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BACK TO BASICS: Spam Technique Over the Years and SEO that Lasts

by Bruce Clay, July 31, 2013

Audience: Organic Search Marketers

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes


  • The early days of SEO were like the Wild West, with internet marketing optimizers experimenting to discover what Google would penalize or reward.
  • As awareness of spam grows, those who practice spam are developing new behaviors.
  • If you cheat the system, you will ultimately lose. 

As we look into the future with this month’s SEO Factors & Trends Midyear Report, it’s worth taking a glance back to lessons written in the past. The first Penguin update in April 2012 may have been the most disruptive change to Google’s ranking system that the web had yet seen. But it was just the next in a long line of adjustments Google has made to fight spam over the years.

Google defines spam techniques as those that "don’t benefit users, where the intent is to look for shortcuts or loopholes that would rank pages higher than they deserve to be ranked," as opposed to quality SEO, which Google views as "positive and constructive" as it makes "a site more crawlable" and "individual pages more accessible and easier to find."

Bruce began testing methods for improving search engine rankings based on targeted keywords in 1997. In his nearly two decades of internet marketing optimization, he's seen countless SEO tactics blacklisted by search engines. A long-term understanding has given him a holistic view of the life cycle of spam techniques and their varying degrees of effectiveness. Here, he shares some of his unique insights.

Spam’s Beginnings and Google’s Early Adaptations

When Google started in 1998, search engine spam was in its heyday. For the next four years or so, Google search results consisted of ten blue links.That was when search results were easiest to manipulate. In 2007, Google introduced Universal search results. Since then, Google has progressed through waves of upgrading technology and upgrading sophistication. Google hired people in different areas to detect spam techniques that they had no hope of detecting on first launch. Google now detects spam varieties like keyword stuffing, doorway pages and link farms with ease. But they didn't have an effective spam filter for years.

In the beginning, the rules were basically non-existent. It was like the Wild West. And even when there were rules telling you not to do something, rules were not well-enforced. There wasn't sufficient software to detect spam. When Google launched, everyone was like a blind person groping around in the dark, trying to figure out what would be penalized and what was safe. Everyone during this early era was heavily into research. Everyone was trying to figure out what was acceptable and what was out of bounds because Google wouldn't tell you. Nobody knew.

In the very beginning I was running a lot of experiments. I found that some of the tactics worked and some of them backfired. Some I decided were deceptive and didn't do them, but I had to figure out what was acceptable. You have to be familiar with the zone of acceptance so you know when you're out of bounds. In the Wild West and still today, determine what's going to work and what isn't, what is ethical and what is best for the user.

Where Spam Flourishes 

Effective spam is spam you cannot see. It follows that the hardest type of spam to detect is effective spam because you can't see it. If you can see it, it's not effective and Google can see it, too. A spam technique is not going to be effective if Google has invested years of detection into and is already very aware of that particular type of spam.

When somebody ranks where we believe they shouldn't, they are spamming effectively. Effective spam is spam that gets you rankings you don't deserve. But effective spam is tantamount to effective cheating. If it's cheating, it ultimately won't be effective. 

Google spends a lot of money to fight spam, and therefore no spam should be effective. After so many years of catching spam, Google must have a massive list of types of spam. If Google hasn't seen it yet, chances are it isn't effective.

The areas of the Internet that see the most spam are PPC – pills, porn and casinos. That's where a lot of money is, so that's where a lot of spam is. 

You can also follow the money to see where Google looks to fight spam. Google has become the dominant search engine because of its search index and ranking algorithm. Maintaining the quality of its index is Google's highest priority. Google's investment in maintaining the quality of its index is surely reflected in its budget.

Mainstream Awareness of Spam Today

Cheat the System.jpg

The initial Penguin release had the most significant impact of any spam-fighting action to date.

Penguin came down hard on link spam. We get 200 inquiries for link penalties a month. I think link spam is a far larger problem than anybody knows. It may take years for business sites to clean up their bad links because years were spent building spam links.

The new spam area is social. Likes are the new links, and a lot people are cheating the system. There are actually people building networks of high authority authors and selling posts by those authors with their author tag. Buying author authority like this is a new form of buying links. Don't expect this tactic will be effective for long.

A Long-Term SEO Approach

I felt it was a lot easier to be a friend than an enemy of a search engine. I have always felt that if you cheat the system, you will ultimately lose. You cannot attempt to get into an arms race with Google. You cannot try to fight Google with better spam when Google is spending money fighting spam. Ultimately, you will run out of ammunition. If you do it right, you will never run out. The simple fact is that quality always percolates to the top – cream rises.

This month we’ve released a report on the technologies that are changing the face of search results and marketing trends that you should be aware of to help your business develop a lasting approach to SEO. Download it today.


For permission to reprint or reuse any materials, please contact us. To learn more about our authors, please visit the Bruce Clay Authors page. Copyright © 2013 Bruce Clay, Inc.

For permission to reprint or reuse any materials, please contact us. To learn more about our authors, please visit the Bruce Clay Authors page. Copyright © 2013 Bruce Clay, Inc.