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May 8, 2011

Does Google Spam Still Work Post-Panda?

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It’s been more than 5 months since my open letter to Google lamenting the state of their search results and how web spam was getting the best of them. And it’s been a mere 3 months since I wrote about how much Google (and Bing) loved anchor text spam.

Since that time, a number of very public search result adjustments have been made by Google. JCPenney (one of the companies I referred to in my February link spam article) was publicly outed by the New York Times and subsequently penalized by Google. It took Bing a bit longer to respond, but the JCPenney website seems to be missing from there now as well.

Also in February, Overstock.com was outed by the Wall Street Journal for providing discounts for .edu websites if they would add keyword-rich anchor text links to Overstock.com. Their penalty seemed less severe than the JCP one as I continued to see Overstock.com pages show up for numerous competitive keyword queries at Google. Recently they claimed that they removed the offending links and their penalty has been lifted (it’s not clear how they know this for sure).

And then came the much talked about Farmer / Panda Google Update, which may or may not have been in response to all the negative press that descended upon them. While many sites lost a large percentage of their Google traffic due to the update, it has certainly not stopped all web spam from working.

A quick look at the Google search results for the search query I used in the Anchor Text Spam article shows most of the same sites (besides JCPenney) showing in the results — many of which still have lots of questionable links pointing to them. The good news is that the spammiest of them are on Page 2 or later in Google’s results. While it appears that link spamming can still work, it may not be quite as effective as it used to be — and that’s a good thing.

Web spam can take many forms, though, with anchor text spam being just one of them. Others include exact match keyword doorway domains, madlib spam pages, and keyword-stuffed content (either hidden, partially hidden, or in plain sight).

Today I decided to see if those forms of web spam can still bring high rankings to sites post-Farmer / Panda. I had a ready supply of spammy sites to look at thanks to many of you filling out my web spam report form. (Keep ’em coming!)

Here’s what I found:

Exact Match Keyword Doorway Domains

This seems to be one of the easiest ways to get decent rankings these days, which to me is crazy — it’s 2011! One of the sites reported to me had teeny-tiny keyword-rich links in the footer of their main site that pointed to their exact match keyword doorway domains. The doorways looked as if they were straight out of the old Web Position Gold doorway page generator program from the ’90s! I was both amused and appalled to see such a thing still working. I know that Matt Cutts from Google has said they’re looking into the exact match domain problem, but I have to wonder when they’ll actually pull the switch, or if they simply don’t consider the technique to be spammy. To be fair, this technique seemed to work best for the less competitive phrases, which I suppose is some progress.

My Recommendation: In light of what I’ve seen with this type of web spam, I’d have to say that if you don’t mind that it could be a short-lived traffic generator, it’s probably a great technique if you’re starting a new website, especially if it’s going to be an affiliate site or drop-ship type of site. I’m even considering trying it for myself if I ever get the time. My hope is that Google will close the loophole before I ever get started, but it’s been working great for so long now, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be killing it any time soon. [Side note: Yes, you just heard me recommend a spammy SEO technique…hey…if you can’t beat ’em! That said, I would never recommend this tactic to my clients or anyone with a “real” company.]

Madlib Spam Pages

I talked about this a bit in last week’s article on getting found locally. A number of the spammy sites I looked at were using this technique. To review, “madlib spam” is when you have the same exact content, but just switch out a certain keyword phrase to create hundreds of nearly duplicate pages. For instance, many do this to target different geographical areas by simply substituting the city and/or state name. And others may substitute a certain make or model of product.

In many ways, these sorts of pages make sense. After all, most people will only see the page that has been targeted to what they’re looking for and not all the other dupes — which is most likely why it often works. Matt Cutts has spoken out against it for many years, however, which leads me to believe that Google is simply looking the other way on these. That said, they aren’t as effective for local search now that Places Pages are featured so prominently in Google’s results. But that doesn’t stop the make/model madlib spam from working.

My Recommendation: As with the exact match domains, I would only suggest trying this if you understand that it could eventually come crashing down on you. I’d also suggest that if you do it, you pair it with Google AdWords so that the pages serve as paid search landing pages. That way, you can at least play dumb if you get caught. 😉

Keyword-Stuffed Content

A few weeks ago, a client pointed out to me a business that “must really know their SEO.” Turns out it was an all-Flash site that had hidden keyword-stuffed content. I was quite amazed that this old trick still worked and felt compelled to report it to Matt. To me, hidden content and keyword stuffing are the worst sorts of spam. Therefore, my recommendation will always be to never, ever, ever, ever do it!

As of this writing, I haven’t yet reported any of the Rat Out Your Competitor sites to Matt, but when I checked today for the keyword-stuffed one I had reported, it was completely gone from Google! I’m assuming that Matt agreed with me on that one and took action against it. While I appreciate the fact that he will do something on a case-by-case basis if I personally submit something, that’s not going to make a dent in cleaning out most of the web spam.

I should also acknowledge that dealing with web spam has got to be a monumental task for Google. In reviewing the supposedly spammy sites that were submitted to me, many were not all that spammy. I’d say maybe only 20% were ranking highly in Google due to their shady SEO techniques. In many cases, there simply weren’t a lot of better sites to show instead, which meant that the reported sites were likely ranking despite their spam, not because of it.

Unfortunately, spammy SEO techniques are so common today that it’s hard to find decent sites in competitive industries that aren’t doing it to a certain extent. Until, or unless Google catches more of it on their own, spammy SEO is going to be a sad fact of life.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

21 Responses to “Does Google Spam Still Work Post-Panda?

    Nice article Jill. And yes I was surprised that you, albeit cautiously, recommended a ‘grey’ SEO technique!
    I personally dislike exact match doorway domains and imagine it would be pretty easy for google to place a lower weighting on the domain names. I hope they get onto this soon because it is going to become a bigger and bigger problem.

    avatar Kendo says:

    Do you honestly expect me to believe that Matt Cutts or anyone else at Google is at all concerned about poor quality search results, when everything that they claim about their precious algorithm is absolute hogwash. Google couldn’t give a stuff about keyword spammers or anything else as long as they penalize the business sites to force them to spend on Adwords.

    So you reckon that you are an SEO expert? And haven’t noticed that search results have been effluent for the last couple years and progressively getting worse as they get greedier and greedier and more blatantly arrogant about feeding their ad revenue?

    avatar Ed Rude says:

    As long as something works, even if it is doomed to failure in the long-run, people will use it.

    In addition, for those who know very little about SE marketing, the distinction between “Key-word stuffing” and “key-word-rich” gets lost.

    Spam is a shortcut that will always be with us as long as someone can still make a profit from it.

    And, as you say, “…unless Google catches more of it on their own, spammy SEO is going to be a sad fact of life.

    Thank you for the article.

    A fascinating article, and very welcome points made very clear, how long before Google catch on to all the article spinners that are currently trending, churning out masses of gibberishly written articles that have been recycled so many times, no sense can be made of any of them. This is (I believe) the worst kind of spamming, bolstered by Clickbank affiliates being duped into buying into the get-rich quick dream, peddled by so many unscrupulous scammers.This trend has gone on so long, it has filled the internet with junk,that needs clearing out.

    avatar Aaron at TheWarehouse says:

    I reflexively agree with this entire article…and then the realities of the situation hit me like a truck.

    First and foremost, if there are clear-cut, absolute and immutable definitions out there as to what constitutes the types of ‘spam’ of which is written in this article, I am unaware of them.

    That being said, it is usually obvious when a Web page has been written for a robot, and when it has been written for human beings.

    However, and as is alluded to in the article, most successful websites engage in the heavy use of keywords, employing anchor text in accordance with what will provide the greatest amount of organic exposure, and so on.

    Much of what is referred to in this article is indeed, as things currently stand, “good SEO” by definition (at least to a certain degree).

    Google is Google and has the luxury to be able to arbitrarily, if not capriciously, if not dictatorially issue edicts as to what does and does not constitute ‘spam’ this and that.

    That being said, I completely understand the flexibility Google employs when deciding such things, if for no other reason than ‘spam’ often being synonymous with smart SEO.

    I suppose the moral is this: Tomato Tomahto.

    And, I suppose the tertiary moral is this: Until humans are the primary reviewers of websites, and those humans are working off a universally applied set of definitions, people will continue to built websites that are catered to getting found and indexed by robots.

    avatar Sid Raphael says:

    As much as I’d like search results to be clean and informative I despair that this will happen only in my dreams. There are so many ‘tricks’ and so many people anxious to sell them and so many users drooling to suspend honesty to buy and use them. I’m afraid the internet brings out the worst in people. I won’t believe the sheriff has cleaned up this mess until the bad guys cry ‘uncle.’ Which ain’t happening.

    All very interesting. I wonder about the EMD issue. I mean, can an algorithm ever reliably distinguish an obvious keyword-stuffing attempt from a genuine brand name. What if my company is called Garden Gate Hinges Ohio? How will Google know the difference?

    The SERPS are still in a terrible state, and until a computer algorithm can tell GOOD content from BAD (not all PEOPLE can!) we will still continue to see the long tail dominated by GardenGateHingesHQ.com and company.

    avatar SEO Bedford says:

    Unfortunately we’ll have to live with Spammy SEO for years to come, it doesn’t matter how high Google raises bar against Spamm, there will always be people trying to game the algo and succeeding on it.

    avatar Jill Whalen says:

    @SEO Bedford, yes, especially as long as people like you use keywords as their name when commenting on sites such as this.

    avatar proje haberleri says:

    I suppose the tertiary moral is this: Until humans are the primary reviewers of websites, and those humans are working off a universally applied set of definitions, people will continue to built websites that are catered to getting found and indexed by robots.

    avatar Beamer says:

    Nice article. However, not sure I’m liking it that you can complain to Matt about a spammy site and it gets dumped. Nope, not sure I’m liking that at all. Nobody should have that kind of power over another website, let alone wield that power.

    What if somebody pissed you off and you decided to complain to Matt about that person’s website? Nice way to make enemies.

    avatar Beamer says:

    Quickly losing my respect here, Jill. Why on earth would you have a problem with SEO Bedford using the name he/she is using? No, you didn’t specifically state you had problem with it, but you made a point of it.

    First and foremost, if there are clear-cut, absolute and immutable definitions out there as to what constitutes the types of ’spam’ of which is written in this article, I am unaware of them.

    avatar son projeler says:

    I suppose the tertiary moral is this: Until humans are the primary reviewers of websites, and those humans are working off a universally applied set of definitions, people will continue to built websites that are catered to getting found and indexed by robots.

    avatar Jill Whalen says:

    Beamer, anybody is welcome to complain to Matt Cutts, not just me.

    Nice article. However, not sure I’m liking it that you can complain to Matt about a spammy site and it gets dumped. Nope, not sure I’m liking that at all. Nobody should have that kind of power over another website, let alone wield that power.

    However, and as is alluded to in the article, most successful websites engage in the heavy use of keywords, employing anchor text in accordance with what will provide the greatest amount of organic exposure, and so on.

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I suppose the tertiary moral is this: Until humans are the primary reviewers of websites, and those humans are working off a universally applied set of definitions, people will continue to built websites that are catered to getting found and indexed by robots.

    pretty valuable stuff, overall I imagine this is worthy of a bookmark, thanks

    avatar Sökmotoroptimering says:

    Very good post!

    I think that exact domain match still works, and will do so for a long time.

    Im using it to rank hign in swedish at the moment.

    avatar anonymous says:

    Spam is mostly not a problem for me, because I don’t publish my email, and I am careful with the services i register for.

    The only spam I get is from Site Pro News. Lots of it.

    I am not a registered user of this site. I have not given my details, and I am not stupid enough to click any unsubscribe links.

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