Google has become the latest search engine to offer a dedicated spam reporting feature, having announced the new service at last week's Search Engine Strategies conference in Dallas.
"When you crawl a billion pages, there's going to be some low quality ones. So, anything webmasters can do is a help," said Matt Cutts, the software engineer at Google who deals often with spam and webmaster issues, when announcing the new features during a conference session on spam issues.
Cutts unveiled three separate ways to report spam to Google: via email, an online form and new happy and sad faces in a beta version of the Google toolbar.
The email option is pretty straight forward. You can simply send spam that you spot to email@example.com. There's no particular format to follow: any subject heading is fine. However, you should be clear in what you are reporting. Note things such as the exact search the spam page appears for, the page's URL and a succinct explanation of why you consider it to be spam.
The online form provides a more organized means to assemble your complaint. Using it, you can tick whether a page is deemed to be using any of these frowned-upon practices: hidden text or links; misleading or repeated words; page does not match Google's description; cloaked page; deceptive redirects; doorway pages or duplicate site. An "other" option is also available, for anything not covered in the check boxes.
Of the above, the only odd one is "page does not match Google's description." Google forms its descriptions automatically, so it is possible that Google itself might describe a page in a way that doesn't seem to match what the page is really about. However, there will certainly be some cases when you might feel this is happening instead because a webmaster is using cloaking or some other technique to trick Google content different than what you see. In those case, this is the option to use.
Google warns not to expect a reply, if you use either the email address or the feedback form. However, the data will be reviewed and eventually acted upon, if the concerns are valid.
"You might not see the results the next day, but you will see them over time," Cutts said.
The last option for reporting spam -- as well as reporting good pages -- is to use a new beta version of the Google toolbar. This has happy and sad face buttons on it. If you see a page you like, push the happy button. Yes, you can even push it for your own site -- and twice or three times is even allowed, if you particularly like a page. However, excessive repetition will be detected and discounted, Google says.
Found a spam page, or just a low quality page that somehow ranked well in Google's results? Then push the unhappy face. You can even use this if you get an entire list of results at Google you think are bad. Just leave the results page up in your browser and push the unhappy face.
As with the happy face, Google says that excessive clicks are watched for. Google also assures that it has mechanisms in place to ensure good sites don't get penalized by competitors voting against them.
"We do have a lot of safeguards in place to make sure someone can't hurt someone else unfairly," Cutts said.
Google predictably didn't go into specifics about how this would be done, but the key reassurance to take away for the moment is that the voting data is not automatically being used to alter rankings. Instead, it is currently used as a flagging mechanism, to help Google understand which pages should be subjected to human review.
"It won't be used in the production system until a human has validated it or until we fully trust the methodology," Cutts said.
This also means that the happy face votes aren't causing any changes yet, but Cutts expects that the data that's being gathered will be put to use, in the near future.
The toolbar is also Google's preferred option for reporting spam, Cutts says. This is because it is planned to feed into a more automated system, when the methods of using the data directly are more trusted.
Google says downloads of the toolbar have been growing about 50 percent per day, since it was unveiled last week.
"It started in the dozens on the first day, and it's getting into the hundreds now. We definitely are happy in the way people are using it," Cutts said.
Don't forget, Inktomi also has a spam reporting option. You simply send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. As with Google, there's no particular format you need to follow. This email address was introduced at another Search Engine Strategies conference in August of this year.
Inktomi also said at the latest conference last week that the spam email address can also be used to ask the company whether you've been banned for spamming. To do this at Google, use the general feedback form, not the spam reporting mechanisms.
Credit is also due to AltaVista, which has had a spam reporting option on its general feedback form for over a year. As for FAST Search, they told me at the conference last week that they'd be considering a spam reporting option, given that the other major crawlers have one.
Google Toolbar With Voting Feature
If you have the Google toolbar already installed, then uninstall it to use the new version. Click on the Google logo that appears to the left of the search box, then select Uninstall from the drop-down options. When you are told the toolbar has been removed, close ALL Internet Explorer windows you may have open.
Next (and also do this if you never had the Google toolbar), use the URL above, then the new beta version with happy and sad faces allowing you to vote will load. You won't see the faces immediately. Instead, you'll need to click on the Google logo, then select " Toolbar Options" from the drop down list. When the options page loads in your browser, check the "Voting Buttons" choice.
Google Toolbar With Voting Feature: More Info
Additional information about the new toolbar, from the Google engineer behind it. Check out the tips on using the voting feature to combat email spam.
Google: Report Spam Form
Google Information for Webmasters
But what does Google consider to be spam? Find out here.
Inktomi Content Policy- Spam Removal Guidelines
And here's what Inktomi considers spam.
AltaVista: Contact Us for Search
Use the option on this page to report spam to AltaVista.
AltaVista Frequent Questions from Webmasters
And here are some spam guidelines from AltaVista.
New way to report spam at Google
Webmaster World, Nov. 16, 2001
You can't win for losing. Webmasters want to complain about spam, and then when they are given an option, they complain about the option! However, some legitimate and serious concerns about the new spam reporting feature at Google are also voiced here, along with ample comments from Google itself.