Dealing With Spam In Today’s Search

Aaron Wall Posted by

Sigh, not this again. 😉 Recently Rand highlighted his surprise at how prevalent search spam is. But the big issue with search today is not the existence of spam, but how it is dealt with. For a long period of time Google spent much of their resources fighting spam manually. That worked when spammers were sorta poor and one hit wonders fighting on the edge of the web & few people knew how search worked. But as technology advances & “spammers” keep building a bigger stock of capital eventually Google loses the manual game.

Search engines concede the importance of SEO. It is now officially mainstream.

  • Both Google and Microsoft offer SEO guides.
  • Microsoft and Yahoo! have in-house SEO teams.
  • Yahoo! purchased a content mill.
  • Microsoft’s update email about powering Yahoo! search results later this week contained “After this organic transition is complete, Bing will power 5.2 billion monthly searches, which is 31.6 percent of the search market share in the United States and 8.6 percent share in Canada. You can take advantage of this traffic by using search engine optimization (SEO) to complement your search campaigns and boost the visibility of your business.”

Sure you will still see some media reports about the “dark arts” of SEO, but that is mainly because they prefer publishing ignorant pablum to drive more page views, as self-survival is their first objective. Some of the same media companies alerting us of the horrors of SEOs have in-house SEO teams that call me for SEO consultations.

A Google engineer highlighted this piece by submitting it to Hacker News, using this as the title “sufficiently advanced spam is indistinguishable from content.” We tend to over-estimate end users. If most people don’t realize something is spam then to them it isn’t. If the search engineers have a hard time telling if a blog is ESL or auto-generated, how is a typical web user going to distinguish the difference?

Some SEO professionals have huge networks of websites and are 8 or 9 figures flush in capital. They can afford to simply buy marketshare in any market they want to enter. Burn one of their sites and they get better at covering their tracks as they buy 5 more. At the same time the media companies are partnering with content mills & the leading content mill filed for an IPO where they are hoping for a $1.5 billion valuation.

Why does one form of garbage deserve to rank when another doesn’t? If link buying is bad, then why did Google invest in Viglink? If link buying is so bad then is lying for links any better? If so, how?

How exactly can Google stop the move toward spam in a capitalistic market where domains can be registered with privacy and marketers can always rent an expert to speak for the brand? Is a celebrity endorsement which yields publicity spam? How can Google speak out against spam when they beta test search results that are 100% Google ads?

Wherever possible, Google is trying to replace part of the “organic” search results with another set of Google vertical results. If Google can roughly match relevancy while gaining further control over the traffic they will. Just look at how hard it is to get to the publisher site if you use Google image search. And Google is rumored to be buying, which will make image search far more profitable for Google.

As Google continues to try to suck additional yield out of the search results, I believe they are moving away from demoting spam (due to the point of diminishing returns & risks associated with demoting what they themselves do creating anti-trust issues). Instead of looking for what to demote, they are now shifting toward trying to find more data/signals to promote quality from.

The issue with manual intervention (rather than algorithmic advancements) is that it warps the web to promote large beaurocratic enterprises that are highly inefficient. That is ok in the short run, but in the long run it leaves search as a watered down experience. One lacking in flavor and variety. One which is boring.

Google is going to get x% of online ad revenues and y% of GDP. In the long run, them promoting inefficient organizations doesn’t make the web (or search) any more stable. They need to push toward the creation of more efficient and more profitable media enterprises. Purchases of ITA Software and Metawebs allow Google to attack some of the broader queries and gain more influence over the second click in the traffic stream. Business models which are efficient grow, whereas inefficient ones are driven into bankruptcy.

As Paul Graham has highlighted, we might be moving away from a society dominated by large organizations to ones where more individuals are self-employed (or who work for smaller organizations). We hire about a dozen people, but they are sorta bucketed into separate clusters. Some work on SEO Book, some blog, some help create featured content, some help with marketing, etc. etc. etc. The net result of our efficient little enterprise is pushing terabytes of web traffic each month. Would you describe the site you are currently reading as being “spam” simply because it is efficient & profitable? Would a site that took VC capital and was less efficient be any more proper? How much less interesting is the average big media article on the field of SEO?

If a search engine gets too aggressive with penalizing “spam” then tanking competitors becomes a quite profitable business model. If they are to focus on what to demote search engineers need to figure out who is doing what AND who did it. Thus the role of SEO today is not to remain “spam free” (whatever that is) but to create enough signals of quality that you earn the benefit of the doubt. This protects you from the whims of search engineers, algorithmic updates, and attempts at competitive sabotage.

You can future-proof your SEO strategy to the point where your site never loses traffic because it never ranked! Or you can get in the game and keep building in terms of quantity and quality. If lower quality stuff is all that is typically profitable in a particular market then it isn’t hard to stand out by starting out with a small high-quality website. That attempt to stand out might not be profitable, but it might give you a platform to test from. After all, Demand Media purchased to throw up their “quality content” on.

Online the concept of meritocracy is largely a farce. Which is precisely why large search companies are willing to buy content mills. If search engines want to promote meritocracy they should focus more on rewarding individual efforts, though that might have a lower yield, and some people prefer to stay anonymous given competitive threats from outing AND some of the creepy ways online ad networks harvest their data to target them.

What does the lack of meritocracy mean for marketers? If you are a marketer you need to be aggressive at marketing your wares or someone with inferior product will out-market you and steal marketshare from you.

Will someone consider your site spam?


But they will have worse rankings than you do!


About the Author: Aaron Wall is the author of SEO Book, a dynamic website offering marketing tips and coverage of the search space, free SEO videos, and free SEO tools. He is a regular conference speaker, partner in Clientside SEM, and publishes dozens of independent websites.

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