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SEO Website Audit

Search Engine Algorithm Changes Effects on SEO

June 16, 2010
Here's a quick question for you: Is what you do to optimize your website going to be considered search engine spam one day because of a change in the search engines' magic formula? Photo Credit mikebaird

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!

My Story

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.

If you learned from this article, be sure to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so you can be the first to receive similar articles in the future!
Post Comment

 Karen DeCrane said:
Couldn't agree more Jill. The same things I used as standard practice 10 years ago I still use today and they still work! Good titles, good descriptions, and content that actually has relevance to the keyterms I want!!!!!

I constantly tell clients that just because they stuff a bunch of words into the meta keytag (which isn't even used anymore!) telling the search engines what keyterms they want - if their site is not relevant to those terms they won't get ranked for them. And yet a surprising number of them don't get it!

There will ALWAYS be changes to engines. But the main thing they look for has never changed and never will - relevant returns for the term entered by the searcher. Caffeine is no big killer - it merely weighs FRESH relevant content more heavily than before. And I know that other "SEO Gurus" will come up with some new gimmicks to rank with this change. And those gimmicks will work somewhat, for a little while. And then the algos will change again to eliminate those bogus results.

And ya know what? My sites will STILL be on the first page because I don't do gimmicks - I do solid search basics that satisfy what the engines are all about - creating relevant content for visitors. Have I changed over the years? Sure - I use video, social media, blogs, and other things that weren't around years ago. But I still keep the basic theory in mind - provide relevant, well organized, fresh content and Google will reward me with higher rankings and more visitors. It's a no brainer.
 Dave aka; theGypsy said:
While I do agree that strong SEO chops should ensure a safety net, now and in the future (future proof SEO), I thought I'd drop in than there are many in the IR world that consider ANY manipulation as Spam and ALL SEOs as the perveyors of it... spammers. Just sayin... hee hee

As for link spam... that's another insidious world too. Me? Pretty sure that link building really is a discipline on it's own outside of SEO. So they're not my problem lol.

Ultimately I am one that generally detests spam and those adding nothing to the web but crap. Call me an idiot, but I believe my kids will inheret the internet we leave behind - so I care.

Nice post Jill... hope things are well.
 Greg Taylor said:
Does this stuff REALLY matter? Please read before reacting impulsively:

It does seem that a lot of 'SEO' tactics do seem a bit "spammy". However, using keywords in "alt image" tags and whatnot are known to have little or no value. Spammers are usually a little smarter than most people think. Why would they focus on meta keywords and alt tags when it has such LITTLE value. The SE's probably already look at these items, but, unless there are an extraordinary amount of 'stuffed' keywords, the SE's probably wont penalize/'ban' innocent people who provide excellent contributions to the information superhighway just because they are providing content (and in MANY cases not even selling anything). Many people just want to be heard and, unfortunately, it looks like those people will be considered as 'spammers' if they TRY to become visible with so many SEO firms out there.

We believe that most of what really matters has already been observed and recognized by SE's and the only additional changes may be more towards more 'spammy' Wordpress templated sites all the SEO gurus push nowadays along with sites with only XML-fed content as the gurus are pushing now as well. Soon, it seems, the SE's will simply go more for the 'handmade' rug over the cheaper manufactured 'handmade' rug lookalikes.

It seems, all the 'complexities' are not all that complex anymore as the minds at places like Google have spent days upon days covering each and every way to provide the best information without censoring those who may NOT have an extraordinary amount of 'SEO' background. In my opinion, someone should do some research on XML feed content and its future value and potential issues for site in the future rather than haggle over issues that hardly even MATTER such as how many times a little keyword is in a picture tag and such. THESE things DONT make THAT much of a difference for ANYONE.

WHY on earth would an extraordinary company such as Google spend so much TIME and MONEY on the brilliant minds there just to argue over how to make a perfect 'peanut butter and jelly' sandwich??? It's been covered, they are moving on to bigger and more important things that can REALLY affect search relevancy such as those scripts and bots cleverly installed in all those spammy sites.

Thank you.
 Anonymous said:
maybe they will start seeing and going after agency improved sites
 Ryan Jones said:
As long as you're concentrating on making your site "useful" or "relevant", and using the words people search for in natural ways on your pages, you won't have any problems with being considered spam.

I've never had to resort to any of those "tricks" to get pages to rank. That goes for my small sites and my fortune 100 client sites.

Things like having a good site architecture, doing keyword research, proper linking, and making your content findable are always good strategies - and I will argue that it's impossible to consider them spam.

As for things like using and changing the style, stuffing keywords into various places, etc - I don't bother with that stuff, because frankly you don't really need to.
 Al Toman said:
First, I thought spam is UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email) so do we have yet another definition for spam besides a canned meat (SPAM)!?!

Second, Google is first and foremost a business. It's algorithm is designed to make money. It is only good business (their financials reflect that). Google is in control. You can NOT spam (if that is the correct word) Google.

Google clearly states that you are NOT searching the Web you are searching Google's database servers. You can't "spam" that.
 Gideon Summers said:
@Al - can't spam google huh?

I only wish i was still so naive. When i see spammers in google's top 10 every day since these recent changes, I wonder when the last time you used google was.

Spammers of google have hit the jackpot with the recent aglo changes, no denying that.
 Bruce Hoag, PhD, CPsychol said:
I agree with Jill, for the simple reason that content that serves visitors will always carry weight with search engines. People come unstuck over this, however, when they mistaken content written for search engines as being valuable to visitors. It's the latter that could become tomorrow's spam. Won't it be great when it does!
 Nevil Darukhanawala said:
It's true, some old techniques that used to work with search engines don't work anymore. I guess the solution lies in creating a set of strategies that are value oriented, and in sharing that value across select web, user and social communties. You cannot go wrong with creating value.
 Justin Tyler said:
This really is quite a difficult question, and one that people will probably discuss for a long time.

I agree that if your content is very relevant to a particular topic then the SE's will always value that content and display it in the SERP'S.

However, most of us who are interested in and/or make a living out of SEO know that in order to have a highly ranked site for a competitive term or topic then you have to tick all the SEO boxes, even if some of those appear spammy (within reason).

I'm not sure if most would agree but in my opinion in this extremely competitive money driven world having quailty content is just not enough to rank highly for alot of subjects!

Just for the record I am not a spammer!
 Jill Whalen said:
@Justin Tyler, where did I say that all one needs to do is have quality content?

I'm not sure I understand what sort of SEO technique you might be talking about that might appear to be spammy, and why you'd want to use it. Do you have an example of such a technique?
 Justin Tyler said:
Sorry maybe my comments were misunderstood I'm not suggesting that you think quality content is all you need. It was a light reference to the term "content is king", to which I agree with for the most part, but I think maybe "content is Prince" is more accurate.

What I mean by that is if internal optimisation was so highly valued by SE's and achieved high rankings, then there would not be all these external SEO practices, some of which may appear spammy.

Just for example some sites/people are a member of nearly every social media service available, posting what I think is not such great information. Personally I'm not convinced that this is not a spammy technique, however it does seem quite common and for some, successful.