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Talking About Search Engine Spam

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At our recent SES Chicago show, we had two sessions that tackled the always controversial subject of search engine spam. In this article, I wanted to share some of the thoughts and discussion that came out of that. Are "white hatters" naive by not being aggressive? Are "black hatters" unethical and subverting search quality by going too far with search engines? The answers are never as simple as they'd seem, as we'll explore.

To kick discussion off at the show, I revived the "What Is Spam" session we'd done a few conferences before. The main point of the session was to help those people who often assume they've spammed understand what spam really is.

Seriously, I and other speakers will get asked things like, "If my company has two different web sites, and I link between them on their home pages, is that spamming?" No, almost certainly not. Honestly, it's very difficult for people to "accidentally" spam search engines.

A future SearchDay article will give you more details out of that session, plus those seeking more background should see the Search Engine Spamming article available to SEW members, as well as the SEO: Spamming category of Search Topics for an annotated guide to stories on spamming for SEW and around the web over the years.

Intent, Not Tactics, Defines Spam

The key point out of the session that all the speakers made is that spam is not really defined by use of a particular tactic but instead your intent.

For example, it's not spam to crosslink between sites if there's some good reason from a human perspective to do it. If you're only crosslinking because you think there's a search bonus to doing it, then you might stumble into shaky ground. Linking is good; linking for some artificial reason is not.

How about cloaking? There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of showing a spider something that's different in some ways that what a human sees. Heck, you might just want to strip off all the coding crud that the spider doesn't really need. But cloaking is so associated with deceptive behavior such as bait-and-switch pages or low content pages designed to please search algorithms that search engines have frowned upon it.

I so wish we could have an entire focus shift away from technique to intent. I almost want the search engines to say spam is simply defined by whether they feel your intent was to subvert their algorithm and harm relevancy. So want to cloak? Go for it. As long as you are delivering a relevant site, that's fine. Got hidden text? Who cares -- unless they feel you put hidden text on the page with the intent only to deceive them. Then they might boot you -- not for hidden text, but for being too aggressive.

That type of shift won't happen, I know. But it would be a relief instead of having to itemize for people a litany of techniques that are often seen as spam not because of the technique but because of the end result they aim at.

Avoiding STO: Sore Thumb Optimization

I wrote down a key quote out of the spam session, from Tim Mayer, director of product management for Yahoo Search. He'd warned that not only was intent important but that one needed to also consider the competitiveness of a query. Cloaked doorway pages leading to multi-hyphenated domains will stand out like a sore thumb for some queries.

Try a search for cars at Yahoo (or Google), for example, and you'll see how the results look clean. Now go search for rolex watches. Notice how the titles of pages are much longer, loaded with keywords. That's a sure sign of heavy SEO, and only one of the easily visible ones. Sites doing that type of optimization and making into the top results for the car query would stand out like a sore thumb. And since the competition is all playing at a certain level, coming in with aggressive tactics like this might be overkill.

That brings us to Tim's quote:

If you're being entirely organic and going after "viagra," it's like taking a sword to a gunfight. You just aren't going to rank.

Did I hear right? Was that Yahoo saying spam is OK depending on the industry? No. When I followed up with Tim, he emailed me:

Yahoo does not think that spamming is OK. We are aware that spam (or over optimization) is prevalent in highly competitive categories and realize that many webmasters in these high reward categories are willing to take more risks and use spamming techniques even though they know the search engines may label their sites as spam.

I think one of the key things I brought up in the session was when I talked about where the line was between optimization and over optimization (spam). I said this may vary by industry as in very non-competitive industries, where very little optimization takes place, the line will be very conservative and there will be little room for aggressive optimization techniques. In a very competitive industry like 'texas holdem poker' where optimization is the norm, heavier optimization may be tolerated.

I would also like your readers to know we are focused on providing great results to our users and we spend a lot of time and effort neutralizing spam techniques.

Overall, I wouldn't take the comment that everyone should go out an spam or get into "aggressive optimization techniques" yet. Certainly not if you're in non-competitive industry, otherwise you'll face what we can call the "sore thumb" problem -- that of standing out like one. Sore thumb optimization, STO, is to be avoided!

Ethics, Hats & Debate Over Tactics

After the What Is Spam session concluded, we moved into the "Black Hat, White Hat & Lots Of Gray" session, to explore the issue of spam and tactics even more. Is spamming ethical. Can you go too far?

One of our panelists, Alan Perkins, had asked me what I hoped people would get out of the session. My response was more understanding that the issue of what's ethical or not when it comes to search listings is complex.

I know spam when I see it, and it annoys me to no end. But I can also recognize when a search tactic may have helped bring me to the right site despite a search engine's own failure. Things that seem black or white rarely are, and SEO is no exception.

You can check out our forum coverage of the session in our Black Hat, White Hat & Lots of Gray thread, and a more in-depth SearchDay story will come in the future. I really encourage you to read both in addition to my comments, as there are some things they cover that I won't. Those interested in more viewpoints and debate may also want to check out one of our most popular forum threads: Whitehat vs. Blackhat. But from the SES Chicago session, here are main points I took away:

White Hatter: To Each Their Own

Jill Whalen, one of our white hatters, essentially said that she's more understanding now that in certain competitive industries, people may feel like they need to resort to black hat tactics. She doesn't work in these industries, so she doesn't have to resort to them -- good as she also doesn't like them. But live and let live to each area seems to be her view now.

For those interested in more, Jill did an excellent article on the subject fairly recently: Black Hat/White Hat Search Engine Optimization. It's well worth a read by anyone, regardless of what hat you wear.

As an aside, I've also heard Jill take flak for saying she doesn't work in competitive industries, with the suggestion then being what exactly do she or other "white hatters" actually do? My response is a lot. There are plenty of things a good SEO who deals with content and on-site optimization brings to help companies that outsource.

It's not that being in a "non-competitive" industry means you do no work or that the work is easy. Rather, it's more that good results can often be had by implementing basic, traditional SEO techniques such as good page titles, good copyrighting and simple link building. And while such things may sound "easy" to those who are in the SEO industry, they remain a mystery to many outside of it.

White Hatter: Do For Humans

Alan Perkins, another of our white hatters, had a really good overview of chart outlining how he views black versus white hat activities, which is summarized in our forum thread on the panel. Whether you agree with his views or not, it's a great starting point for discussion and a look at differences.

Alan had the tough spot on the panel, strongly believing that people should simply act as if there are no search engines at all and make changes only that they deem to be helpful for human users.

Personally, I think you do have to recognize there are some things you will do specifically for search engines. Good HTML page titles, for example -- yep, they help humans who may bookmark your site. But they primarily help with search engines understanding how to rank your site and how your site appears in the search listings that humans review.

Still, I think for many people, Alan is right on target. Consider doing actions that have a good reason for your human viewers, and you'll often stay out of trouble with search engines and may also do just the things they try to model. Why is the text at the beginning of the page traditionally been seen as more relevant by search engines? Because human readers will view it that way. Search engines try to model what a human will react to -- so building a site with humans in mind, rather than search engines, is good advice.

Gray Hatter: Techniques Can Become Acceptable

Mikkel deMib Svendsen was our gray hat. Aside from a hilarious slideshow presentations of hats of all types, he had one incredibly powerful point. Things change. Techniques can become more or less acceptable over time.

Citing Enron, he explained that if they were asked five years ago if they'd consider employing black hat tactics to get search listings, the response probably would have been shock and horror. How could a fine, respectable company like Enron (back then) even consider such a thing? "But look at their accounting," he exclaimed. Indeed, the company in that space seemed to have no such concerns.

So is black hat always going to be black? No. I've already written about how Google has allowed cloaking in circumstances where it thinks cloaking is useful. I'm sure we'll see more blurriness along the way, as well as new things we can't even think of be considered bad to do.

Black Hat: Use Appropriate Tactics & We All Manipulate

Todd Friesen formed one or our two-part black hat contingent. He brought a dose of real-life to the session by illustrating a number of black hat tactics. These weren't presented in the style of "go out, do this." Instead, they really illustrated some of the loopholes that those who want to be aggressive with search engines can find. The loopholes may not last long, and even Todd warned that they aren't for everyone. Hearkening back to our What Is Spam session, his message was use tactics appropriate to the competitive search space you are in.

Greg Boser came last with a final black hat presentation and brought along his usual great points. To Alan's idea of "do only what you'd do for humans," his response was that plenty of white hats do what he termed "content manipulation." He said:

If you're writing copy that doesn't sound like it came out of your mouth, that's search engine manipulation.

He's correct, of course. It can be very helpful to be a bit more verbose, specific or repetitive in copy for the web than in copy that will be read offline. Virtually everyone of any hat type can be considered a search manipulator -- but then even Greg agrees that the degree and extent of manipulation that's acceptable would depend on the space you are in.

The Top 10 Most Relevant Myth

Greg's best point was to tackle the myth that the top results are somehow the most relevant ones shown:

The top 10 aren't top because others are equally relevant and good. You could swap some of them around and not harm your users.

To illustrate his point, try a search for movies on Google. It leads off with Movies.com and Yahoo Movies, both big movie sites that I'm sure many will find relevant. Then there's the Internet Movie Database, which is a personal favorite. Hollywood.com follows, then Moviefone and Fandango.

Take those last two. Relevant? Sure, I suppose, to those in the US. Not to me sitting in the UK. Not to someone who may not want to actually buy a movie ticket. They aren't bad results -- but other things could go in their places.

Further down, there's Foxmovies.com. Relevant? There's definitely stuff more relevant. Why should the official web site of only one major studio be coming up in the top ten? Isn't there another broader-based site that could be in its place? Why yes there is -- on the second page of results, Rotten Tomatoes comes up, as does the LA Times Calendar section. Either could have been first page candidates. If if the results were swapped, virtually no searchers would notice a difference.

So to Greg, the idea that a black hat may subvert listings assumes that they all have a predetermined place. They don't. And given that, if he gets a relevant site into the top results using whatever tactic -- where relevancy isn't impacted -- he sees no harm.

Conclusion? Black Hat Has Its Place, But It's Not For Everyone

I surveyed the audience at the end to see if anyone had viewpoint changes. Any white hatters now ready to go black? Not really, nor vice versa. But people did say they had a better understanding that the issues were index more complex that may seem at first.

For myself, I'm more a white hatter -- and that's where I advise anyone to begin. This came up on our forums recently, when someone was asking about having an area just for black hat techniques.

My response was that aside from other issues, I wouldn't want such a place because people would start there without first trying the basics of good content, good on-page optimization and good link building. For many, many people -- that's sufficient.


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