Wednesday, January 18, 2006

15 Shades of SEO Spam

Spam, in almost any form, is somehow bad for your health. The vast majority of web users would agree with that statement and nobody would even think of the finely processed luncheon meat-product made by Hormel. Even the word itself is infectious in all the worst ways, being used to describe the dark-side and often deceptive side of everything from Email marketing to abusive forum behaviour. In the search engine optimization field, Spam is used to describe techniques and tactics thought to be banned by search engines or to be unethical business practices.While writing copy for our soon to be revised website, the team put together a short list of the most outrageous forms of Spam we had seen in the last year and a short explanation of the technique.Please note, we do not encourage, endorse or suggest the use of any of the techniques listed here.

We don't use them and our clients' sites continue to rank well at Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask. It is also worth noting Google has been the dominant search engine for almost five years. Most of the spammy tricks evolved in order to game Google and might not apply to the other engines.

1. Cloaking
Also known as "stealth(ing)", cloaking is a technique that involves serving or feeding one set of information to known search engine spiders or agents while displaying a different set of information on documents viewed by general visitors. While there are unique situations in which the use of cloaking might be considered ethical in the day-to-day practice of SEO, cloaking is never required. This is especially true after the Jagger algorithm update at Google, which uses document and link histories as important ranking factors.

2. IP Delivery
IP delivery is a simple form of cloaking in which a unique set of information is served based on the IP number the info-query originated from. IP addresses known to be search engine based are served one set of information while unrecognized IP addresses, (assumed to be live-visitors) are served another.

3. Leader Pages
Leader pages are a series of similar documents each designed to meet requirements of different search engine algorithms. This is one of the original SEO tricks dating back to the earliest days of search when there were almost a dozen leading search engines sorting less than a billion documents. It is considered SPAM by the major search engines as they see multiple incidents of what is virtually the same document. Aside from that, the technique is no longer practical as search engines consider a far wider range of factors than the arrangement or density of keywords found in unique documents.

4. Mini-Site networks
Designed to exploit a critical vulnerability in early versions of Google's PageRank algorithm, mini-site networks were very much like leader pages except they tended to be much bigger. The establishment of a mini-site network involved the creation of several topic or product related sites all linking back to a central sales site. Each mini-site would have its own keyword enriched URL and be designed to meet specific requirements of each major search engine. Often they could be enlarged by adding information from leader pages. By weaving webs of links between mini-sites, an artificial link-density was created that could heavily influence Google's perception of the importance of the main site.
In the summer of 2004, Google penalized several prominent SEO and SEM firms for using this technique by banning their entire client lists.

5. Link Farms
Link farms emerged as free-for-all link depositories when webmasters learned how heavily incoming links influenced Google. Google, in turn, quickly devalued and eventually eliminated the PR value it assigned to pages with an inordinate collection or number of links. Nevertheless, link farms persist as uninformed webmasters and unethical SEO firms continue to use them.

6. Blog and/or Forum SpamBlogs and forums are amazing and essential communication technologies, both of which are used heavily in the daily conduct of our business. As with other Internet based media, blogs and forum posts are easily and often proliferated. In some cases, blogs and certain forums also have established high PR values for their documents. These two factors make them targets of unethical SEOs looking for high-PR links back to their websites or those of their clients. Google in particular has clamped down on Blog and Forum abuse.

7. Keyword Stuffing
At one time, search engines were limited to sorting and ranking sites based on the number of keywords found on those documents. That limitation led webmasters to put keywords everywhere they possibly could. When Google emerged and incoming links became a factor, some even went as far as using keyword stuffing of anchor text.
The most common continuing example of keyword stuffing can be found near the bottom of far too many sites in circulation.

8. Hidden Text
It is amazing that some webmasters and SEOs continue to use hidden text as a technique but, as evidenced by the number of sites we find it on, a lot of folks still use it. They shouldn't.
There are two types of hidden text. The first is text that is coloured the same shade as the background thus rendering it invisible to human visitors but not to search spiders. The second is text that is hidden behind images or under document layers. Search engines tend to dislike both forms and have been known to devalue documents containing incidents of hidden text.

9. Useless Meta Tags
Most meta tags are absolutely useless. The unethical part is that some SEO firms actually charge for the creation and insertion of meta tags. In some cases, there seems to be a meta tag for virtually every possible factor but for the most part are not considered by search spiders.
In general, StepForth only uses the description and keywords meta tags (though we are dubious about the actual value of the keywords tag), along with relevant robots.txt files. All other identifying or clarifying information should be visible on a contact page or included in the footers of each page.

10. Misuse of Directories
Directories, unlike other search indexes, tend to be sorted by human hands. Search engines traditionally gave links from directories a bit of extra weight by considering them links from trusted authorities. A practice of spamming directories emerged as some SEOs and webmasters hunted for valuable links to improve their rankings. Search engines have since tended to devalue links from most directories. Some SEOs continue to charge directory submission fees.

11. Hidden Tags
There are a number of different sorts of tags used by search browsers or website designers to perform a variety of functions such as; comment tags, style tags, alt tags, noframes tags, and http-equiv tags. For example, the "alt tag" is used by site-readers for the blind to describe visual images. Inserting keywords into these tags was a technique used by a number SEOs in previous years. Though some continue to improperly use these tags, the practice overall appears to be receding.

12. Organic Site Submissions
One of the most unethical things a service-based business can do is to charge clients for a service they don't really need. Charging for, or even claiming submissions to the major search engines are an example. Search engine spiders are advanced enough to no longer require site submissions to find information. Search spiders find new documents by following links. Site submission services or SEO firms that charge clients a single penny for submission to Google, Yahoo, MSN or Ask Jeeves, are radically and unethically overcharging those clients.

13. Email Spam
Placing a URL inside a "call-to-action" email continues to be a widely used of search marketing spam. With the advent of desktop search appliances, email spam has actually increased. StepForth does not use email to promote your website in any way.

14. Redirect Spam
There are several ways to use the redirect function to fool a search engine or even hijack traffic destined for another website! Whether the method used is a 301, a 302, a 402, a meta refresh or a java-script, the end result is search engine spam.

15. Misuse of Web 2.0 Formats (ie: Wiki, social networking and social tagging)
An emerging form of SEO spam is found in the misuse of user-input media formats such as Wikipedia. Like blog comment spamming, the instant live-to-web nature of Web 2.0 formats provide an open range for SEO spam technicians.

Many of these exploits might even find short-term success though it is only a matter of time before measures are taken to devalue the efforts.
Search engine optimization spam continues to be a problem for the SEO industry as it tries to move past the perceptions of mainstream advertisers. When under-ethical techniques are used, trust (the basis of all business) is abused and the efforts of the SEO/SEM industry are called into question.

Fortunately, Google’s new algorithm appears to be on the cutting edge of SEO Spam detection and prevention. Let’s hope 2006 is the year the entire SEO industry goes on a Spam-free diet.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

SEO Tips In a Sea of Change

Advanced SEO 2006

Waves of change have cascaded over the search marketing sector in the past year prompting changes in the methods, business and practice of search engine optimization. Though many things have been altered, expanded or otherwise modified, the general search engine market share has not. Google remains the most popular search engine and continues to drive more traffic than the other search engines combined. Another thing that has not changed is the greater volume of site traffic generated by organic search placement over any other form on online advertising.
There are six or seven advanced public search engines out there but the vast majority of SEO attention is naturally given to Google. Many of the tips offered in this piece, while useful at the other search engines, are written with Google in mind. We are also thinking about alternative file formats and other ways visitors might find websites aside from pure-search.

The most visible changes can be seen in the variety of search formats and in search results returned by the major search engines but the greatest changes are taking place in the philosophies and practices of search engine optimizers. As the search environment has changed, so too have the techniques and tools used by search marketers. More time is focused on improving website content and navigation in order to appeal both live-visitors and search spiders. There are also new metrics measuring the success of a search marketing campaign, all of which are far more complicated than simple search engine rankings.

Since the introduction of the Jagger Update at Google, we have been doing a number of things slightly differently and have updated expectations of our clients and ourselves.

Organic search engine placement now requires a lot more work on our part and on the part of our clients or their webmasters. Content needs to be updated regularly, navigation simplified and shared analysis of on-site traffic is increasingly important. Top10 websites, especially around their main entry points, have become production pieces requiring a greater degree of strategic planning than the general, annually updated brochure sites do. Creation of that content needs to be considered a standing business expense though that expense should be more than made up for in long-term advertising savings.

Along with that greater effort, we strongly advise our clients to integrate their PPC campaigns with their SEO campaigns though, not necessarily in the hands of the same person. SEO and PPC are two unique arms of search engine marketing. Many SEOs spread their time crafting both paid and organic campaigns for clients though each requires unique and highly developed skill sets. PPC offers guaranteed placements for a fee but require greater attention and monitoring, along with different levels of analysis. We have set caps on the number of PPC campaigns we can run in conjunction with organic placement campaigns and have taken measures to outsource via recommendation any overload. The key here is to have the PPC and the organic SEO teams working together on several aspects of the client's web documents.

That said, we need to stop thinking of search engines as the main show in website marketing. This might sound like a self-defeating statement coming from a search engine optimization specialist however search, as a tool, is no longer confined to the search engines as we know them. Think about paid-ad generating site visits from a third-party website. The transactions that brought the visitors were not conducted on a search engine, but one or more search engines, in conjunction with that third-party website facilitated them.

Now, think about social commentary and viral marketing. Internet users, as is true with most of us offline, tend to rely on first-person recommendations. I tell a friend about a service that worked particularly well for me. They try that service and tell their friends as well. It works that way with almost any industry from restaurants to airlines, moving companies and magazines. Now, try to imagine your personal network of friends and contacts. How many of them know each other or might connect through a third or fourth party?

Imagine the impact of giving users the ability to tag their search experience with comments. During the Christmas sales rush, Yahoo Shopping experimented with user-compiled shopping lists, sort of a global gift-guide that used social networking and comment tagging to cross-reference for search results. (If you are interested in Stereo Speakers, you might also be interested in StacyB's Audiophile Shopping List.) Yahoo's Flickr photo sharing service has seen amazing growth through global networks of friends exchanging images they have tagged with their comments.

Similarly, the appearance of Blogs has substantially expanded the online marketing environment. It is estimated that by the year 2010, there might be as many as one billion Blogs published online. While most are personal diaries, blogs appear to have lasted long enough to be more than a fad and are evolving rapidly as users learn to modify and improve on them.

Businesses are increasingly turning to Blogs to communicate with customers or to respond to inquiries. Newsgathering organizations are using Blogs to fill the gap between TV broadcast and the Internet by posting everything from breaking news, information podcasts, video clips, and reporters notebooks to recipe ideas, shopping tips and paid-search advertising.

There are two major advantages Blogs offer search marketers. The ability to link Blog entries together to form an information-thread network provides search marketers with a number of tools beyond the improvement of the knowledge base. We are able to help clients establish communications centers from which they can link to information supplied by suppliers, distributors and clients on their websites or blogs. An important goal for search marketers is to help our clients provide users with a clear path to information they need. Clear paths tend to get followed by many people, a trait today's search spiders look and account for. Blogs, if maintained properly can be an important component in a winning website structure.

The second important feature of Blogs is RSS, real simple syndication. Anyone who expresses interest can subscribe to your blog, getting instant notification of updates or messages.

Search is going to be a facet of all information applications and many electronic appliances moving forward into the next decade. The major search engines are each working to make deals with the major appliance and electronics manufactures in order to provide search results to users in planes, trains and all automobiles, along with your kitchen, living room, mobile phone and quite possibly to display screens appearing in shopping carts.

In other words, search will be a greater part of our daily lives, which brings us back to search engine optimization for websites. That's still important, even if the traditional search engine rankings pages are less important.

Building a good website structure is critical. Search engines have changed radically over the past ten years to the point that we are now in a period of what appears to be constant change and evolution. The most important elements of SEO today, more important than writing the perfect keyword enriched title tag, are ease of navigation, clarity of purpose, and relevant links (think of links as information-threads). Keywords are important, make no mistake about that but search engines have moved far beyond simple keyword/context measurements.

Search engines have significantly improved their ranking algorithms over the past two years and in particularly, the past few months. From the earliest years until about five years ago, search engines looked for keywords in several areas or elements of a website, including incoming and outgoing links. Rankings were determined by the arrangement of keywords and the number of incidents of those keywords found on or around the site.

For the past five years, Google has set the standards SEOs work to achieve but over the last six months, those standards have subtly changed and will continue to change long into the foreseeable future. What made Google different five years ago was their method of using a standard keyword based spider that also factored in the number of incoming links to each site. That led to a number of techniques based around making artificial link-densities by creating link-networks, portal sites and other tricks aimed at gaming Google. After a series of algorithm updates aimed primarily at preventing “black-hat” manipulation of its rankings, Google has moved well past the basic premise of PageRank and its simple, democratic explanation.

We believe the Jagger Update is only one of many algorithm shifts that are leading Google away from pure link-context to include shared incidents of semantic intention found between linked documents.

Where we used to look at a website as a collection of similar documents, often of a common file type, found within a distinct URL, we are now examining far more complex layers of differing web-documents strung between several URLs. Again, think of links between documents as information threads being followed by the spiders. As much as possible, these threads should be more than useful links between relevant sites, they should help complete whatever story the live-user is experiencing. Your site visitors are looking for something, at least, that's what Google, Yahoo and the rest want to think. Google is especially interested in how visitors use your site, how often they return and how often they use links leaving your site.

Google has just reopened Google Analytics on a limited, invitation basis. Overwhelmed by massive user-interest when it released its modified Urchin site-statistics program, Google Analytics provides a detailed look at how visitors use your site. We are strongly urging clients to sign up for Google Analytics as it becomes available and will be offering assistance interpreting data extracted. One of the features of the free software package is the integration of AdWords/AdSense support showing how your ad campaigns are performing and how ads displayed on your site are doing.

While Google is making it easier for search marketers and advertisers, its goal is obviously to make itself more money by increasing click-through rates while collecting user data from the millions of websites signing up with the service. It has also provided SEOs with a dashboard view of critical factors involved with how it ranks sites.

The practice of search engine optimization has in some ways become more difficult but in others, has actually gotten easier. SEO has come a log way since its early days in the mid 1990's. A decade ago, SEOs were considered secretive and manipulative cowboys, roughneck mercenaries who would (because they could) do just about anything to get a site ranked in the Top10 on the major engines of the time. There were more search engines along with a variety of directories, spidered databases such as Inktomi that sold results to other engines.

This switch, combined with the rapid growth of the Web necessitated better search algorithms and a crackdown on manipulative search marketers. At the same time, the SEO and SEM sectors have seen tremendous growth due mostly to a shift towards paid-search marketing by major advertisers and the attendant growth of interest in Google, Yahoo and MSN. The search marketing sector has doubled or perhaps tripled in size in just twenty-four months as new practitioners were hired by established SEO firms or forming their own businesses. Many of those new practitioners have spent that time absorbing and adding to the huge volume of information that makes up the SEO sector's knowledge base.

Those SEOs are coming of age, professionally speaking, and are very good at what they do. Their skills are going to be an important asset to the sector in the coming year as the business of search expands way beyond the desktop and into everyday life. Change is good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pulling Google

by Mark Daoust

Admittedly, I have a bit of a childish mind. I often see things as more animated and fantasized than they really are. When I think of search engine optimizers, whether professionals or the casual SEO for a personal website, often remind me of a room full of school children all waiving their hands up in the air holding their breath, grunting, and whimpering for the chance to have the teacher call on them (they have the best answer, after all).

Its true. Most website owners would gladly spend a day outside of the Googleplex jumping up and down, hoping, praying, and whimpering for Google to take notice of their website if they thought for a moment that it would have a chance at getting them a top ranking. We are absolutely obsessed with search – it is the ultimate ego stroke to being a website owner.

Most modern SEO theories find their genesis in trying to push a website to the front of Google's rankings. They start with the idea that your website is the one that should be called on by the teacher and give you methods on how to get the teacher's attention. They teach how to raise your hand higher, how to squirm just a bit more, how to sigh with extreme dissappointment when the teacher picks the website that is obviously the teacher\'s pet.

This is push SEO, and it does work for many people. The problem with push SEO is that our 'classroom' is huge. We are asking Google to pick our site out of literally thousands, if not millions, of websites that all have something to offer on the subject at hand. We may believe that we have the best thing to offer, but Google does not know that.

Lately, however, a theory (or method) seems to be arising that counters the idea of push SEO. Rather than asking you change your website to fit Google\'s standards of a 'good result', this theory is supposed to literally change Google\'s standards.

Google Has a Confidence Issue

I have already admitted to having a childish mind that creates fantastic visions of how the world works, but I really think that Google has a confidence issue. They are the ultimate 'know-it-all's'. Most of us are annoyed by that person who is quick to correct us in a small detail or who seems to have an answer to just about every question, but Google does just that.

Think about it – if you do a search for 'amazen', Google will respond with “Did you mean: amazon?”. How arrogant and rude can a search engine be? How can they assume that they know what I am looking for?

All joking aside, they usually do know what we are looking for. They are so supremely confident that they know what we are looking for because they have been able to successfully respond to millions of questions daily for the past several years. But like most people with confidence issues, if they feel that they are being left out on a particular topic, they grow a feeling of inadequacy. As a resutl, Google is constantly trying to know everything about everything. The idea behind pull SEO is to tell Google that they are wrong or that they do not know something – and that you have the website that they need to know about.

Mike Grehan on Pull SEO

I first was introduced to the idea of pull SEO by Mike Grehan, a man, in my opinion, who understands real SEO rather than just a bunch of SEO tricks. Although I do not know the man personally (although I would be happy to make his acquaintance), he is the one person who most closely echo's my thoughts on SEO.

Just recently he posted on his blog an interesting article on how an in-progress event can effect search results. For example, take a tragedy such as Hurricane Katrina. When the Hurricane hit, it was all that was on our minds and hearts, and as a result, it was what people searched for in Google. Consequently, the search results of the major search engines changed.

Think about it – anytime a major disaster hits it becomes the major subject of the search engines. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005 searches for his name topped most search engine charts. After Janet Jackson's right breast obfuscated the Super Bowl halftime of 2004, search engines were quickly used a resource to relive the questionable moment. After September 11th, the world flocked to a younger Google to find information on the World Trade Towers and Osama Bin Laden.

If you think like a search engine, being able to present up to date information based on the news of the day gives you a distinct competitive advantage. If you have the results people are looking for faster than others, then you suddenly become the trusted resource everyone looks to.

Mike discusses in several other posts the idea of pull marketing and how he actually uses it in his professional SEO consultations. I am not sure if Mike is the originator of the idea of pull SEO, but he is the first person that I learned this theory from.

Marketing in a Bathroom

I read an interesting comment at Threadwatch that gives a great example of how pull SEO can actually work. The comment related a story which seems to be fairly common place among the website owner world. A new website owner, who was completely unfamiliar with search engine optimization and website marketing was looking for help. In an effort to help market the website, the owner was instructed to place post-it notes with his website address on it in several bathrooms.

The result of this marketing activity? Within a few months his website rose to the top of the search engine rankings, he started to see a good amount of traffic, and his search engine woes were quickly taken care of.

What SEO work did this person actually do? In all reality, there was no SEO work at all – just regular viral marketing

Making a Splash Big Enough To Notice – The Real Payoff

Allow me to be overdramatic for a moment, but if you want to get to the top of Google, you not only have to be the website that shows all the information possible on Hurricane Katrina, you also have to be the website that causes Hurricane Katrina. In other words, if you want to get to the top of the rankings – make enough noise that people start searching for your website independent of 'just finding' you in the search engine results pages.

If Google's base is hammering their search results to know more about, then they will ultimately serve as a result to their users. If they fail to do this, then they will lose trust among their users.

Mike Grehan often talks about the effect of a client launching a major television commercial campaign and how there is an immediate effect on that client\'s rankings in the search engines. This is not a coincidence, but a direct result of raising awareness of a website and Google responding to that new awareness.

The Reality – Small Businesses Have Trouble Making Big Splashes

Pull SEO is good in theory, and it is very good for a Fortune 500 corporation, but the small company will certainly have trouble utilizing pull SEO. Making a big publicity splash is either very expensive or it takes something so unique and revolutionary that making a splash is relatively simple. And, for the small company that is able to grab a lot of attention independent of the search engines, getting a top ranking really becomes ancillary to all the news coverage they are probably receiving.

But maybe this is the way it should actually be. Is it possible that the way to get to the top of the rankings is to develop an actual plan on how we will make our websites popular - independent of the search engines? If we are able to create enough buzz about our website, then search engine rankings, although nice, suddenly become less of a focus.

Put Your Hand Down – Get Your Marketing Geared Up

Google asks us millions of questions every day. Which website should they rank first for every topic that people ask about? Naturally, we want to raise our hands hoping that Google will call on us to answer their user's needs. But in all reality, we need to put our hands down and start working.

Relying on a single entity, such as Google, is a bad strategy. Google, as I mentioned earlier, is the ultimate stroke to a webmaster's ego. It is the 'icing on the cake', the affirmation of a job well done. It is not, however, the goal in and of itself.

Your goal is to be successful independent of Google. Make your website buzz worthy and Google will eventually take notice. Google cannot ignore the demands of thousands of users.

Understanding Search Engines Generates Higher Web Rankings