What is Spam?

From SES NYC 2005 | Return to Table of Contents

This was possibly the most engaging and entertaining session throughout the entire conference. The focus was on what so-called “white hat” SEOs perceive as spam, what search engines consider spam, and how a high-level and successful spammer evaluates and practices these tactics.

Shari Thurow of Grantastic Designs, Inc. starts the session by saying there are 19 primary types of spam (she lists these, but I’m only able to write down a few later on). Shari quotes Tim Mayer (who is on the panel from Yahoo!) as defining spam as, “…pages created deliberately to trick the search engine into offering inappropriate, redundant or poor-quality search results.”

Shari then asks several questions about how SEOs make their sites:

  • “Does all of the content benefit your target audience & site visitors?”
  • Is there “inappropriate” cross-linking?
  • Are the meta tags helpful to visitors who may see them?

She then lists the techniques of spam, many of which I was able to write down:

  • Keywords unrelated to the site
  • Keyword Stacking
  • Keyword Stuffing
  • Hidden Text
  • Tiny Text
  • Hidden Links
  • Link Forms
  • Page Swapping (bait & switch, also called cloaking)
  • Re-Directs
  • Mirror re-directs

Shari discusses cloaking specifically and mentions that this refers to the information delivered to spiders but not browsers. She also says that “SEOs don’t control the SERPs” and that black-hats “exploit” while white-hats “follow guidelines”. She also mentions looking for “red flags” when selecting an SEO and tells the audience to attend the selecting an SEO session.

Next up is Tim Mayer from Yahoo!, who is surprisingly less strict in his own definition of spam and seems more reasonable and logical (to my mind) than the previous speaker (during who’s session, Greg, on the far left of the panel continuously shook his head and rolled his eyes).

Tim dives right into examining spam and mentions how his team considers the subject. He says that Yahoo! looks more at intent than any specific technique and that the best thing you can do is ask yourself, “if search engines didn’t exist, would I have…” Tim mentions that their spider learns from human tagging (and later reveals that 99%+ of spam is found through human reported spam reports via email to them).

Tim then asks, “where is the fine line?” and says it really varies by industry (a shockingly forthright statement to my mind). He then goes to say that when they look at a site, they ask a question that site owners should ask themselves, “Is this a good user experience?”. Tim says that although SEs obviously cannot reveal where the line is, a good SEO should know. He brings this topic back to the idea of intent and leaves it at that.

Tim talks on several other subject, mentioning that 50% of blogs are abandoned after 30 days and that Yahoo! and all the search engines will be re-examining the roll of blog links in the near future. He then says that certain tactics, like putting links in your terms of service pages is absolutely “over the line”. Tim also says he finds affiliate sites that re-direct to the main site distasteful and calls this phenomenon “affiliate spam”.

Next up is Google’s Matt Cutts, who many believe to be the fabled “GoogleGuy” on WMW & SEW forums. Matt talks first about what he believes to be “valid SEO work”:

  • Successful site architecture
  • Adding a sitemap
  • Ensuring a crawlable site
  • Making URLs static or dynamic w/ 2 or fewer URL parameters
  • Adding relevant keywords
  • Valid meta-tags
  • Mining info from log files
  • Title tags
  • Useful Text
  • Normal PR & Marketing (he goes no further on this subject, but I assume he means for this to encompass link building)


  • Hidden text/links
  • Schemes to artificially boost links
  • Off-topic keywords
  • Duplicate Content
  • Automated Checking for rank, PR, etc.
  • Deceptive Content
  • “Mad Lib” Spam – replacing noun phrases in sentences for automated text creation (Greg notes he has a better way to do this later in the session).
  • False link popularity – guestbook spam
  • Link exchanges with bad neighborhoods
  • Reciprocal links are fine with relevant, on-topic sites

Matt finishes by noting an acronym some people use for SPAM – Sites Positioned Above Mine. He wraps up by noting that the Google engineers will be reading (but not responding to) the new email address – [email protected] and asks that comments about Google’s spam be sent there so engineers can review it directly. He says that in the future, spamming will get harder, but ethical SEO will get easier and comments that many of the “grand slam” (big time) spammers have been shutting down. He mentions the nofollow tag quickly and says it will improve relevance.

Last up is my personal favorite, Greg Boser from WebGuerilla. Greg dives into an acronym to start his talk – PPC (Pills, Porn & Casinos). He says that you’re not a real SEO until you’ve had a site banned. Greg says that in certain areas, you “can’t compete without going outside the guidelines”. He links this to the spammer philosophy of “churn & burn” – the process of using a website until it gets banned, then switching to another URL.

Greg switches over to his personal philosophy of SEO, which is “never violate the end user”. This resonates well with much of the crowd. He says this is why you shouldn’t try to rank “porn for Barney”. Greg says you won’t ever be able to rank highly for Viagra if you’re a white hat and that you should work with a hat of grayness relative to your sector.

Greg notes IP delivery as a consistently effective cloaking tactic and says that typically, it isn’t even used for spamming, but for showing search engines a page friendly to them, while delivering a user-friendly page to users. Greg notes that many big companies use this tactic and have never been banned for it.

Greg says that the guys at the top of search engines for competitive or commercial phrases are never going to be the most relevant, just the most knowledgeable. He confirms that SEOs should have a very open policy about their practices with their clients – “Full Disclosure”, including the risks involved with any technique. This concludes Greg’s presentation.

The session now turns to a riveting Q+A section. The questions were fast & furious, so I’ll try to present them in an equally bulleted format here:

  • If someone can spam you, that’s bad and the search engines don’t want it
  • SEs watch for trends and negative history when deciding a site’s punishment
  • Don’t own 200 or 2000 domain names and re-point them all, it seems like spam
  • When you have multiple URLs, point the non-canonical over to the canonical version with 301 permanent re-directs
  • Keyword rich domains w. hyphens look fishy
  • Don’t buy expired domains and 301 them – this advice comes from Greg
  • Ignacio (Nacho of SEW) asks about re-inclusion and Matt says that it can take many weeks, and that the search engines look carefully at the usability of a site when deciding whether to re-include
  • People mention scraper sites of Overture, SERPs, Adwords, etc. and both Matt & Tim ask to be clued in on it after the session specifically.
  • Whois data report problems are mentioned and the panel notes that registrars can and will pull domains – Matt mentions ChillingEffects.org as where they send reports of dup content
  • Matt says to report “made for AdSense” sites to feb05 email address
  • Matt also says he doesn’t like paid links and will attempt to weed them out (I question the efficacy of this)