I think we can all agree: Spam sucks! Everyone who uses the web knows how frustrating it is to land on a page that sounds promising in the search results but ends up being useless when you visit it. That’s web spam. Okay, okay -- I exaggerate. Not every awful website is web spam. Some companies just happen to have bad websites. However, unlike those bad sites, the creators of web spam deliberately (in most cases) manipulate search engines in order to get their content ranking in search results. Not cool.
Here’s the kicker: Let’s say you’re a sole proprietor who’s hired someone to do SEO for you. Or maybe you manage a marketing team, and SEO has always been one of those things you wish you had time for but decided to outsource instead. How do you know that the SEO you're outsourcing is truly legitimate and won’t result in your website being considered spammy?
And we all know how Google hates spam. In fact, I'm sure you hate spam just as much. So, how do you know if your website is spammy? And what should you do to make sure it isn't considered *GULP* web spam?
If you have concerns about your website being considered spammy, here is a list to review for yourself and/or with anyone doing SEO work for you. As you read through these items, ask yourself, "Do I or has anyone working on my website ever employed these practices? Does this describe my business -- even if it’s wasn't intentional?"
8 Qualities of a Search Engine Web Spammer (Who Only Their Mom Could Love)
1) They Rarely Use Social
It’s a fact. Granted, there are people who are spammers in social media, too, but those people are usually a different type of spammer -- their end goal is not to get their website ranking higher in search results. Spammers simply don’t dedicate the time to build relationships with people and, thus, are rarely found in social networks. Help to distinguish your website and marketing from web spam by building relationships online in social media with prospects and customers.
2) They Over-Optimize
The repetitive use of keywords in content, where they unnaturally appear word after word ... after word (you know what I'm talking about) -- that’s referred to as keyword stuffing or, more innocently, over-optimization. Call it what you will; it’s not a good practice either way. Most frequently, you’ll see repetitive keywords in the following areas: page titles, on-page copy, and in domain names/URLs. To prevent keyword stuffing, follow best practices for optimizing your content, and aim to write as naturally as you would speak.
3) They Don’t Focus on Content
Spammers don't care about creating quality content -- or content that is unique in any way, for that metter. In fact, spammy sites will often consist of stolen content, content repeated again and again, or content that has been pulled in via RSS feeds from other websites. Avoid this type of spammy behavior by making sure all the content you publish is unique and compelling.
4) They Stuff Their Sites With Ads
Spammers create the type of websites where more than 50% of the content on any given page is advertisements. Remember, the spammer’s goal is to make a lot of money, and running a ton of ads will help get them to that goal. Don't risk looking like a spammy site. Make sure to dedicate the top half of your web pages with quality content and calls-to-action. Don’t waste valuable website real estate with third-party advertisements that add no value to your business or its users. Google is not a fan of excessive ads on websites, and they'll ding you for it.
5) Their Sites Have Lots of Dead Ends, Pages Not Found, and Broken Links
For a spammer, maintaining a legitimate website requires too much upkeep that they just let pages expire and neglect to make necessary updates and changes. As a marketer, make a commitment to keeping your website fresh and up to date. It pays to do some housekeeping, so don’t let the cobwebs build up.
6) They Attract Lots of Low-Quality Inbound Links
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as bad, low-quality inbound links. The good news is, if you've only ever participated in white-hat SEO practices, you're most likely in the clear. But if you've gone a little black hat in your day (buying inbound links for instance), this one’s a no-brainer. After all, who links to spam, except for spam? Remember: A great source of high-quality inbound links is high-quality content you create that naturally entices other websites to link back to it. Another great way to attract high-quality inbound links is through guest blogging, so leverage your networks to help build a stronger reputation and more powerful influence online. And if you have attracted some subpar inbound links in the past, consider using Google's new Disavow tool to help clean up your online reputation.
7) They Own Lots of Domains or Microsites
Spammers are notorious for not only purchasing lots of domains, but also setting up site after site that consist of just one page each and never gets updated. Of course, there are some exceptions to this, but as a best practice, try to keep all your content on one primary, authoritative domain/website.
8) They Employ Other Traditionally Black-Hat Tactics
These tactics include things like doorway pages, text that matches the page's background color (so the human eye can't catch it, but search engines can index it), and the use of misspelled content and keywords intentionally used wrong just to rank. Hidden text, meta-tag stuffing, scraping other websites for content -- it's all bad. As a marketer, just don’t do it. You know it’s bad, and if you're unsure of whether a particular practice is black hat, do some research, or ask an SEO expert. Conduct your own sniff tests, and if something isn't up to snuff, then don’t do it.
Yes, it is possible to innocently fall into the trap of some of these eight warning signs just because you didn’t know any better at the time -- or maybe because you just haven’t monitored the SEO activities for your website. And while it sounds enticing to be on page one of the search results and generate a lot of traffic, you need to ask yourself: At what cost?
What Then, Does Google Care About?
SEO should mean optimizing for user experience! It’s no longer just about optimizing for on-page SEO (keywords) or off-page SEO (attracting inbound links). Google also wants you to create the best possible user experience for your site visitors. Imagine clicking on a search engine result and actually finding what you'd hoped. That’s exactly what Google wants to happen, so as a marketer, you need to focus your efforts on achieving that user experience!
The websites who succeed at doing this are the ones that get rewarded with good rankings, traffic, and ultimately, conversions. Those who fail or practice any of the spammy behaviors above either end up not showing up in search results (at best), or getting penalized by Google (at worst).
What Marketers Should Focus On
Essentially, you want to aim for consistent and quality content that delivers a clear value proposition and shows attention to detail. Create content (with "content" being more than just text -- think images, video, rich text, reviews, comments, etc.) that is innovative, unique, and inspiring -- in other words, compelling!
Next, you should base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your website. They’re the main consumers of your content, and they're using search engines to find your work. Rather than focusing hard on specific tweaks (AKA "gaming the system") to gain ranking positions in the organic results of search engines, focus instead on putting your site’s best foot forward. In other words, aim to please your ultimate consumers: your users, customers, and prospects ... not search engines.
Designing your site around your visitors’ needs while making sure it's also easily accessible to search engines usually produces positive results. It helps users find the content they want faster, and ultimately convert. It’s a win-win situation.
How Do You Track All This?
To determine whether your SEO efforts are paying off and whether your content aligns with your users and creates that desired user experience, you'll need to keep track of a few key metrics. Evaluate how users are consuming your content. Sure, you'll want to look at pages visited, but think a little bit outside the box.
- Time on Site: Keeping track of time on site using a web analytics tool like Google Analytics is a good way to get insight about whether people like consuming your content. Now, depending on your type of content, users may not be spending that much time per page. Depending on the nature of your site, your target duration for a visit will vary.
- Bounce Rates: Google has publicly stated that bounce rate does not factor in as part of its ranking calculation; however, bounce rate (which a web analytics tool like Google Analytics can also report on) can give you some information about user experience. A healthy bounce rate for a site that produces a large volume of content is 70% or less. There are a few things to keep in mind when looking at this metric. Look at it on a page by page basis, and consider that each page will have its own unique bounce rate. Some pages will naturally have higher rates than others, and that’s okay. You would expect that especially from something like your 'Contact Us' page, for example. There are additional ways to measure bounce rate, as discussed by Avinash Kaushik here.
- Clickthrough Rates (CTR): There are several different types of clickthrough rates you can look at, but I would recommend two types in particular. First, track the clickthrough rates of your search listings, which Google Analytics will provide to you if you have Webmaster Tools set up for your website. Generally speaking, you will have lower CTRs where you do a poor job of communicating what your site is about -- meaning your Page Title, URL and description don’t align, or you have a poor site structure. Second, track the CTRs for your various calls-to-action (CTAs) on your web pages. Remember, one of the main goals for getting your web pages to rank well in search is to get people to click through to an offer. Therefore, your CTA clickthrough rates on those pages will tell you how effectively your traffic is getting routed to the landing pages for your offers.
- Conversion Rates: Once you get people from search engines to your landing pages, they still need to fill out the form and convert! Conversion rates should be tied directly to your business goals. A conversion might be completing a purchase, signing up for a mailing list, or downloading a whitepaper.
- Social Signals: Social media is about relationships, and your social signals are the metrics that help you determine whether your content is being shared in social media -- and the impact it's having. Beyond tracking the number of Likes and shares for your content, also consider the following (which you can track using a closed-loop marketing analytics tool like HubSpot): traffic from social media (and individual social networks), overall social media reach, and how many leads and customers you can attribute to your social media presence. Remember -- social media influences SEO, so it's important not to ignore that fact.
We have entire blog posts and ebooks dedicated to explaining and exploring SEO and marketing analytics, so you’ll excuse me if my explanations just scrape the surface. One way to improve your site is to look at it from the perspective of your users. What shows up in search results: is it enticing? Does it accurately represent the content of my website? Am I giving searchers a reason to click on my listings? And the same applies to content within your site, too. Give users the information they seek.
Let’s Say You Did Get Penalized. How Would You Know?
If you suspect you have been penalized in search engines for spammy behavior, there are a few things you can check. Start with the following:
- Do you show up in the search results? You can start by simply doing a search for your site. Searching for your site with the following command (search:domain.com) will give you a sense of what’s indexed.
- Check your traffic metrics -- volume and sources. Has your traffic remained the same or at least steadily increased? If so, that’s good. If, however, your traffic shows any sudden drop-offs without a rebound, it's an indication you may have been dinged.
- What types of links come in to your website? Take a look at the type of inbound links you've attracted for your site. Do any of them look suspicious?
- Are you still generating leads? Traffic alone isn't the only factor to consider. If you've stopped getting conversions and leads without changing much or without reducing the volume of content and offers you produce, I would encourage you to look into it further.
While there are certain steps to take (like this one) if you feel you've been penalized by Google unecessarily, the best way to start reparing your search engine rankings is to clean up your black-hat SEO practices and move forward with a more white-hat approach.
In the end, you want to ask yourself, "What do my users care about?" If you can focus on creating content while keeping your users in mind, all of the above will be super simple. Do what’s in your audience’s best interest and write as though you're having a conversation with that person. Use your website as a tool to communicate, engage, and build trust and authority. That’s all that Google expects of you. Web spammers, on the other hand, manipulate users and search engines, ultimately creating a less than optimal experience for them as a result. Don’t be that guy.
Are you optimizing your website and content with the user in mind?
Originally published Oct 24, 2012 4:30:00 PM, updated August 29 2017