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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 Viagra, 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 Mike Bannan: Mike@digitalrdm.com

Comments

Dave said…
Hi Tom, Dave here... (thanks for the mention)

It really is odd in this day-and-age that we still get these pathetic link exchange emails (or that SEOs are doing them in general). With the rise of social media, getting the contet out there (in hopes of links) is easier than it has ever been (as is link building).

As for the 'definition of link spam' with the engines it's pretty clear...any link developed that wasn't organic. We're the bad guys don't ya know? But they do humour us :0)

With social media, I'd say the spammers are those that post little of value and Tweet their own links over and over... that's generally unlikely to generate secondary links, which is the goal with SM ... IMHO...

All in all ... a nice rant though... Not sure the sad-sack SEOs will listen.. but always nice to get it out of one's system!

Have a great week and thanks for the heads up!
Tom Pick said…
David -

Thanks for the positive feedback, but ouch! By that definition, any SEO who does link building is guilty. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Thank you also for the inspiring and education post, well worth linking!

Tom
Beirut said…
Hi Tom...

I really enjoyed your post.

I just have one thing to say to Dave...

Dear Dave, what you said about "With social media, I'd say the spammers are those that post little of value and Tweet their own links over and over... that's generally unlikely to generate secondary links, which is the goal with SM" I would have to greatly agree with it for one reason: So many people tweet their own links in addition to other valuable tweets and get great RTs and blog visits while other might not tweet anything valuable yet get many blog visits just for their "influencer" status.

In social media, there is no black and white, right or wrong..

Through my Twitter experience I was able to find that you can limit Twitter spam http://bit.ly/ToF9y and at the same time, you can highly benefit from Twitter for getting different types of advice and links http://bit.ly/nJOYn

It's all about how well you play your cards without being intrusive!

All the best to you both.

regards,

Beirut
Lee Odden said…
Great post Tom.

I agree with David.

In the end, the link either helps users or it does not. For SEO and marketing purposes, it should help users first and SEO outcomes second.
Tom Pick said…
Lee --

Thanks very much for the comment. I agree with you and David philosophically, but I still think we're left with an "eye of the beholder" problem.

Let's say I post links to two SEO tool sites on Digg. One is paying me, so I'm trying to link for SEO benefit. The other is just a site that I think is cool and want to share. Let's say further that you find value in both links, while David views both links as spammy.

Neither Digg nor Google have any way of knowing my intentions, or your reactions (unless you comment/tag my link, which the vast majority of Diggers won't bother to do).

That seems to me to remain the gray area of link spam.
There is no point of using black hat SEO because it is ineffective and risky.
Thanks for the post. Its worth. I want to know how to remove the spam links for the wesbsite.
Tom Pick said…
On your own site, moderate comments and check out every link. On social media sites, there is often a mechanism to vote content up (keep) or down (delete).

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