The Temptation (and the perils) of Spamdex
Here are 10 warning signs that your “SEO Expert” is about to damage search visibility for your website — or worse.
First, full disclosure – I am a recovered spamdexer – and once on Google’s short list of targets for blacklisting. Second, I coined the phrase spamdexing during a phone call in 2005, accidentally conflating the word “spam” and “indexing.” It stuck with me, and now everyone uses it because it is very descriptive. Spamdexing is what you do when you deploy search engine tactics designed to manipulate search results ranking. Back in 1997-99, spamdexing usually involved generating reams of garbage content to boost the simple search engines that we had back then.
As for me, I tried just about any form of black-hat SEO I could conjure up and sneak into a website. And I was pretty successful—for a while. This website once ranked in the top 100,000 in the Alexa ranking schema. But that was back in 1999. I’ve long since reformed—focused now on other activities that I have found more productive.
Another disclosure: this domain—heavypen.com—is hampered by my past sins. There are too many “bad links” in the link list to allow it to rise to its full potential. At last count, there are 1,700 bad domains associated. It’ll take a while (and some investment) before I can sort and “disavow” all of them. Lately, I’ve been busy with other things, so it looks like Google, Bing, and Yahoo will keep poor old Heavypen in the basement. And yet, I’m still in business and still generating about one new prospect per week—which goes to show you that websites have long since ceased to function as ‘destinations’ for business. But I digress.
The fact is, spamdexers are growing fewer in number largely because the algorithms have gotten better at tamping down the loopholes. With so many other safe alternatives, there’s really no upside to spam. Those who continue to spam the net have been forewarned. Here’s a short list of old spam tricks—from a former expert. Worry if you hear your SEO “expert” mention any of these well-known tactics:
- Invisible keywords – in graphics, tags, and links (very old method).
- Link farming – another oldie. Pages that point to a variety of unrelated sites.
- Link networking – massive linking between unrelated sites using keywords to simulate relevance.
- Link referencing – links to massive sites like Wikipedia as references. Not so bad, still allowed, but there’s a way to do it right.
- Ghost linking – hidden reciprocal links to link farms on each page of the site. Definitely a “get you banned” tactic.
- Keyword stacks – dozens of keywords ‘stacked’ on the lead paragraphs on multiple pages. Includes excessive use of metatagging. This is pure, unadulterated spamdexing that probably will not get you banned, but any page with this feature will likely get delisted.
- Auto-generated keyword pages – keywords focused on one ‘targeted’ landing page with junk unrelated text content and a bajillion links to other similar pages. Again, this won’t get you banned, but… WHY?
- Duplicated location pages – e.g., for location pages; adding city names to page titles, headlines, and text.
- Article “spinning” – one article with dozens of iterations – shocking how many people (and corporations) still think that this works.
- Mass article submission schemes – usually associated with spammy backlink and guest posting schemes to social media and fake blogger pages. This tactic actually works, to a degree. But, come on, spamdex is spamdex. Googlebot will sniff this out and you’ll be sad.
This list is by no means all there is in the word that is spamdex. Per my earlier admission – I used some of these tactics myself going as far back as 1997 when Heavypen first launched and through 2002. As I noted, some spammy tactics still work very well. But I’m a living testament that all of them will (eventually) stop working. The question is – outside of pay-per-click advertising, how else can you get into the face of your audience.
Well… you can try email marketing—which has its own perils (and its expensive too). You can try press releases, white papers, posting outside your domain, social media, trade show presentations, forums, events, podcasts – or all above. None of it sounds easy. But neither is effective SEO.
Effective SEO is no Quick Fix
Nearly all SEO methods (even the good ones) can end up harming your website if not executed and managed carefully. Google’s advanced suite of algorithms (e.g., Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, et al.) has steadily whittled away at the “safety margin” where SEO can still function effectively. A few of the tactics I’ve named earlier have become entirely irrelevant; a useless waste of time and money. In just the last year, so much has changed that some opinionists wonder whether SEO matters anymore. It does matter. You just have to stop thinking of SEO as an easy fix for attracting inquiries and engaging your target audience.
As always, being effective takes a little work, but not all that much more work than being ineffective. When people ask me for a “secret sauce” for SEO, there’s only one answer: Engage your target audience with well-developed thoughts and ideas. Write solid blog posts and articles. Create other content like videos, infographics, podcasts. Encourage relevant linking. In short, create content with the intent of engaging a specific audience.
Consider the work involved in doing SEO the wrong way. One pre-Panda (2011) method involved cramming keywords into the first paragraph of a blog post. I had long since reformed by that time when a client asked me to do this. My response: “What your prospective customer going to do with a stack of keywords?” Doesn’t it make better sense to develop content that distributes your keywords over stacks of articles? Doesn’t that encourage what we really want from our website – for people to consume our content and interact with us? A spamdex SEO model might have you repeat one or two articles verbatim over dozens of website – and some people still do that!
Try this test:
Think of five things about yourself and talk only about those five things to everyone you see—especially with people whom you already know.
Watch their faces. See what happens when they ask questions and you come back with one of your five pattern topics. Family members will think you’ve had a stroke. But acquaintances, people whom recently got to know, will ignore you. It seems a bizarre overstatement to have to say this, but humans are not machines. We are unpredictable creatures and we like the unexpected. Ultimately, your website is beholden to the human who visits the website. If you want to hold their interest and build an audience, you’d better think of things to say.
You’re reeling back maybe? Too much work? Got a case of writer’s block or lacking confidence to write more than your About Us page? Yes. It’s work. But I happen to believe that ANYONE can write. Moreover, there are a gazillion relevant topics for any product or service. Look for stories buried within angles in your current business narrative—things about your history and record of service; about the development of your product or service and your customers. Get some first-hand knowledge from your sales staff and your customers. Ask questions about things that attract your customers/clients. Seek out anecdotes about your product/service. Add other content that illustrates usage (can’t say enough about photos, graphics, videos). These kinds of articles attract ranking, but they’ll do more. By adding content of this kind, you’ll encourage an audience that is seeking more information about your produce or service. Probably a lot more than you’ll ever know.
But is any of this easy? No. But it’s far more effective than trying to fool search engines.
Cure for Spam: Replication and Differentiation
Very early on, I and several colleagues adopted “replication and differentiation” as a model for defining content for vertical markets. It’s based on the sociological theory all complex human societies replicate systems from within their environment, then change them to meet unique conditions and circumstances. Our theory for content development was based on the realization that one brand may appeal to many subsets within a target audience group. The choices were two-fold—(1) write one set of content for all targets and define differences within the body of the content; and (2) write as many sets of content and customize them to meet the expectations of individual targets.
Our good intentions were immediately exploited. One member of our group went on to create the first automated article spinner—a practice long since banned. Another member created a very complex link farm scheme – at least he tried to make links relevant, but he still got on Google’s blacklist. I went on to work for the California Courts and developed a ranking scheme that focused on keywords used by people who were looking for information about the various aspects of the state court system. Some content was duplicated, but much of it was differentiated to meet the expectations of the searcher. And as I understand, this method still works very well.
Let’s say that you’re a van conversion shop. My recommendation would be to create separate pages for all the models of vans you convert. Treat each model as unique topics, each with an article of about 500 to 700 words. Use a keyword-balanced explanation of the services offered and blend it with narratives about the features and benefits of van conversions, describing the characteristics of each vehicle model. Describe how features affect different members of your audience. List the benefits of your conversions for different activities (travel for business, travel for pleasure).
So many different options open up with this method. It’s not for everyone, but once you get over the complexity, it’s pretty easy to deploy. One last note, rewrite existing articles: add to them, augment them, update them. You’re not a magazine or newspaper, so it’s okay to reuse articles and level up topics that need leveling. I do it all the time.
The antidote for spamdexing comes from the Old School:
Market to the target, not the machine. Engage your traffic, not the keywords. Focus on conversion, not your ranking.
To me, this is just common sense. YES—ranking is important. YES—you want high-level position on your targeted SERPs. But what’s the point of all of this digital marketing if your audience can’t find the information they need?
There are some alternatives like Content Networking—an automated process that may help you generate just enough relevant backlinks to increase ranking. But these automated processes are risky for the pure reason that the search engines can detect them and filter out the results (at minimum). I’d hate to spent upwards of $200 a month (as high as $1,000) on a process that ultimately becomes worthless.
That’s why my strong belief is that nothing works better than high-quality content—be it an article, photo, video, or graphic. It comes down to one important goal—be true to the audience you want to attract. Gain traction on the content creation process and you’ll gain better results without the hassle of trying to cheat the search engines with a wall of spam.