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BACK TO BASICS: Web Spam Tactics for Search Marketers to Avoid

By Katie Wertz, February 17, 2009

You might have experienced this during the holiday season: a perfectly innocent meat and cheese tray is sitting, beautifully arranged on a doily, waiting for guests to come and sample its wares. But upon closer inspection, there is one corner which features an incongruous-looking deli meat, hiding next to the pepper jack cheese. When you sample it, you know that this is no gourmet deli treat. This mystery meat is spam. Suddenly, the deli tray is no longer appetizing, so you move on to the veggie tray.

Search engine spam has the same effect on Web sites that those slices of dressed-up meat spam had on that deli tray. No matter what else is on there, spam is automatically going to be frowned upon by the other SEOs in the room, and the search engines are going to come after it to make sure the entire platter stays in the kitchen and away from the other guests. Spam isn't search engine optimization (SEO) but it certainly tries to pass itself off that way.

Don't be That Guy

You know That Guy at parties. The one that shows up at a party and tries to pass off someone else's casserole as his own. Basically, he don't want to go out of his way or spend the money to do it himself. He wants to ride someone else's coattails or hide just how cheap he is. In SEO, such behavior is akin to spam. Search engine optimization is serving your guests a deli tray and clearly labeling what each and every slice of meat or cheese is on there. Spam is mislabeling everything and then feigning innocence. Don't be That Guy.

It Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

Search engine spam is different than email spam. Email spam asks you to send money to help out deposed Nigerian princes or to invest in questionable pharmaceuticals. The spam in search engines is there to deliberately manipulate the search engine into ranking their pages as relevant content by using unethical methods.

Hidden Text and Links

One of the most obvious tricks of spamming is hiding text and links in the site itself. This includes putting white text and links on a white background so that renders it invisible to the user. Another trick is using CSS to hide text, links or content by covering it with a layer so that they're not visible. You can also hide text by positioning content off the page's view altogether.

Doorway Pages

A doorway page is a Web page designed to trick a search engine into ranking a page on a site which doesn't have anything to do with that keyword. Doorway pages are there to spam the search engine index by cramming it full of relevant keywords and phrases so that it appears high on the results page for a particular keyword, but when the user clicks on it they are automatically redirected to another site that doesn't have any relevance.

Deceptive Redirection

Deceptive redirection is a type of coded command that redirects the user to a different location than what was intended via the link that was clicked upon. Spammers will create shadow page/domains that have content that ranks for a particular search query, yet when you attempt to access the content on the domain you are then redirected to a different site that contains something like porn or gambling. Often used in conjunction with doorway pages, this bait and switch usually leads to users blaming the search engine instead of the spammer.


Cloaking is a technique in which the content presented to the search engine spider is different to that presented to the user's browser. When a user is identified as a search engine spider, a server-side script delivers a different version of the web page, one that contains content not present on the visible page. The purpose of cloaking is to deceive search engines so they display the page when it would not otherwise be displayed.

Unrelated Keywords

A form of spam that involves using a keyword that is not related to the image, video, or other content that it is supposed to be describing in the hopes of driving up traffic. Examples include: putting unrelated keywords into the ALT attribute text of an image, placing them in the Meta data of a video or in the Meta tags of a page, and any time an unrelated keyword is used. Ever done a search on YouTube and found videos that have nothing to do with the keywords? Welcome to unrelated keyword spamming 101.

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing happens with the over-use of keywords on a page in the hopes of bettering the page's search engine ranking through increased keyword density. This can happen in the Meta data, ALT attribute text, and within the content of the page itself. It's basically going to your ALT attribute text for an image of gouda and typing nothing but "cheese" over and over again. Here's a hint, saying something a hundred times doesn't make it more relevant if you've stopped making sense.

Link Farms

A link farm is any group of Web sites that hyperlink to all the other sites in the group. Most link farms are created through automated programs and services. Search engines have combated link farms by identifying specific attributes that link farms use and filtering them from the index and search results, including removing entire domains to keep them from influencing the results page.

Let the Party Know!

The search engines want you to report spam, especially Google. Google has very stringent SEO guidelines when it comes to spam. To quote their Web page on reporting search engine spam:

"We work hard to return the most relevant results for every search we conduct. To that end, we encourage site managers to make their content straightforward and easily understood by users and search engines alike.Violating our Webmaster Guidelines by means such as hidden text, deceptive cloaking or doorway pages compromises the quality of our results and degrades the search experience for everyone."

Reporting a spam site is easy. The search engines have all have either sites or email addresses where you can report search engine optimization spam techniques:

  • Google through or at the above linked page
  • Yahoo! through
  • Microsoft Live Search through
  • Ask through

If you do run across a site that contains any of the things talked about in this article, you can file a report with any of the search engines.

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