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Posted: 09 Mar 2011 02:55 PM PST
Content spamming, in its simplest form, is the taking of content from other sites that rank well on the search engines, and then either using it as-it-is or using a utility software like Articlebot to scramble the content to the point that it can't be detected with plagiarism software. In either case, your good, search-engine-friendly content is stolen and used, often as part of a doorway page, to draw the attention of the search engines away from you.
Everyone has seen examples of this: the page that looks promising but contains lists of terms (like term – term paper – term papers – term limits) that link to other similar lists, each carrying Google advertising. Or the site that contains nothing but content licensed from Wikipedia. Or the site that plays well in a search but contains nothing more than SEO gibberish, often ripped off from the site of an expert and minced into word slaw.
These sites are created en masse to provide a fertile ground to draw eyeballs. It seems a waste of time when you receive a penny a view for even the best-paying ads – but when you put up five hundred sites at a time, and you've figured out how to get all of them to show up on the first page or two of a lucrative Google search term, it can be surprisingly profitable.
The losers are the people who click on these pages, thinking that there is content of worth on these sites – and you. Your places are stolen from the top ten by these spammers. Google is working hard to lock them out, but there is more that you can do to help Google.
Using The Antispam Tag
But there is another loser. One of the strengths of the Internet is that it allows for two-way public communication on a scale never seen before. You post a blog, or set up a wiki; your audience comments on your blog, or adds and changes your wiki.
The problem? While you have complete control over a website and its contents in the normal way of things, sites that allow for user communication remove this complete control from you and give it to your readers. There is no way to prevent readers of an open blog from posting unwanted links, except for manually removing them. Even then, links can be hidden in commas or periods, making it nearly impossible to catch everything.
This leaves you open to the accusation of link spam – for links you never put out there to begin with. And while you may police the most recent several blogs you've posted, no one polices the ones from several years ago. Yet Google still looks at them and indexes them. By 2002, bloggers everywhere were begging Google for an ignore tag of some sort to prevent its spiders from indexing comment areas.
Not only, they said, would bloggers be grateful; everyone with two-way uncontrolled communication – wikis, forums, guest books – needed this service from Google. Each of these types of sites has been inundated with spam at some point, forcing some to shut down completely. And Google itself needed it to help prevent the rampant spam in the industry.
In 2005, Google finally responded to these concerns. Though their solution is not everything the online community wanted (for instance, it leads to potentially good content being ignored as well as spam), it does at least allow you to section out the parts of your blog that are public. It is the "nofollow" attribute.
"Nofollow" allows you to mark a portion of your web page, whether you're running a blog or you want to section out paid advertising, as an area that Google spiders should ignore. The great thing about it is that not only does it keep your rankings from suffering from spam, it also discourages spammers from wasting your valuable comments section with their junk text.
The most basic part of this attribute involves embedding it into a hyperlink as . This allows you to manually flag links, such as those embedded in paid advertising, as links Google spiders should ignore. But what if the content is user-generated? It's still a problem because you certainly don't have time to go through and mark all those links up.
Fortunately, blogging systems have been sensitive to this new development. Whether you use Wordpress or another blogging system, most have implemented either automated "nofollow" links in their comment sections, or have issued plugins you can implement yourself to prevent this sort of spamming.
This does not solve every problem. But it's a great start. Be certain you know how your user-generated content system provides this service to you. In most cases, a software update will implement this change for you.
Is This Spamming And Will Google Block Me?
There's another problem with the spamming crowd. When you're fighting search engine spam and start seeing the different forms it can take – and, disturbingly, realizing that some of your techniques for your legitimate site are similar – you have to wonder: Will Google block me for my search engine optimization techniques?
This happened recently to BMW's corporate site. Their webmaster, dissatisfied with the dealership's position when web users searched for several terms (such as "new car"), created and posted a gateway page – a page optimized with text that then redirects searchers to an often graphics-heavy page.
Google found it and, rightly or wrongly, promptly dropped their page rank manually to zero. For weeks, searches for their site turned up plenty of spam and dozens of news stories – but to find their actual site, it was necessary to drop to the bottom of the search, not easy to do in Googleworld.
This is why you really need to understand what Google counts as search engine spam, and adhere to their restrictions even if everyone else doesn't. Never create a gateway page, particularly one with spammish data. Instead, use legitimate techniques like image alternate text and actual text in your page. Look for ways to get other pages to point to your site – article submission, for instance, or directory submission. And keep your content fresh, always.
While duplicated text is often a sign of serious spammage, the Google engineers realize two things: first, the original text is probably still out there somewhere, and it's unfair to drop that person's rankings along with those who stole it from them; and second, certain types of duplicated text, like articles or blog entries, are to be expected.
Their answer to the first issue is to credit the site first catalogued with a particular text as the creator, and to drop sites obviously spammed from that one down a rank. The other issue is addressed by looking at other data around the questionable data; if the entire site appears to be spammed, it, too, is dropped. Provided you are not duplicating text on many websites to fraudulently increase your ranking, you're safe. Ask yourself: are you using the same content on several sites registered to you in order to maximize your chances of being read? If the answer is yes, this is a bad idea and will be classified as spamdexing. If your content would not be useful to the average Internet surfer, it is also likely to be classed as spamdexing.
There is a very thin line between search engine optimization and spamdexing. You should become very familiar with it. Start with understanding hidden/invisible text, keyword stuffing, metatag stuffing, gateway pages, and scraper sites.
Posted: 09 Mar 2011 03:27 AM PST
By now you've surely heard of the recent Google algorithm changes dubbed the "Farmer Update."
According to Google, about 12% of search queries were impacted by this update. The SISTRIX blog provided additional insight by posting the top 25 websites that overnight stopped showing up inGoogle for numerous keywords. I was interested in learning about this update, and SISTRIX was kind enough to share their big list of over 300 sites that have had deep traffíc losses. In addition, I've had various people send me their sites to look at.
I hoped to analyze the data to spot similarities between the sites that got hit so that I could understand the specific factors Google used when deciding which pages to nuke. As you can imagine, there was a lot of data to sort through and I feel as if I've only just gotten started. However, I do have some preliminary findings to share with you as quickly as possible.
Please note that just because I noticed similar things on sites that got hit, it doesn't mean those things were the cause of the loss of Google traffic. It's far too easy to make assumptions and mix up cause and effect in nearly every aspect of SEO. So I caution you to treat the information I'm providing, as what it is -- preliminary findings that make me go "Hmmm." Also note that I've barely had enough time to look at the potential on-page factors that might be causing issues, and haven't even started to look at the off-page links that are pointing to these sites. Because we know that links and anchor text are Google's main squeeze, my on-page analysis could very well be completely off base.
With that caveat out of the way, below are some of the interesting things I noticed that made me go hmmm...with the small set of sites I've looked at so far.
One surprise finding, which may or may not relate to the loss of Google traffic, was that many of the sites had content that was behind tabs, and not visible all at once to someone using a typical browser. It's possible that this type of design element is so common on websites these days that many sites from a random sampling would also be using it, but it definitely struck me as odd. What made it especially interesting was that most of the sites using the tabs had a very large amount of content contained within them. With tabs such as these, a person only sees the content in one tab at a time, while Google sees all the content from all of the tabs, as if it were contained on one page. (Technically it is, because it's all one URL.) In many cases all the tabbed content put together added up to thousands of words, and often hundreds of links as well.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with using tabs this way (and many sites are currently using the technique), some cases might trigger red flags.
There are many different coding methods to "hide" content behind tabs. The code on two of the sites I reviewed that had lost Google traffic were using different methods. One had this code: "display: none; visibility: hidden;" and the other had this: "overflow: hidden;".
Why Google might not like it: Each site was using their tabs for different reasons, and I doubt that the "visibility: hidden," in and of itself, caused Google to no longer like those pages. But perhaps Google took issue with the extremely long pages of content because they might appear to be less user-friendly (if Google didn't realize that the content is tabbed). In addition, the numerous extra links in some of the tabs might appear to go overboard.
In one instance, I set my default browser to Googlebot and tried to browse a page that was using tabs with tons of content behind them, but I got an error message that the page couldn't be viewed at all. The error seemed to have something to do with a very strange, hidden ad link contained in the tabbed content.
In another case of semi-hidden content, the pages were designed in a way that is very cool and easy to use for people, but all the content from the various hidden areas, when viewed on one long page as Google saw it, ends up looking like a disgusting keyword-stuffed mess! I have no idea if the site was purposely designed to stuff keywords in that way or not, but before the Farmer Update it was apparently working for them.
Completely Hidden Content
Another common finding between some of the sites I reviewed was having the real "meat" of the site behind a registration wall. While there would be some keyword-rich content on the page in question, you couldn't read the whole article unless you registered for it. Google hasn't ever been a fan of that, and even offers their "First Click Free" program so that content publishers who require registration to read their articles can still get their content indexed. But the site must show the entire piece of content to people who have not registered if they got to it from a Google search. The sites I reviewed were not using the First Clíck Free approach.
Why Google might not like it: They believe that if you want your content indexed, you should play by their rules, which in this case is the First Click Free rule. They probably also believe that a page with just a summary of information related to the searcher's query is likely not the best page for the user to land on. So it doesn't surprise me that those types of pages may have been hit in the Farmer Update.
Merry-Go-Round Sites Containing Mostly Ads or Links
Interestingly, I recognized one of the sites on the big SITRIX list as one I had done a website review for last year. I have to say that it was one of the craziest sites I had ever seen, and I was shocked that Google was even showing it highly in the search results. So when I saw it got nuked big-time by Farmer Google, I wasn't surprised. I noticed some similarities between that site and a few of the others that got nailed -- mostly that you felt you were going round and round in circles as you tried to find the information you were originally seeking at Google.
Here's what happens on this type of site: You get to a page that uses the keywords you typed into Google, only to find that you need to click a link on that page to really get the information. But when you click that page, you either end up at another site, or on another page on the same site -- and you still don't quite have the info you wanted. It seems that you could keep clicking that way forever and don't ever find what you were looking for. Yet you always have the feeling it is you doing something wrong, not that the site simply sucks wind. (Of course, the pages are also always full of Google AdSense and other ads.)
Similar to the merry-go-round sites, others I reviewed were simply aggregating others' content in one way or another. In many cases, it would make sense for Google to just show the original site (or sites) rather than a page with a list of sites -- especially when the list of links is actually just running an ad platform that appears to be links.
One site was a niche comparison site, which seemed okay on the surface. But I found that when I browsed to a particular product and then tried to view it on the website that was listed as the cheapest, in many cases I was brought to either the home page of said site or a page that contained a product similar to the one I was looking at, but not the exact one. Ugh.
Why Google might not like it: Google stated that part of this update was to improve the quality of the results their searchers were receiving. All of the above types of sites have numerous pages that meet the "poor quality" label, assuming anybody ever paid attention. In these cases, I can see where it makes sense for Google to show the pages being linked to directly in their search results, rather than the page that's doing the linking.
So there you have it -- my first impressions from a very small sample of sites.
What You Should Watch Out For
With everything I've seen, the consistent themes seem to be usability and the intent of the page in question. I can't say how Google is technically figuring out intent, but they appear to be going after pages that might frustrate users. Google's goal is to satisfy the search query of their user -- the searcher. Their goal is not to provide their searcher with pages that link to the pages, that link to the other pages, that satisfy the original search.
With all that said, after writing up my findings, I also looked at some of the new Google results, and, sadly, there are some even worse pages that show! In one case, the site I was reviewing, while not satisfying the search query itself (other than having the search words on the page), was beat out by a pathetic little made-for-AdSense site that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. How that one survived the Farmer Update, I'll won't ever know.
It's key to remember that this update is most likely just the beginning. About the only thing I'm sure of at the moment is that Google still has a lot of tweaking to do over the next few months to truly sort things out.
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