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Avoiding search engine spam penalties

How to determine whether or not you (or your SEO firm) is spamming the search engines

Many of my search engine optimization colleagues are very surprised, and even annoyed, that I report search engine spam regularly. Some search engine optimizers feel that I shouldn't report spam because the web search engines don't pay me, but I do not agree with that point of view. Search engine spam degrades the quality of search results, and being an advanced searcher, I don't like my time being wasted filtering out poor, irrelevant search listings.

So it came as no surprise when one of the reader questions I received was this:

What can I do to NOT get any spam penalties from the search engines?

Part 5 of Search Engine Visibility details all the different search engine spam methods, without actually teaching you how to spam. Since the search engines are getting better at filtering out some types of search engine spam, spammers have been forced to be more creative. Nevertheless, the book will help you understand more clearly what the search engines do and do not want.

But if you need some general spam guidelines, here is the best one:

Don't put any invisible elements on your web pages that end users are not meant to view.

Take the "white background to hide white text keywords" as an example. Most of the time, I think, the only reason people use this technique is to boost rankings. How does utilizing this technique benefit your target audience? It doesn't.

Meta-tag descriptions are meant to be viewed. You can sometimes read them in search engine results pages (SERPs) as a content snippet. Drop-down menu content is meant to be viewed after your site visitors place their cursor over a navigation button/link, or click on a navigation button/link

The only exception I can think of right now is using a blank.gif for spacing purposes. (When browsers support code better, I'll stop using blank.gifs.) No one is meant to see that graphic image. However, stuffing keywords in a graphic image that is not meant to be seen is considered search engine spam.

Alternative text, which is the text placed inside of a graphic image, is meant to be viewed. If your site visitors are using a text-only browser, they will be able to view the alternative text in your graphic images.

Text is meant to be read. Links are meant to be clicked on. If you don't want people to read the text on your web pages or click on the links on your web pages, then don't put them there in the first place. Hiding text and links from end users but giving them to search engines is not a good search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, in my opinion.

Cloaking and search engine spam

Cloaking is the technique of feeding search engine spiders one web page, and feeding all other end users a different web page. Many cloaking companies are search engine spammers. Unfortunately, over 90% of search engine marketing firms that cloak are spamming the engines, which is not fair to the SEM firms that cloak for legitimate reasons. Search engine spammers make it difficult for those of use who follow the terms and guidelines for search engine inclusion.

Over 90% of search marketing firms that utilize cloaking as an SEO strategy are search engine spammers.

Cloaking companies commonly use scare tactics to convince people that cloaking is necessary. They will tell you that others can figure out your online marketing strategy just by looking at your web pages. ("Stealing your meta tags" is a common scare tactic used.) This is not an accurate characterization of the situation at all. No one will suddenly appear at the top of search engine results just from stealing your meta tags.

What many people do not understand is how many doorway page/cloaking companies work. They create thousands of pages for a single keyword or keyword phrase. All of these pages are fed to the search engines, polluting their indices with unnecessary information. These pages are quite unattractive, and they contain so much gibberish that I understand why they have to be cloaked. End users would never continue visiting a web site if they actually viewed these pages.

Furthermore, many cloaking companies purchase domain names and use them to artificially boost a site's link popularity. All a search engine has to do is determine the IP address of all of these fake sites. If your site is a part of this artificial link building, your site can get banned and penalized, too.

There are legitimate uses for cloaking, but if you don't have the search engines' permission to cloak, I would not use it as an online marketing strategy.

My philosophy is simple. The search engines' goal is to provide relevant search results. So if you want to use the search services, you should help them deliver relevant results. Follow the rules and guidelines they have set forth in their own sites, in publications like Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land, and at conferences. That way, both you and the search services will benefit.


I hate email spam. I hate telemarketers calling me during dinner. And I hate search engine spam. All forms of "spam" waste everyone's valuable time.

My advice is to always design and write your pages for human viewing. If you are trying to hide text and links to boost search engine visibility, you are probably spamming. You wouldn't like it if 3,000 telemarketers called you during dinner. So don't pollute the search engines with 3,000 domains not meant for human viewing.


Shari Thurow - photoArticle by Search Engine Visibility author Shari Thurow, Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), web site usability, information architecture (IA) and web design firm. Shari is also the co-author of When Search Meets Web Usability.

If you would like permission to publish this article for your online newsletter, blog, or web site, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

For more information about our search engine optimization, search usability training, information architecture (IA), and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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