Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine SPAM
With Search Engine Optimisation and Marketing set to be one of the hottest sectors in the Internet Marketing industry in the year 2004 it is wise to assess the playing field cautiously.
Many Australian Businesses are waking up to the fact that Search Engine Optimisation & Marketing can provide an excellent return on investment (ROI). But, before you jump on the bandwagon and hire a Search Engine Optimisation or Marketing "expert" there are some things you should know.
This article is written in an attempt to alert Business and Website Owners in Australia (or anywhere really) of some of the dangers, pitfalls and issues to consider when attempting to position your website well in the Search Engine ranking results. Resources for further research are provided below to help you make your website more user and Search Engine friendly.
Note: The terms Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are used throughout this article where it seems natural to do so. Many firms overlap their services in these two areas within the Internet Marketing industry. Very basically; SEO addresses the website and SEM may focus more on Paid for services where it is not necessary to change the website. Other Internet Marketing and consulting firms address a larger picture which may included off-line advertising as well.
It is with some dismay that I look across the presence of Australian Businesses on the search engines. I study and research the search engine marketing field on a daily basis (and have done so for the last 4-5 years) and continually find websites that are using techniques that are "unprofessional" in their approach to positioning on the search engines.
Many competing Australian websites come up short when assessed for:
- clean and valid coding (not search engine friendly); and
- "best practices" in marketing and search engine guideline compliance
My experience also suggests that most website owners are totally unaware of what is being done in their name by their web designers/marketing firms; they seem unaware of the risks or simply don’t care! These include large Australian Corporate and Government departments as well as Small to Medium businesses of all varieties. It is the same for all industries.
What alarms me most is the self-promotion and high public regard and credibility, extended to some of Australia’s so called "top" search engine optimisation and marketing firms and "experts".
The number of Search Engine Marketers that adhere strictly to the guidelines laid down by the search engines and strive for ethical presentation at all times is far smaller worldwide than the amount of Search Engine Marketers that are not so guided. Indeed, many previously ethical operators have simply given up and joined the Spammers in frustration at seeing their client websites pushed down in the Search Engine Results under pages full of SPAM.
Search Engine SPAM is what the Search Engines themselves define as SPAM. There may be gray areas that create contention amongst marketers and website owners. Your own judgement, gut feeling and sense of fair play should always guide you. (If you lack the above qualities, you should be guided by a rigorous adherence to the Search Engines’ published standards to avoid any trouble.)
As with any industry that is not bound by regulations it is a difficult playing field for both website owners and Internet Marketers. There has been a great deal of discussion and heated debate within the Internet Marketing/Search Engine industry about the areas of standards and best practice. However, to date, there has not been an organisation or individual that has been able to set up a definitive set of guidelines under which Search Engine Marketers could badge themselves.
Despite this, there have been a number of useful attempts to define SPAM in detail. For example, a notable paper by Alan Perkins "The Classification of Search Engine Spam" http://www.ebrandmanagement.com/whitepapers/spam-classification/ is well worth reading.
The Search Engines are very clear (in most cases) about what they consider to be good and bad practices for web design and search engine marketing. It is well worth taking the time to study the help and guidelines pages provided to see whether your website measures up to their quality standards for inclusion. For the most part the search engine indexing process is handled automatically with sets of rules (algorithms) in place to weed out what is not wanted as well as to serve the ranking order of results when visitors perform a search query.
You may see many websites and webpages within the search results that are enjoying exposure but do not live up to the search engines stated guidelines. This, however, could change tomorrow as the search engines strive to keep their listings clean and relevant by adjusting their SPAM filters and continually refining their processes. Most search engines will also manually review and remove websites and pages that are flagged as troublemakers or are caught out and reported by the searching public. (This could be competitors, unhappy searchers or "ethical" marketers willing to work with the Search Engines in an attempt to keep the playing field clean).
Human edited directories such as Yahoo, DMOZ, Looksmart, GoGuides and JoeAnt along with a vast range of regional and industry specific directories also have strict guidelines for submission and inclusion. These guidelines are most likely found on their submission pages and should be followed strictly. Becoming a "known spammer" may cause your domain(s) to be flagged, and excluded from their indexes for life.
Google is currently the most popular Search Engine and provides website owners with comprehensive guidelines, information and help. http://www.google.com/webmasters/
Google lists some of the things (but not all) they consider to be SPAM
" Quality Guidelines – Basic principles:
- 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.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?"
- 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.
- Don’t use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc. Such programs consume computing resources and violate our terms of service. Google does not recommend the use of products such as WebPosition Gold that send automatic or programmatic queries to Google."
" Quality Guidelines – Specific recommendations:
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant words.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
- Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines, or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here, (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known web sites). It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles listed above will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit. "
Google also dedicates a page to help you assess Search Engine Optimisation companies offerings: http://www.google.com/webmasters/seo.html
Other Search Engine Guidelines & SPAM links include:
" What Inktomi Considers Unwanted
Some, but not all, examples of the more common types of pages that Inktomi does not want include:
- Pages that harm accuracy, diversity or relevance of search results
- Pages dedicated to directing the user to another page
- Pages that have substantially the same content as other pages
- Sites with numerous, unnecessary virtual hostnames
- Pages in great quantity, automatically generated or of little value
- Pages using methods to artificially inflate search engine ranking
- The use of text that is hidden from the user
- Pages that give the search engine different content than what the end-user sees
- Excessively cross-linking sites to inflate a site’s apparent popularity
- Pages built primarily for the search engines
- Misuse of competitor names
- Multiple sites offering the same content
- Pages that use excessive pop-ups, interfering with user navigation
- Pages that seem deceptive, fraudulent or provide a poor user experience "
" Some examples of pages that exhibit "spam" techniques are:
- Pages that negatively affect the ranking precision and diversity of search results.
- Pages that give the search engine content that is topically different than the page the user sees (often referred to as "cloaking").
- Pages created exclusively for the purpose of stealthily redirecting the user to another page (often built to be attractive to a specific search engine).
- Excessively cross-linking between pages or sites to artificially inflate link popularity.
- Pages stuffed with superfluous keywords that are irrelevant or do not make meaningful sense.
- Pages, subdomains or domains that have substantially or very similar content.
- Automatically generated pages created with the purpose of flooding search engine result pages.
- The use of hidden text and hidden links. "
" Here are some specific examples of manipulation that may cause us to block a site from our index:
- Pages with text that is not easily read, either because it is too small or is obscured by the background of the page
- Pages with off-topic or excessive keywords
- Duplication of content, either by excessive submission of the same page, submitting the same pages from multiple domains, or submitting the same content from multiple hosts,
- Machine-generated pages with minimal or no content, whose sole purpose is to get a user to click to another page,
- Pages that contain only links to other pages,
- Pages whose primary intent is to redirect users to another page.
Attempts to fill AltaVista’s index with misleading or promotional pages lower the value of the index for everyone. We do not allow URL submissions from customers who spam the index and will exclude all such pages from the index. "
Has your Web Designer, Internet Marketer, Search Engine Optimisation Firm or Search Engine Marketer compromised your website by using techniques that are against the published guidelines of the Search Engines and do not live up to current Search Industry "best practices"?
It is the website owner’s responsibility to ensure that their Internet presence reflects the same high quality and standards of their bricks and mortar businesses. As with any business decision, investigation and due diligence should be undertaken before hiring anybody. Understanding the basics of what is required to build a search engine friendly website is not that difficult. It may seem that the industry is full of mumbo-jumbo and techno-babble and some unscrupulous marketers will indeed see to it that this is the impression to be had.
Leaving it up to any so-called web development and search engine marketing "professional" without making an attempt to find out exactly how you will be presented can be a huge mistake.
Just as in any other industry you will have the cowboys, hucksters, charlatans, tricksters, schemers and scammers as well as the professional, ethical, fair and honourable practitioners. It’s up to you to find out whom you are dealing with.
Do some homework, it’s your dollars you are spending, so buyer beware!
Familiarise yourself with the published guidelines of the Search Engines. Take heed of their Guidelines and take careful regard of the absolute definitions of what the Search Engines themselves consider to be SPAM. Make sure before hiring that your web developer, Internet Marketer or Search Engine Optimisation firm adheres to industry best practice and works within the search engine guidelines. Always contact their current clients, check search engine ranking results and find out what technologies and techniques have been used to obtain these positions.
Similarly, if you have a current website, make sure you understand exactly what has been done to your pages and check for problem areas.
Some useful tools include: "View Source" – checking the source code of pages can help you detect such things as keyword stuffing, invisible text and links. Run the pages through a HTTP viewer such as "Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer" at http://www.rexswain.com/httpview.html or a text viewer such as the Lynx Viewer at http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html. These can help you to see what the search engine robots see and will alert you to problems such as cloaking, redirectors, bad coding, and hidden text or links.
Perform searches on www.google.com and www.ixquick.com using a prominent snippet of text from the pages to detect duplicate information, backdoor domains/pages and redirects. The allinurl function on Google is useful to see all of the pages indexed for a domain, (simply type "allinurl:www.domain.com") and the site search will help if looking for a particular search phrase, (site:www.domain.com search phrase).
If you feel that this is beyond your capabilities to assess, seek out either a known "ethical" Search Engine marketer or any of the search engine forums that advocate industry best practice and seek help there. You will be sure to find people that will freely assess your site and quickly check it for questionable areas and practices. Perhaps they may be able to provide valuable advice and insights into alternatives that will keep you out of hot water for the long term.
If you value your business reputation you should care!
Your presence on line is as important as any other aspect of your business presentation. If you are using questionable search engine marketing techniques you stand to lose not only your credibility with the search engines and directories but your credibility in the eyes of your competitors, clients and future prospects.
It is known that Internet Marketing for such industries as the gambling and adult industries is an extremely rich target for some marketers and they will push the envelope to the extreme with little or no regard for the monetary cost of doing so.
It alarms me to see legitimate businesses in Australia presenting in like manner. Surely this is not the image we wish to present to the world. A fair days pay for a fair days work (and vice versa) has long been an Australian catch-cry. Where have the days gone when we can proudly hang our hat on our principles and be accountable and transparent in our business affairs? Where is the "true blue" & "dinky di" Australian spirit in the Search Engine / Internet Marketing arena?
If you play the SPAM game, know the risks. Search Engines and directories can and will ban or penalise websites that go against their guidelines and I have seen this happen many times. You may be able to enjoy increased traffic and business for a short period. What succeeds today, however, may be a total failure tomorrow. You can be sure that the search engines are continually adjusting their SPAM filters in their efforts to protect their databases and provide users with relevant results that are free of trickery.
Loss of credibility with the search-engine-using public, your competitors and your peers will occur when your site keeps coming up irrelevantly in search results or flooding the results with duplicate information.
It is also possible that SPAMming can lead to a loss of a business/domain name. If a domain name has been irreparably damaged by questionable Search Engine Optimisation techniques, it may become necessary to change your domain name in order for you to recover and make a fresh start: a very costly exercise in terms of public relations, printing costs etc.
Yes there is! For long term high rankings and positioning in the Search Engines there is always a better way to go than using SPAM techniques. It’s all in understanding that a website is purely a channel for communication between your business and your target market. In providing adequate information that is accessible, clear and thorough and being visitor-centric a website owner, web designer/marketer can often find that their websites become search engine friendly and position better at the same time.
There are no "tricks". It’s not difficult. It’s all very simple and very, very logical.
"That’s all very easy for you to say", you may say. Seriously, though, there are no secrets.
It is all about providing information that people are searching for and making it usable, findable and easily accessible. The search engines strive to provide quality relevant results and working with them is a good thing to do!
There are many things that can hinder a websites performance in the Search Engines. There may be foundational and structural problems that can easily be corrected or worked around.
Here are some barriers that are commonly found that can cause obstacles to usability for visitors and search engine accessibility.
- Websites within frames
- Websites with dynamically generated pages (database driven sites)
- Websites with elements such as flash, java applets and dynamic navigation
- Websites that are developed with content management systems (CMS) or WYSIWYG editors such as Microsoft’s Front Page etc.
- Websites that have bad coding and errors
- Websites that have poor navigation
- Websites that are graphics intensive with little or no supporting text content
(Includes Websites with textual content trapped within graphics)
- Websites that use "SPAM" techniques as defined by the search engines
There is much information available for free on-line and there are many forums dedicated to the subject of Search Engine Optimisation, Internet Marketing and Search Engine Friendly Website Building where you can find experienced folks and experts in the field only too keen to help you on your way.
You can tap into Webmaster, Search Engine & Web Marketing Help Forums:
- Search Engine Forums (JimWorld) Longest standing SEO / SEM Forum on the web (pioneered by the late Jim Wilson)
- I Help You Forums – Run by Doug Heil and well known for their stance for best practices
- High Rankings Forums – Run by Jill Whalen, who is well known for "natural" website optimisation
- Cre8asite Forums – Run by Kimberly Krause SEO and Usability Consultant
Many businesses simply do not have the time, resources or desire to learn all of the "ins and outs" of website design and development or Internet / Search Engine Optimisation/Marketing. In most cases it is simply a case of measuring how much your time is worth. For example, you can learn how to mend a broken pipe, but for most people it is simply more time efficient and cost effective to call in an expert plumber that will get the job done in five minutes. If you don’t have the time to learn, hire a competent Search Engine Consultant.
If developing a new website the best time to hire a Search Engine consultant is right at the very beginning! If the website is designed with Search Engine Positioning in mind as an end result much can be achieved in the foundational stages, thus reducing your costs in the long term.
Finding the right Search Engine Optimisation firm for your business will include such factors as trust, (you will most likely be establishing a long-term relationship), cost, track record, methodology and Industry specific knowledge.
There are many articles and resources available to help you in your decision making process. Below are just a few:
- Choosing an SEO/SEM Company – Matt McGee of One World Telecommunications
- Buyers’ Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms – 2nd Edition US & Canada (UK & Australian 2nd edition in production)
- SEO Consultants – A directory of consultants that have been pre-screened for their overall search engine optimization practices and search engine marketing strategies.
If you see something that is clearly not right or relevant in the Search Engine Results you can report it to the relevant Search Engine. They welcome public feedback and are concerned about providing quality relevant results to their searchers.
Google explains: "If you believe that another site is abusing Google’s quality guidelines, please report that site at http://www.google.com/contact/spamreport.html. Google prefers developing scalable and automated solutions to problems, so we attempt to minimize hand-to-hand spam fighting. The spam reports we receive are used to create scalable algorithms that recognize and block future spam attempts."
This means you may not see instant removal but you can be sure that Google views and acts on SPAM reported to them.
Below are a few other contact addresses:
- Fast/All The Web: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Inktomi: email@example.com
- Altavista: http://addurl.altavista.com/help/contact/search
The best defense against a competitor’s SPAM techniques is to continue to improve your own website by adding more quality content. This simply cannot hurt you. Continue to make your website the best that it can be by adding useful information for your visitors. Streamline your navigation. Create positive messages and a call to action throughout your page elements. Whatever you do, don’t join the Search Engine spammers!
The cost for spamming is higher in the long term and you can win even if your website is a tortoise and theirs is currently looking like a hare.
Dianne heads up the team at DiAl Design Australia, a small Web Design & Marketing firm specialising in promoting Small businesses on-line. With a track record for achieving long term high rankings in the search engines for clients, Dianne is a sort-after search engine optimisation consultant and well respected within the SEO/SEM marketing industry at large.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine SPAM