“Never watch sausage being made,” folks say, lest you would find the process so unappetizing that you’d never eat it again. Regardless of how you feel about Spam®, the venerable luncheon meat, all search marketers must understand the ingredients that comprise search spam.
In our last column, we explored the dangers of spam, which include bad publicity and getting banned from the search engines. We also looked at a spam technique called cloaking, in which spammers feed a different page to the search spider than what they show to real people.
This time around, let’s look at stupid content tricks. The goal isn’t to teach you how to use spam techniques, but rather to help you spot them on your site (oh no!) or on your competitors’ (so you can report them). Content spammers generally employ two kinds of tricks: page stuffing and doorway pages. Let’s look at each one in turn.
Content spammers treat their Web pages like a Thanksgiving turkey. They stuff as much extra content into each page as possible, hoping they’ll include something that search engines like. Let’s look at the three major types of content spamming tricks:
Don’t use tricky techniques to show the search spider text that is not seen when a reader looks at your page. In the old days (two years ago), content spammers tried displaying text with the same font color as the background color. Today the trendy spammer uses style sheets to write keywords on the page that are then overlaid by graphics or other page elements. Whatever the technique, if the search spider sees your words but people never do, that’s spam. The only exception to that rule is HTML comments, which are ignored by both the spider and the browser.
In times past, the use of multiple title tags (and other meta tags) was rumored to boost rankings. Although few search engines fall for that trick nowadays, spammers have adjusted. The same style sheet approach that can hide text can also overlay text on top of itself, so it is shown once on the screen but listed multiple times in the HTML file, adding emphasis for the repeated keywords.
Also known as keyword loading, this technique is really just an overuse of sound content optimization practices. Do emphasize your target keywords on your search landing pages, but don’t overuse them. Dumping out-of-context keywords into an <img> tag’s alternate text attribute, or into <noscript> or <noframes> tags, are variations of this same unethical technique.
Search engines have gotten much better at detecting page stuffing in recent years, but the cat-and-mouse game continues. Each year, spammers develop new content tricks and search engines try to catch them.
Some extremely clever and hardworking people really can fool the search engines with advanced versions of these tricks. Most of the time, however, spam techniques are like stock tips: Once you hear the tip, it is probably too late; the stock price has already gone up and the search engines are already implementing countermeasures.
What should you do instead of page stuffing? Write your pages for your readers. Yes, use the popular keywords on your pages, but don’t repeat them endlessly like mindless drivel. Write engaging and informative pages that use the right keywords and you’ll attract the search engines. Moreover, when a reader gets to the page, your copy will persuade them to take the next step and buy something.
A few years ago, doorway pages were all the rage. Every search marketing “expert” was explaining how to create pages whose sole purpose is to appeal to search engines. The idea was that searchers came from the search engine to your site through a “doorway.” Some called them entry pages, others gateway pages, but the idea was the same. If your page exists only to get search rankings, it’s probably a doorway page.
In a sense, doorway pages are doors that only open “in” because they are not part of the mainstream navigation of your website. Doorway pages link to other pages within your website, but none of your other pages link to them.
Spammers use various techniques to get high search rankings for doorway pages, such as cloaking (which we discussed in our last column), page stuffing, and link spam (which we’ll tackle in our next column). Search engines have tightened up their detection mechanisms to avoid high rankings for doorway pages, but a smart spammer can still slip them through.
What should you do instead of doorway pages? Create search landing pages that are optimized for both search engines and people. Like doorway pages, search landing pages are designed to be the first page a searcher sees on your site when coming from a search engine. Unlike doorway pages, search landing pages are legitimate pages intrinsic to your navigation that are linked both to and from many other pages on your site. In fact, they are designed for people first and for search engines second.
Some paid search landing pages can be legitimately designed to be closer to doorway pages. Because you may want to target many more keywords for paid search than you can optimize for organic search, you can create paid-placement landing pages that are not part of the mainline site navigation – with links leading into the site only. The difference between these pages and doorway pages is they are not being used for organic search at all. (In fact, you should use a robots tag or robots .txt file to block them from organic search.) Because you are not fooling the organic engines with these pages, they are not spam.
For any pages that you want to optimize for organic search, just make sure they are heavily linked into the main navigation path of your site. That will ensure that the search engines treat them as landing pages rather than doorway pages.
Comedian Buddy Hackett joked that his mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it. The search engines’ terms of service (their rules for you to follow) are similar. Search engines decide which techniques are spam and there’s no higher court for an appeal.
Those who engage in content spam run a grave risk of having their sites banned by the search engines. So don’t be reckless. Stick to writing for readers and you won’t go wrong.
That’s it for content spam. In the last part of the three-part series, you’ll bone up on link spam, so that you’ll recognize the tricky link techniques that might fool the search engines.
Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. His books (Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and Do It Wrong Quickly) and his Biznology blog are found at MikeMoran.com.