June 16, 2010
I strongly contend that it shouldn't. If you're not using spammy SEO tactics, that is.
When I posed this question to my Twitter followers, I was shocked to see how many people felt that yes, today's SEO techniques could definitely become tomorrow's search engine spam if the search engines decided to change their ranking algorithm.
The Real Story
Good, professional SEO that puts users first while keeping search engines in mind will never be considered spam by any stretch of a search engineer's imagination. Search engine spam takes a concerted effort and is done in an attempt to make low-quality websites or content show higher in the search results than they should.
Search engine spam can be visible on a website, such as with keyword stuffing, or it can take the form of hidden text, cloaking or link spamming. Generally, search engine spam makes a website *less* valuable for real users rather than better.
Make no mistake about it, keyword stuffing in all its forms – be it the copy, the title tags, within image alt attributes, or in anchor text – is search engine spam – there's no purpose other than to try to increase rankings. And the same thing can be said of useless off-page SEO through link farms, low-quality directories that nobody visits, useless article submission sites and the like.
I see all of the above often discussed as SEO tactics. But they're not. They are search engine spam.
Search Engine Spam Does Not Equal SEO
One of the largest problems plaguing the SEO industry is that the general public thinks that SEO = SPAM. This is why, every year, numerous articles are written saying that SEO is dead. What they mean to say is that search engine *spamming* is dead. Because they equate search engine spam with SEO, it's easier to just say that SEO is dead.
Now you might be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute there, Jill. I've used some SEO techniques in the past that don't seem to work anymore, particularly after a major update by Google. They used to work great until Google decided they didn't like it anymore." In reply, I would ask you to revisit whether the technique was in truly making the website better (or worse) for the people who come to the site. Chances are that, if you're honest with yourself, you'll agree that you probably went overboard with things.
Just because your "spam" increased your rankings for a while doesn't mean that it was a true SEO tactic – it was always spam whether you thought about it that way or not. And that's what confuses people.
Before you tell me to get off my high horse and stop calling you a spammer, let me tell you a story about me. Just like you, I was once a search engine spammer!
Back in the early 2000s, I realized that I could keyword-stuff the alt attributes (alt tags) of invisible GIF images that were used within some website's code as part of the design. It seemed to work to increase the page's rankings for the keywords I was stuffing in the code. In fact, I wrote an article about it in my newsletter at the time. When a few colleagues emailed me back to nicely explain that my technique was in fact search engine spam, I poo-poohed them. I had built my reputation on using legitimate SEO techniques to gain targeted traffic, not search engine spam. Who were they to call me a spammer? I was quite indignant!
But I was really just lying to myself to protect my own ego. Eventually I saw the technique as the search engine spam that it was and stopped using it and recommending it. Although I don't recall if that was after it stopped working or before! (I'm not a saint, ya know!)
The point is that the technique was always search engine spam. It was spam when it DID work, just as it was spam when the algorithm changed and it no longer worked. It wasn't the change in algorithm that suddenly made it spammy.
Why Search Engine Spam Is Bad
It is my strong feeling that search engine spam is never a good idea. Not because you might get caught, penalized or banned. You probably won't, at least not until you've made quite a lot of money off your technique. It's wrong because it makes your site worse, not better overall. And more than that, it makes for a bad searcher experience. We all have to use search engines, and there's nothing more frustrating than having low-quality garbage show up at the top of the results.
Let’s face it, the search engineers don't change their algorithms all the time because they're bored. Nor do they change them to stick it to innocent website owners. They tweak them so that they can preserve the integrity of their search results. If search engine spammers weren't out there vying for positions at all costs, there would be fewer algo tweaks being made.
Unfortunately, the world is composed of many people who will take any system and exploit it for their own gain. It's a sad fact of life that creates a constant battle between search engines and those who are happy to spam them.
Which brings us back to my original question of whether today's SEO tactic might be tomorrow's search engine spam. There's only one answer to this – NO! No legitimate SEO technique will ever be considered search engine spam because real SEO enhances a website as well as the search engine results. Good SEO makes it easier for the search engines to show the best stuff to their searchers.
If you suddenly lose substantial search engine traffic, be sure to revisit the techniques you were using. Were they really and truly good ones? Did they enhance your website for all its target audiences? Did they make the search results more relevant or less? Or did you make them just because they were easy and it seemed like a good idea at the time?
P.S. I should also mention that you can see me in person discussing responsible search marketing at the next SEMNE event on July 20th, in Rocky Hill, CT. It's free for SEMNE members and $49 for non-members.
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston SEO Company.
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