Why 'Spam' is Everywhere & Why That Means Nothing!

Sigh, not this again. ;)

Recently Rand highlighted his surprise at how prevalent search spam is. But the big issue with search today is not the existence of spam, but how it is dealt with. For a long period of time Google spent much of their resources fighting spam manually. That worked when spammers were sorta poor and one hit wonders fighting on the edge of the web & few people knew how search worked. But as technology advances & "spammers" keep building a bigger stock of capital eventually Google loses the manual game.

Search engines concede the importance of SEO. It is now officially mainstream.

  • Both Google and Microsoft offer SEO guides.
  • Microsoft and Yahoo! have in-house SEO teams.
  • Yahoo! purchased a content mill.
  • Microsoft's update email about powering Yahoo! search results later this week contained "After this organic transition is complete, Bing will power 5.2 billion monthly searches, which is 31.6 percent of the search market share in the United States and 8.6 percent share in Canada. You can take advantage of this traffic by using search engine optimization (SEO) to complement your search campaigns and boost the visibility of your business."

Sure you will still see some media reports about the "dark arts" of SEO, but that is mainly because they prefer publishing ignorant pablum to drive more page views, as self-survival is their first objective. Some of the same media companies alerting us of the horrors of SEOs have in-house SEO teams that call me for SEO consultations.

A Google engineer highlighted this piece by submitting it to Hacker News, using this as the title "sufficiently advanced spam is indistinguishable from content." We tend to over-estimate end users. If most people don't realize something is spam then to them it isn't. If the search engineers have a hard time telling if a blog is ESL or auto-generated, how is a typical web user going to distinguish the difference?

Some SEO professionals have huge networks of websites and are 8 or 9 figures flush in capital. They can afford to simply buy marketshare in any market they want to enter. Burn one of their sites and they get better at covering their tracks as they buy 5 more. At the same time the media companies are partnering with content mills & the leading content mill filed for an IPO where they are hoping for a $1.5 billion valuation.

Why does one form of garbage deserve to rank when another doesn't? If link buying is bad, then why did Google invest in Viglink? If link buying is so bad then is lying for links any better? If so, how?

How exactly can Google stop the move toward spam in a capitalistic market where domains can be registered with privacy and marketers can always rent an expert to speak for the brand? Is a celebrity endorsement which yields publicity spam? How can Google speak out against spam when they beta test search results that are 100% Google ads?

Wherever possible, Google is trying to replace part of the "organic" search results with another set of Google vertical results. If Google can roughly match relevancy while gaining further control over the traffic they will. Just look at how hard it is to get to the publisher site if you use Google image search. And Google is rumored to be buying Like.com, which will make image search far more profitable for Google.

As Google continues to try to suck additional yield out of the search results, I believe they are moving away from demoting spam (due to the point of diminishing returns & risks associated with demoting what they themselves do creating anti-trust issues). Instead of looking for what to demote, they are now shifting toward trying to find more data/signals to promote quality from.

The issue with manual intervention (rather than algorithmic advancements) is that it warps the web to promote large beaurocratic enterprises that are highly inefficient. That is ok in the short run, but in the long run it leaves search as a watered down experience. One lacking in flavor and variety. One which is boring.

Google is going to get x% of online ad revenues and y% of GDP. In the long run, them promoting inefficient organizations doesn't make the web (or search) any more stable. They need to push toward the creation of more efficient and more profitable media enterprises. Purchases of ITA Software and Metawebs allow Google to attack some of the broader queries and gain more influence over the second click in the traffic stream. Business models which are efficient grow, whereas inefficient ones are driven into bankruptcy.

As Paul Graham has highlighted, we might be moving away from a society dominated by large organizations to ones where more individuals are self-employed (or who work for smaller organizations). We hire about a dozen people, but they are sorta bucketed into separate clusters. Some work on SEO Book, some blog, some help create featured content, some help with marketing, etc. etc. etc. The net result of our efficient little enterprise is pushing terabytes of web traffic each month. Would you describe the site you are currently reading as being "spam" simply because it is efficient & profitable? Would a site that took VC capital and was less efficient be any more proper? How much less interesting is the average big media article on the field of SEO?

If a search engine gets too aggressive with penalizing "spam" then tanking competitors becomes a quite profitable business model. If they are to focus on what to demote search engineers need to figure out who is doing what AND who did it. Thus the role of SEO today is not to remain "spam free" (whatever that is) but to create enough signals of quality that you earn the benefit of the doubt. This protects you from the whims of search engineers, algorithmic updates, and attempts at competitive sabotage.

You can future-proof your SEO strategy to the point where your site never loses traffic because it never ranked! Or you can get in the game and keep building in terms of quantity and quality. If lower quality stuff is all that is typically profitable in a particular market then it isn't hard to stand out by starting out with a small high-quality website. That attempt to stand out might not be profitable, but it might give you a platform to test from. After all, Demand Media purchased eHow.com to throw up their "quality content" on.

Online the concept of meritocracy is largely a farce. Which is precisely why large search companies are willing to buy content mills. If search engines want to promote meritocracy they should focus more on rewarding individual efforts, though that might have a lower yield, and some people prefer to stay anonymous given competitive threats from outing AND some of the creepy ways online ad networks harvest their data to target them.

What does the lack of meritocracy mean for marketers? If you are a marketer you need to be aggressive at marketing your wares or someone with inferior product will out-market you and steal marketshare from you.

Will someone consider your site spam?


But they will have worse rankings than you do!

Published: August 18, 2010 by Aaron Wall in marketing


August 18, 2010 - 5:41am

Another great informative post Aaron, thank you for taking the time to put it all together for the common man like myself.

August 18, 2010 - 10:55am

I'm constantly amazed with the depth of the information you put our Aaron. Every time I read a new post from you I learn something new and something that I was totally unaware of. I also appreciate that you're taking the time to educate us.


Kris Day
August 18, 2010 - 2:27pm

There seems to be an emerging double standard. The spam police will penalize you if you do not play by their book, unless you are affiliated with or owned by them! That puts the little guy at a distinct disadvantage.
Greed and corruption at Google are starting to take effect. Physician heal thyself. Repent! Mat Cutts and Thad Allen. Two peas in a pod. Read you Orwell before the books are buried at a landfill somewhere.
I see the Internet diminishing all the time: becoming less of a visionary landscape and more of a reflective landscape( of our two tier socio/political system, that is).

August 18, 2010 - 7:43pm

A lot of people were waiting for your response to Rand's post yesterday.

If Google wants to prevent web spam, they can just manipulate the numbers in their keyword tool... oh wait, they already do I spoke to Leslie Rohde about this on his blog a few weeks ago. It feels like the search engines are saying "Yeah sure, let SEO's spam up the internet, the keywords they think they're chasing aren't as lucrative as they think anyway" Kinda like the toolbar PR... big names like Jerry West and Dan Thies say they don't even look at toolbar PR. Seems more like a publicity thing to make webmasters feel good.

As Google ads more stuff to the SERP's (images, Twitter feeds, videos, news feeds) getting a top ranking isn't as valuable as I once thought. SEO is still indespensible, and I love getting top rankings, but I'm focusing on creating purple cow sites that don't live and die by the search engines.

And about the quality Rand was talking about, I've gotten "do follow" links from super authoritative sites (Guy Kawasaki's AllTop, numerous local TV stations, decent sized personal finance blogs) with no noticeable increase in the SERP's. I've actually seen decreases when I went on a guest post kick.

I will not stop guest posting, creating link bait, issuing good press releases, making apps/widgets, etc. but I also will not stop directory submissions, article marketing, and other easy link building activities.


August 19, 2010 - 1:08am

I have seen tons of spam shoot straight to the top since the May-Day update, and in Feb and also last Dec. The SERP's look pretty close to what they did before the October update of last year. Google is cooking up something special and here is what I am thinking.

There are signs that non link indicators of authority could be being tracked:

1. Does your name/brand/url appear as a frequently used search term?
User behavior is tracked. If your business exists outside of getting SEO traffic you are certainly going to have traces of advertising that causes Googlers to use the search box to find you specifically.
2. Does your name/brand/url appear as search terms in other search engines and social search sites like twitter, facebook and youtube?
It would be easy to set up data sharing agreements with sites like this for tracking these non link indicators of trust just like the Twitter real time search deal.
3. Does your name/brand/logo appear on real outdoor signage?
Images of these could be taken into account since Google Googles can recognize the identities of the brands that use these on bill boards, building signs, vehicle advertising, etc. etc..
4. How often is your name/brand/url mentioned in non linking ways?
Many news sites and reputable blog have nofollow fright. They are deathly afraid to link out anywhere commercial practically. Many resort to quoted sources in a plan text manner and keeping links from being clickable.

Those are just a few ideas bouncing around in my mind as possibilities. The future of search is going to be dominated by collective intelligence. Its do or die time when it comes to diversifying your advertising sources. Customer retention is the name of the game now. Wise up and smell the coffee!

August 19, 2010 - 3:10am


I love your version of the "Plain Truth". How it is in the real world. Sometimes it ain't pretty but at least its real.

August 19, 2010 - 3:15pm

First off, I enjoyed the post, very good read on your thoughts.

As it relates to Google and content spam, I do not believe Google is advanced enough to identify spam in the same manner as humans. This is why content spam works.

Moving a step forward, will Google (non-human) ever be able to identify content spam? Probably not. Maybe 10 years plus years from now this is possible, but not in the near future.

If I build a site with mid-level quality content, create a linking campaign; choose my keywords wisely etc... I can outrank any high quality content site with minimal links etc (page rank means nothing when you strategize and research competition properly)... Now, am I wrong in doing so? Heck No. Am I spamming? No. Is this black-hat? No. Am I am taking advantage of Google? Yes, because they told us what they want and we did it: should we be penalized for doing what they told us to do in order to rank?

If your site does not provide 'value' then you won't monetize properly anyway. Rank #1 or #100 - is your site providing visitors with value? Value is where the $$ is...

Too many people give too much credit to the technology behind Google. And because of this, they think Google is the 'emperor of search' or a type of 'search police'. If you walk out of line you will be taken down by Google. Seriously?... Where would Google be right now if they did not have AdSense? Where would Google be right now if Gmail, Docs, Images, Directory etc were paid services and not free?

Google is NOT a big bad search engine ready to strike you down the second you cross the line. Google is nothing more than a little insecure child that made some very good decisions at the right time and has the $$ to prove it. Google is only as smart as the dude that programmed it… and no one is perfect :)

August 19, 2010 - 3:42pm

If your site does not provide 'value' then you won't monetize properly anyway. Rank #1 or #100 - is your site providing visitors with value? Value is where the $$ is...

I don't think it is as cut and dry as that across the board. There are a variety of business models built on *not* providing value which still bring in plenty of income.

August 26, 2010 - 5:51am

I love your version of the "Plain Truth". How it is in the real world. Sometimes it ain't pretty but at least its real.

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