure someone will want to link to it!
If you plan your SEO strategy around this single principle, you’ll be rewarded with targeted traffic, and it will be up to you to convert that traffic into a meaningful business relationship.
*I had been around a few fireside chats where the “God reference” was commonly used :).