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Does Google Spam Still Work Post-Panda?

May 4, 2011

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. Image Credit: Laurel Fan

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, was outed by the Wall Street Journal for providing discounts for .edu websites if they would add keyword-rich anchor text links to Their penalty seemed less severe than the JCP one as I continued to see 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.


Added October 2011: Things have been slowly getting better with each Panda Update. See why SEO in all the right places doesn't always work anymore.

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings and an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalenJill Whalen

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Post Comment

 Peter Charalambos said:

You have me worried now.....

As an example, I have a highly ranked domain that has what I believe to be what you call an exact match domain...... may recall that you advised me regarding a 301 redirect to a client's site that was not ranked.

Is that the sort of site you believe should be removed from Google listings?


 Jill Whalen said:
@Peter, I don't necessarily believe they should be removed, I just think they shouldn't be given extra weighting over a domain that doesn't use keywords.

But obviously, Google doesn't agree!
 Nick Valente said:
Jill, I agree that the methods you mention above are at minimum gray and mostly black hat in nature. Espeically doorways and Madlib. That said, Google's recent chages penalized many sites including some that delivered highly respecitable original content of high value for reasons that are yet unknown. A certain amount of spam needs to be expected or we'll be left with only the most popular sites that then get to direct the conversation on a given topic. This does not work either.

Unfortunately I do not have an answer but we need to be careful as to how we lable spam.
Just because a site uses keywords a lot does NOT mean it is not a great site with the best content in its category.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Nick, if a site is keyword stuffed, it's hard to imagine it could be the best in it's category. There's never an excuse for keyword stuffing. It's just plain dumb. (IMO)
 Rob said:
MEh - emd's are great and should rank if they have the content to fit - IMO :)
 JohnM said:
Was Overstock issue due to anchor text or b/c of their discount. What if they ask them to link using overstock as an anchor text. Giving or offering discount is not bad atall and the purpose of link is to go directly to the target site. Also sometimes site owner can offer some specific discount which is related to certain product and ppl can link the product category page using product name as an anchor text. What is wrong with that. Now whats the solution in overstock case, asking edu sites to put the discount code and their website address but no links, or put a nofollow link and explain what nofollow means. One last thing if I want to link to your website what anchor text should I use, High ranking or seo service or seo consultant? to me all looks fine but if you see high ranking which you think is natural way look kw rich to me.
 JohnM said:
My above question is to Jill
 Anonymous said:
@jill not getting votes make sense if google think overstock did something wrong but what about those edu sites did google decrease their trust level too. You need 2 hands to clap! am i right.
For past 8 year i am against "Anchor Text Link Spam" but on all seo forum there was only 1 thing ppl suggest get links using kw anchor text, I always asked them why someone use or know your kw if they want to link to you. Then so many ppl came with an idea domain name with exact kws, getting benefit in their links and search results. I think google need to re-evalaute their linking logic and giving less value to inbound links b/c 1) They are the one who were showing JC penny or overstock on top of their search result and as a common man that was ripp off b/c one day those website were down in serp (so next time i will mis trust goole result) 2) there are 1000s of good quality websites now in each category , so why dont google put more value to the website itself 3)There are millions of websites using blackhat tricks for top serp, mostly linking tactics why google is not proactive and just get done with its linking logic.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Anonymous, I agree and said as much in the article on Google Loving Anchor Text Spam. They simply give it way too much weight. None of that has changed with Panda/Farmer, I don't believe.
 Brian said:

Regarding exact match domain names, I'm aware that an exact match .com makes it much easier to rank #1 for a given phrase.

What do you notice about .net and .org domains? Compared to a .com, how much help is an exact match domain name if it's a .net or .org?

Thanks. : )
 Jill Whalen said:
Brian I can't say as I've looked into it. I would guess they'd be equal, however.
 Richard Neppl said:
My ranking has gone from page 1 to nowhere. My site was ranked on page one of Google (search term: [removed]) for about 4 years. Since March 4th, we cannot find our site for that term on Google. Although we are indexed (I guess), we aren't ranked (as far as we can tell). Our web traffic has dropped off the map. We have good ranking (page one & two) on Yahoo and Bing. The website has remained virtually the same since 2005 - minor changes with products and images. It seems crazy to have to re-write our website to appeal to Google rather than our customers. Any ideas?
 Jill Whalen said:
Richard, this isn't the place to request a site review.

I suggest looking at the sites that show up before yours for your search term, and see what it is that they might be doing better than your site. Then work on your site to be at least as good as the others, if not better.

Good luck!
 Tony Alpine said:
The issue (or non issue depending on who you ask) about exact match domain names ranking higher for terms is an interesting challenge for Google and I'll give you an example why.

Today I was searching for a headset for my Droid X phone. I tried several variations of key phrases as I was doing my shopping. The first websites I checked naturally without even thinking about it were the ones that had domain names similar to what I was searching. Since I've been doing SEO for my sites I stopped for a second and thought about it. I asked myself, "did I just click on this SERP result because of the domain name?" Surprisingly the answer was yes and I found that I tend to click even more on domain names that are similar if they are forums (since forums typically contain good product recommendations by real people). This doesn't imply that I got better information from sites with domain names close to my search term though and I think that is important for Google to recognize!

Another challenge for Google is the fact that since they use the domain name as a signal of relevance, if they stopped doing that, this might have an effect on how brand searches work. For example, if somebody searches for Jill Whalen and is registered, shouldn't Google show it as being very relevant even if the site didn't have as much authority as other sites with Jill Whalen anchor text pointing to them?

I too think the EMD ranking higher than other sites is silly but I certainly don't see Google changing it anytime soon. They've got bigger fish to fry:)
 Jill Whalen said:
Tony, I'm sure you're quite right which is why it's taking them so long to figure out what, if anything, can be done about it.
 Keyword Phrase Link Removed said:
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.
 Neo Symmetry said:
I Dugg the article for you on my Digg account. I thought this was one of the better articles I have read by you in some time now. Although I do not read all of the articles you write, most of them are fairly good. I especially liked the section about Madlib Spam Pages. This is a technique I have used on some websites I have optimized and yes it can be considered spam to some extent. There was a big push on this kind of optimizing when Google started directly listing Google Places in the Organic results directly. Furthermore it is a good ideal as you suggested to make sure this technique coincides with sponsored link campaigns. Finally, the part about it possibly crashing down on you is a possibility, but I believe it is not something to be worried about.

Great article Jill and happy optimizing. Your always helping the community with good information. Look forward to the next article.

Ty Whalin
 Jay Charmaine said:
I still have some EMDs ranking well but they have good useful searched content and no spamming is done. Just old school directory and article submissions w/ onpage SEO. I simply try to follow the biggies like WIkipedia and use contextual links, links to useful authority sites, pictures, abundant content, some RSS feeds, and that's it.
They do have adsense on them but they look professional. Nothing too hard on the eyes, so no excessive advertisements. Basically, they are topics that interest me so it is easy for me to put more into the content.
 Brent Truitt said:
Yeah. We're starting to see some of this exact match keyword spam domains starting to get hit. If you are using EMDs you better start adding SERIOUS content, because all of us out there who have domains with thousands of pages of 100% unique and helpful content are going to wipe you out in a flip of a switch.

EMD will still work, but ONLY if the content is steller. For example we have a blog on WIDGETS and there are over 25 detailed posts over 1500 words each with diagrams, tables, math, content, photos, all about WIDGETNUMBER2.

Some spammer came along and bought up;

Each site had 5 posts of 500-600 words of drivel text and nothing else except Adsense advertising.

He or she did wonderfully for a year, and dropped us to the bottom of Google's first page and sometimes the top of the second page.

Today we re-took #1 position.

Shame about their domain and hosting costs. ;-)
 Elmero said:
Hi Jill,
Great article. I'm trying to make sense of the current landscape and want to venture into developing sites with best practices in mind. Am I correct in hearing you say that even if I come across a domain that has 10 million global monthly searches on keyword tools, versus a domain with a non-sensical name, and thus no socre on monthly searches, as long as I adhere to developing quality content and using good seo techniques, then it should all even out in the end?
 Pashmina said:
Jill, this is unrelated to the contents of this post (which is great, btw). I'm just wondering about the duplicate post/content on:

Is the above post something you created, or are they scraping your content? Isn't it bad to have duplicated content like that? Either way, whether on purpose or scraped, how do prevent the duplicate issue from hurting you?
 Jill Whalen said:
They have permission to republish my articles.

And no, it's not bad to have duplicate content like that. You may want to check out my post on that topic as well.

No Duplicate Content Penalty
 David Powell said:
Problem for Google with trying to eradicate exact match domain names is that companies will want to rank for their own name, which in a lot of cases is an exact match domain. Make it harder to rank for the exact match domain phrase and it'll be hard to find a lot of comapanies by searching for their name!
 PeteC said:
"The first websites I checked naturally without even thinking about it were the ones that had domain names similar to what I was searching."

Yes, this is quite natural. If you were looking to buy a book on a certain theme, you would naturally inspect the ones with titles closer to what you are looking for. It's just common sense people.

As usual, there is an outcry about something that is being abused, then you have an over-reaction by Google and then they need to go back to COMMON SENSE.