It’s the headline any search marketer would dread: “Google Bans BMW for Search Spamming.” For well-known companies, such bad publicity is reason enough to stay away from deceptive search practices. BMW’s plight was published in leading newspapers worldwide. But even small companies have reputations to uphold, because the blogosphere can trash a carefully cultivated image for ethics in a heartbeat.
On top of the public relations headaches, getting banned from search engines hurts your bottom line. Perhaps large companies can say their “mea culpas” and get reinstated quickly, but small companies may wait months to get back in Google’s good graces. What if your search traffic suddenly stopped?
Whatever the consequences, you must understand the terms of service of the major search engines. Google’s guidelines are located at www.google.com/webmasters/ guidelines.html (and other search engines have similar rules). Sure, a few people make a living fooling Google, but you’re not likely to be one of them.
Even if you think you can fool the search engines now, they increase their vigilance each day. Moreover, tricky techniques leave you vulnerable to being reported to the search engines by your competitors, causing an investigation. It’s safer and less work to know the rules of the road and abide by them.
Is Your Site Banned?
If your site’s pages are highly ranked in one search engine, but missing in action from another, your site may have been banned, or at least highly penalized. When search engines detect your use of spam techniques, they may ban your site (completely remove its pages from the search index) or penalize your site (remove some pages from the index, or lower your rankings from normal levels).
You should suspect a ban or penalty when:
- Your home page can be found only by a direct search on the URL – queries for words on the page don’t work anymore.
- The number of your site’s pages included in the search index rapidly decreases. To check, do a search for site:www.yourdomain.com to check.
- The search engine shows fewer and fewer links to your site each month, maybe decreasing to zero. Search for link:www.yourdomain.com to find out.
- Your site’s search engine referrals have dropped drastically in a short period of time. Use your Web metrics software to detect this situation.
If you suspect a problem, you first need to diagnose the cause. Let’s look at the technique that tripped up BMW. We’ll explore others in columns to come.
The Old Bait and Switch
BMW was caught using a spamming technique called cloaking. Cloakers employ tricks to show the search spider one version of their page and show searchers another, in a high tech version of the old “bait and switch” scam.
Some cloakers use a sophisticated technique called IP delivery, in which the spider’s name (called the user-agent name) and its IP address (the unique identification of a computer’s location on the Internet) are used to switch the page. The cloaker creates a program to dynamically serve a Web page, but that program checks the user-agent name and the IP address to decide which version of the page to show.
It’s sometimes acceptable to use cloaking techniques, as long as the effect is not to show one page to visitors and another to search engines. One ethical use is to deliver pages to spiders that require cookies (which spiders choke on). If you use IP delivery, make sure you present essentially the same content both to spiders and people.
My SEO Made Me Do It
BMW didn’t blame its incident on a rogue search engine optimization consultant, but many spam violations are indeed caused by unethical consultants. Understand that the search engines hold you responsible for your site’s spamming regardless of how it happened. If you want to stay out of Google jail, ask yourself some questions about any firm you are considering hiring:
- Do they guarantee top rankings? Reputable firms don’t. Expect ironclad guarantees to be fueled by cheating, and expect those ill-gotten results to be fleeting.
- Do they promise that you won’t have to make big changes to your site? Be suspicious of link spam if the only changes needed are weird links to other sites hidden on your pages. Those other sites are your consultant’s other clients, whom they also coerce to link to you. If it seems fishy, well, it is.
- Do they talk about special techniques that give you an edge? Pay attention to the old bait and switch, or suffer BMW’s fate.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be working with a spammer. One way to trick the trickster is to pretend that you really want to hire a firm that does spamming. See if they promise they will. Ethical companies will try to talk you out of spamming instead.
What if you catch competitors spamming? Turn them in to the search engines. Google and the other search engines investigate each spam report and take action when warranted. When you report a spam violation, make sure you include the search term you used, the shady URL from the search results, the exact spam technique you suspect (with whatever evidence you have) and why it’s bad for searchers for this violation to continue unchecked.
We looked at cloaking today, but many spam techniques are in use that you need to be aware of. In my next column, we’ll examine content spam techniques, and finish up our three-part look at the dark side of link spam. Whatever the technique, spam leaves you vulnerable to negative publicity and outright ban by search engines, so steer clear.
MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.