What Is Spam? Why Should My Website Avoid It?

Spammer spams websites on an Apple laptop.
In the SEO world, it seems like we’re always talking about what not to do when it comes to your website and your search engine optimization strategy. And for good reason: Spam can harm a website’s ability to rank and drive traffic and revenue.

Most website publishers aren’t intentionally doing spam (and if they are, it’s not a sustainable tactic). But many websites inadvertently get caught up in spam practices. They are surprised when they can’t seem to rank or fall in the search rankings. Or worse, they might get a manual penalty or be removed from the search engine index.

Google is always fighting to keep spam out of its search results. They even released an updated spam algorithm in June that they called a spam update, putting some brand new technology and a lot of detection smarts in place. So to those inclined to spam, you cannot fly under the radar anymore.

Still, is it possible you could be doing webspam without meaning to? Today I’ll share what spam is and what can happen if you do it as we discuss:

What Is Spam?

Webspam comes in many forms, and its defining quality is an intention to manipulate search engine rankings with deceptive practices. The rule of thumb for spam is: Did you earn your rankings? If not, then it’s probably spam.

People engage in spam practices to boost their own websites (or the websites of their clients) or to negatively impact a competitor’s website (referred to as negative SEO).

Spam has been a huge money maker for a lot of industries over the years (think casinos, porn and pharmaceuticals). Search engines have long had a goal to eradicate these types of sites from their search results.

Google discusses spam further here:

Ever since there have been search engines, there have been people dedicated to tricking their way to the top of the results page. This is bad for searchers because more relevant pages get buried under irrelevant results, and it’s bad for legitimate websites because these sites become harder to find. For these reasons, we’ve been working since the earliest days of Google to fight spammers, helping people find the answers they’re looking for, and helping legitimate websites get traffic from search. …

Our algorithms are extremely good at detecting spam, and in most cases we automatically discover it and remove it from our search results. However, to protect the quality of our index, we’re also willing to take manual action to remove spam from our search results.

This is where things like search engine guidelines come in — a sort of playbook for any website that wants to compete in the search results.

Types of Spam

The quality guidelines within Google’s Webmaster Guidelines give clear instructions on how to avoid common spam tactics. Let’s go through each of those next.

Affiliate Programs

Affiliate programs can be tricky. Google says that “affiliate websites do not provide additional value for web users, especially (but not only) if they are part of a program that distributes its content across a network of affiliates.“ Examples of affiliate websites that would be considered spam include:

  • Pages with product affiliate links on which the product descriptions and reviews are copied directly from the original merchant without any original content or added value.
  • The majority of the site is made for affiliation and contains a limited amount of original content or added value for users.

Google points out that “not every site that participates in an affiliate program is a thin affiliate. Good affiliates add value, for example by offering original product reviews, ratings, navigation of products or categories, and product comparisons.”

Automatically Generated Content

Automatically generated content is content that is created programmatically with the intention of ranking and not providing value to a user. Google gives examples:

  • Text that makes no sense to the reader but which may contain search keywords.
  • Text translated by an automated tool without human review or curation before publishing
  • Text generated through automated processes, such as Markov chains. Note: These are pretty good, but detectable.
  • Text generated using automated synonymizing or obfuscation techniques
  • Text generated from scraping Atom/RSS feeds or search results
  • Stitching or combining content from different web pages without adding sufficient value

Cloaking

Cloaking refers to the practice of serving different content or URLs to search engines vs. users. Cloaking itself is not bad and is used in some normal instances. But when you use it to be deceptive, it’s spam — think: a webpage on baby blankets given to Google but a porn site given to users. This and other cloaking techniques, as illustrated by Google, are spam:

  • Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images to users
  • Inserting text or keywords into a page only when the user agent that’s requesting the page is a search engine, not a human visitor

Doorway Pages

Doorway webpages are those that are created solely for the search engines and stuffed with keywords in an attempt to rank. When a person tries to access these pages, however, they are automatically redirected to another page. Google’s examples include:

  • Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
  • Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)
  • Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browsable hierarchy

Hidden Text and Links

Do not hide text or links on a webpage. Hidden text or links on a page are a form of spam. Google gives examples of this:

  • Using white text on a white background
  • Locating text behind an image
  • Using CSS to position text off-screen
  • Setting the font size to 0
  • Hiding a link by only linking one small character—for example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph

Irrelevant Keywords

Here, Google is referring to “keyword stuffing,” where a website puts way too many keywords on a page in an unnatural way to attempt to manipulate rankings. Google gives examples:

  • Lists of phone numbers without substantial added value
  • Blocks of text that list cities and states that a webpage is trying to rank for
  • Repeating the same words or phrases so often that it sounds unnatural, for example:
    We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at custom.cigar.humidors@example.com.

Link Schemes

There are a lot of ways that people try to be deceptive with links, so Google goes into great detail about link spam. Links to and from a site that are intended to manipulate rankings are considered link schemes. Google gives examples:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes:
    Exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links
    Exchanging goods or services for links
    Sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
  • Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link, should they wish.

Unnatural links also fall into the link scheme category of spam. Google gives examples:

  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
  • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example:
    There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites, for example:
    Visitors to this page: 1,472
    car insurance
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
  • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature, for example:
    Thanks, that’s great info!
    – Paul
    paul’s pizza san diego pizza best pizza san diego

Google explains that some paid links are OK, but they should be clearly marked as such. After all, advertising is a normal part of the internet economy. Seeking to boost your site authority through followed links, however, should not be done through buying or selling — that’s spam.

Pages with Malicious Behavior

This is referring to any practice that attempts to harm the end user. Google gives examples of pages with malicious behavior:

  • Changing or manipulating the location of content on a page, so that when a user thinks they’re clicking on a particular link or button the click is actually registered by a different part of the page
  • Injecting new ads or pop-ups on pages, or swapping out existing ads on a webpage with different ads; or promoting or installing software that does so
  • Including unwanted files in a download that a user requested
  • Installing malware, trojans, spyware, ads or viruses on a user’s computer
  • Changing a user’s browser homepage or search preferences without the user’s informed consent

Scraped Content

Taking content from other websites and putting it on your own site is considered spam. Google gives examples:

  • Sites that copy and republish content from other sites without adding any original content or value
  • Sites that copy content from other sites, modify it slightly (for example, by substituting synonyms or using automated techniques), and republish it
  • Sites that reproduce content feeds from other sites without providing some type of unique organization or benefit to the user
  • Sites dedicated to embedding content such as video, images, or other media from other sites without substantial added value to the user

This is not to be confused with duplicate content that happens on your own website as a result of sharing the same or similar content between webpages.

Sneaky Redirects

Sneaky redirects direct a website visitor to a different URL than they had originally intended to visit. Google gives examples:

  • Search engines shown one type of content while users are redirected to something significantly different.
  • Desktop users receive a normal page, while mobile users are redirected to a completely different spam domain.

User-Generated Spam

User-generated spam can happen as a result of other people’s actions against your site. Google’s examples include:

  • Spammy accounts on free hosts
  • Spammy posts on forum threads
  • Comment spam on blogs

In most cases, Google will not issue a manual action. But, it is up to the site owner to monitor and take care of it in case it does result in a penalty. Google gives ways to prevent comment spam here.

The Cost of Spam

From an SEO perspective, there are two possible negative consequences of spam:

  • Spam is detected and taken care of via the search engine algorithm.
  • Spam is detected by a human reviewer and a manual action (penalty) is issued on the site.

In either case, engaging in spam can result in lost rankings and traffic. And, in some cases, a site can be removed from the index altogether (this consequence is reserved for manual actions).

What comes next is figuring out how to remedy your site. With manual actions, it can be a little easier because you will get a message from Google citing the problem. Even then, the message may not necessarily point you to the specific thing you need to fix.

(Related: What Is a Google Penalty and How Do I Avoid It?)

Take this example of a manual action message I cited in an article I wrote on guest posting:

Manual action message from Google, originally published on Search Engine Journal.
Manual action message from Google, originally published on Search Engine Journal

If it’s an algorithmic update where many changes are made at the same time, you have to really put your detective hat on.

Sure, we get notifications from Google sometimes when these updates happen (or you can use SEO tools to try and track these types of changes), but you still have work to do. What was it that caused a drop in rankings or traffic?

One thing you have to be aware of is not to make changes to the site too quickly in an algorithm situation. As Google rolls out changes to the algorithm, you might see traffic going up one day or week and down the next.

Instead, take a deep breath and let things shake out for a few days. Start researching online — what are people in the SEO industry saying about the update? What is your intuition about what needs to be changed on the site? Do your diligence and then get to work.

Final Thoughts

Legitimate websites are not spam, but they can get into spam without really knowing it. For example, if website owners hire a cheap SEO service, they can get themselves into a lot of trouble — particularly when it comes to links.

Knowing what spam actually is in the SEO world will help you be better prepared to know what not to do, and to diagnose your site if you notice it has lost rankings or traffic.

If you suspect your site might be caught in spam, you may need expert help. We’ve helped many companies in this situation recover. Contact us today for a free quote and consultation.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay, Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn and other social networks from Bruce's author page.
Comments (4)
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4 Replies to “What Is Spam? Why Should My Website Avoid It?”

What are your thoughts on plagiarism? I think it is also a type of spam. What are the best tools you suggest to check plagiarism?

Robert Stefanski

Hi Indresh,

Plagiarism is a form of scraped content, which can be viewed as a type of spam. We have two recommendations to check for plagiarism:

  1. Exact-match search: Copy a long text snippet from your page and search for it within quotation marks in Google.
  2. Copyscape: This free plagiarism detection service can help you identify instances of content theft.

You can read more about addressing plagiarism in our SEO Guide: https://www.bruceclay.com/seo/technical-seo-tips/.

Hope this helps!

If you suspect your site might have thin content try adding adsense to it. Google will reject it and give the reason as thin content. It’s an interesting test to see how much content you need to add. Probably not a great way to build a high quality site but it does allow you to find the bare minimum line. You can turn adsense off once the site is approved.

Thanks for sharing this great article on Spam, its very informative.

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