Walking The (Thin) Line Between SEO And Web Spam
An article that appeared on SEOBook.com last week has me a little rattled. Rank Modifying Spammers is an interesting exploration of Google’s search algorithm and the possible direction the company may take in its fight against Web spam. The author’s hypotheses stem from a Google search patent that was recently discovered by Bill Slawski of SEOByTheSea. The potential implications of that patent, as articulated by SEO Book, are why I’m a little anxious.
The patent illustrates a method for Google to identify “rank-modifying spammers.” Distilling down the lengthier discussions across the two posts referenced above, Google will place search results into a temporary state of limbo when rank modifications are occurring. So as content is in the midst of being reassessed (presumably following SEO attention), the page(s) in question will fluctuate across the results pages prior to settling in new positions. If SEOs observe those fluctuations and make further content refinements before the pages have wholly settled, then Google knows that a “spammer” is behind the changes, and the page and site may be subject to spam-related penalties.
The patent broadly describes webmasters who attempt to modify their search engine rankings as “spammers.” To me, that seems to implicate all SEOs.
Are SEOs spammers?
In May I wrote a column, “Doesn’t Google Owe SEOs Something?” that I was practically vilified over. My contention then -- as it is today -- is that SEOs have delivered value to Google, Bing, and others. We have studied the methods that search engines employ to discover and score content, and in response have deliberately packaged up our sites for easy consumption. From a white hat SEO’s perspective, we have done our best to make Google’s job easier. Google should be thanking us, right?
The counter argument (one of dozens that I received) that gave me the most pause came from my friend and colleague Abdul Khimani. Abdul has a theory that I hadn’t considered before: that Google’s evolution as a company has been set back several years as a result of it having to funnel energies toward fighting Web spam. He believes that if SEO of any sort (black or white hat) had never existed, Google would be better off today.
It’s a counterpoint that can never be tested, of course --although I think Abdul may be onto something. But isn’t there some degree of inevitability at play too? Anytime a new paradigm emerges and presents economic opportunity, isn’t it inevitable that someone will attempt to exploit that opportunity? In the case of search engines, spammers were bound to happen.
The creation of Webmaster Guidelines seems to have been a move that provided directional counsel to white hat webmasters while helping in the fight against Web spam. Otherwise, I can imagine a scenario where all webmasters would have felt compelled to “spam” in order to compete (sounds like baseball in the steroids era).
Is Google the SEO’s enemy?
This leads me back to the SEO Book article and the patent in question. Does Google genuinely believe that all SEO is spam? The patent language can surely lead one to that conclusion, although the presence of Webmaster Guidelines and Google’s official statements to the contrary seem to rebut that conclusion.
But there really is no room for ambiguity in patent applications, so allow me the brief opportunity to assume that Google doesn’t like SEOs. Whose interests are served when rank manipulation occurs? SEOs want their content to be noticed and positioned as highly as possible for competitive search queries. Search engines want to maximize revenue per search (RPS) via paid advertising, and the quality of the organic index enables that ad delivery.
Do search engines really stand to enhance RPS if all sites are penalized equally when “rank modifying” activities are detected? I don’t believe so, because it could cut too deeply into the quality of the results set.
And Google would be wise to tread carefully here, and focus on recognizing and rewarding the legitimate content producer. Broadly labeling SEO as spam could produce substandard organic results, hurting near-term ad revenues. A longer-term, sustained view of SEO as spam could accelerate a decentralization of search into myriad alternate destinations (e.g., ESPN.com for sports, Facebook for social context, etc.).
To stymie that shift, Google should continue to recognize white hat SEO for what it is: a content marketing best practice, not rank-modifying spam.