Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SEO Link Spam - What Is It and Who's to Blame?

Over the years, unscrupulous black hat SEO scammers have used a variety of tricks—keyword stuffing, link farms, white text and others—to try to manipulate search results, and the algorithms used by Google, Yahoo and the other search engines have evolved to identify and squelch the effectiveness of such nefarious tactics.

A more vexing issue for the search engines is dealing with link spam, not only because it is difficult to detect and address algorithmically, but because there isn't even a clear definition. As a website owner, the term represents emails like this:

Dear webmaster,

As a part of ongoing campaign to increase the Link Popularity of My website I am looking for some good potential sites like yours. I review your site and find that, in SEO perspective your site is Perfect. Also, this would be a great resource for my visitors too.

I would request you to consider listing my site.

Title:- My Spammy Website
URL:- http://www.indiaspamforyou.com
Description:- miracle weight loss, make big money working from home, the usual crap

Thank you very much for your time and web support. I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Best Regards,
Obviously Fictitious Name
Linking Expert
Email:- temporaryaddress@hotmail.com

Note: This is not spam mail. If you think it is not appropriate for you, just send me reply with "Unsubscribe" as subject. If you are not the concerned person to handle this mail then please forward it to your "Webmaster."
Grrr. My universal reply to such emails is to respond with a link to The Wrong Way to Build External Links for SEO. The vast majority ignore this. They are spammers after all.

As a site owner, I find these emails annoying. As an SEO consultant, I find them offensive as they make our profession look cheap, tawdry and sleazy. As a consumer, I would never do any business with any enterprise that hired one of these cretins.

This is not to be confused with valid link building efforts, of course. I'm happy to link to anyone who has a valid business with a real product or service, addresses me by name (easy to find on my website and not "webmaster') and has a real return email address.

The challenge for search engines is that they aren't privy to those emails. And the final result of a link spam campaign—links from various sites with a mix of one-way, three-way and reciprocal—is often indistinguishable from a reputable link-building program.

SEO guru David Harry suggests a different definition of link spam in this post about the search engines attempting to detect link spam through search marketing forums. As David writes, search engines may start using:
"'An anti-spam technique for protecting search engine ranking is based on mining search engine optimization (SEO) forums. The anti-spam technique collects webpages such as SEO forum posts from a list of suspect spam websites, and extracts suspicious link exchange URLs and corresponding link formation from the collected webpages...A search engine ranking penalty is then applied to the suspicious link exchange URLs. The penalty is at least partially determined by the link information associated with the respective suspicious link exchange URL. To detect more suspicious link exchange URLs, the technique may propagate one or more levels from a seed set of suspicious link exchange URLs generated by mining SEO forums.' That last part is interesting as they move from the forum, to suspect URLs and then analyze the link profiles of those sites to possibly find other reciprocal manipulations. That means if you’re doing recips with a webmaster that is dumb enough to post them on an SEO board you might be penalized by association."
In this case, link spammers are sort of a self-contained group of nefarious lowlifes who host, identify and utilize sites willing to engage in spammy link trading or selling.

A final definition comes from social bookmarking site Linkatopia:
"Link spammers post links to their own web pages on as many other sites as possible in order to increase their rank in search engines. They create multiple accounts with the same links by using disposable email addresses. They generally do not care about any of the communities they post to and simply take advantage of free sites like Linkatopia. These are not useful or enjoyable links. They are pages that try to sell you something, and in many cases give misleading information."
One has to sympathize a bit here. It's frustrating, for example, to check out the Technology of Business section of your favorite social bookmarking site and see nothing but a bunch of links to discount Vi*gra, Acai berry weight loss and similar crap. Bad for users, bad for the host site.

On the other hand, social media sites are in every SEO's toolbox. There is nothing inherently wrong with linking to content on a valid commercial website within the appropriate category on a social bookmarking site. HubSpot includes social media links as part of the SEO grade in its Website Grader tool. Some social bookmarking sites even promote the SEO value of deep-linking from their sites (no, I won't identify any specifically, I know when to STFU).

So what exactly constitutes social media link spam? The quality of the site being linked to? That seems rather subjective. The number of links submitted to different pages on the same site? If so, what number is okay, and what value crosses the line into spamming?

Whatever your definition, link spamming is bad. I'd hate to see the definition drawn so broadly as to make nearly every SEO consultant guilty of it.

What do you think?

*****


Contact Tom Pick: tomATwebmarketcentralDOTcom

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