What is Spam?
Spam refers to a broad range of unwanted pop-ups, links, data and emails that we face in our daily interactions on the web. Spam’s namesake is, (now unpopular) luncheon meat that was often unwanted but ever present. Spam can be simply unwanted, but it can also be harmful, misleading and problematic for your website in a number of ways.
A quick history of spam
One of the most well known types of spam is email spam. Whether it’s newsletters, strange emails from “long lost relatives” with huge inheritances or advertisements, email spam became increasingly popular from the 1980s onwards.
Over the years, we’ve gotten used to spam as part of daily life, and our online systems help us with this. Whether you’re using Gmail, Outlook or any other email system, you’ll have an automatically included spam filter to help remove unwanted emails from your inbox.
From email spam, the spam phenomena grew into pop-up ads on our desktop browsers. Other than email, this is one of the most well known types of spam and continues to be a problem in 2016; though not nearly as much. Many of these invasive ads have since been blocked by computer antivirus programs and ad blockers, which operate like email spam filters, removing spam in the background without input from us.
As search engines began to dominate the market, with Google taking a notable lead, users realised that spam could have benefits within search engine results pages (SERPs). This led to a flurry of keyword and link related spam tactics to manipulate search results.
These spam tactics would grow to become known as black hat SEO, and search engines took notice. Google, Bing and others took aim at spam tactics meant to manipulate their results by updating their algorithms. Google named its updates Panda and Penguin (among others). This helped to eliminate the black hat SEO spam tactics, making them less valuable by deranking those sites which used them.
While Google and other search engines have gotten smarter about spam, so too have the spammers. While spam users advanced to traffic, referral and other kinds of web spam, search engines responded with more algorithm updates.
This could go on forever, with spam fighting search engines. However, digital marketers and SEO practitioners have since weighed in. In trying to understand how search engines like Google work, we’ve learned how to avoid, block and eliminate spam.
Types of spam
There are now many varieties of spam and different ways to combat them. Here we take a look at the range of spam types, focusing on the most common ones that you may come across, and what can be done to minimise their negative impact.
The most common types of spam fall into four main categories:
- Search spam
- Traffic spam
- Link spam
- Email spam
The aim of search spam is to change the ranking of a website in search results, usually with the expectation that minimal input will yield high rewards.. Typically this will be used to increase the ranking of the spam user’s own website, over competitors. One of the most common search spam tactics is known as keyword stuffing.
Keyword stuffing is an outdated form of web spam and is now largely ineffective. Because early spammers understood that Google, and other search engines, relied on numerous of mentions of a keyword to rank pages, they started using a keyword like: pet shop, all over their website.
This included using the keyword in places you would expect, like the title of the page, description of the business and in the content; but also adding the keywords in places that users wouldn’t see it, but search engines would.
- Alt Attribute
- Meta Description
- Meta Keywords
- Keyword Cloaking
Some of these tactics (like stuffing meta keywords) have become obsolete thanks to search engine updates. Spam users can include meta keywords on the site, but smart algorithms like Google’s will now ignore them completely.
Similarly, keyword cloaking; whereby keywords and phrases are included in a page’s code but hidden from the reader’s view, is outdated and no longer used by most marketers. Examples of keyword cloaking include:
- Hiding keywords in CSS code
- Concealing keywords in the same colour as background
- Small size font for keywords, typically placed near the bottom of pages or footers
The content on a site is a contributing factor in how your site is ranked in search. Spam within the content, including keyword stuffing and cloaking will play a part in that content being a contributing factor in search spam.
What your website actually has to say matters to search engines as much as users. Some users have attempted to increase their keyword density by using machine generated content or content scraping (stealing from other sites) to populate their site. Search engines frown on both these tactics.
You should always use your marketing team or in-house writers to create compelling content that speaks to real readers. This is the kind of content that search engines want to see and will believe is not spam.
Referral spam or link spam is another broad but significant area of spam. Because links to your site are a significant indication for search engines of your authority, bad links can cause major damage.
Over the years, Google has developed its algorithm to better identify genuine links and quality sites, but it’s not perfect yet. In previous years, if your site was found to have spammy links, it would be heavily penalised for months on end (even years). Google’s 2016 Penguin update however means that (in the simplest terms) you can avoid penalisation by either removing bad links or gaining more positive ones.
So what counts as link spam?
Link building is a common strategy in digital marketing. In fact, it’s popular in PR, search marketing, SEO and well, any kind of marketing. Link building at its core means getting a link from one site to yours. In an ideal scenario (depending on your sector), you would get an article written about your business, or provide a quote for a news story, or get a review. These might then link back to your site and you gain some authority.
The problem with how link building can be carried out, and why many sites have to deal with link spam, is because it has been carried out deceptively. Black hat SEOs and those looking for quick results, used the early search engine algorithm’s basic nature to attract what would go on to be known as unnatural links.
Unnatural links can have a variety of sources, but these are the most common:
- Link Farms – online directories whose only aim is to offer single links out to sites, almost always for a fee.
- Link Networks – a slightly smarter approach, link networks include a group of sites who all link to one another, increasing their own collective domain authority.
- Reciprocal Linking – while link networks may unintentionally link to one another, sites in small sectors may link to one another as they are the only resources rather than for link networking purposes, reciprocal links are planned.
- Manual Link Spam – this involves creating links in user generated content sections of other sites, such as in forums or comment sections.
The negative effects of link spam varies depending on the scale and the search engine, but in order to ensure the best chance of not attracting a penalty, you should always keep a close eye on the links coming to your site.
Some of the most obvious signs of link spam platforms are:
- High percentage of advertising, frequently featuring clickbait articles
- Many outbound links
- Not many inbound links
- Part of an obvious links network (you may see this in the title as “part of the [name] family)
- Disjointed topics
Any reputable digital marketing company, if they carry out link building, will avoid these types of links. Any internal marketing team should adhere to these rules too, to avoid your site being seen as full of link spam.
The third major form of spam you may come across is traffic spam. Traffic spam can be one of two things, not necessarily exclusive of the other.
The first is related to link spam, where you received a link from a bad site and receive traffic from that site that causes high bounces from users. This can be seen as traffic spam because it will negatively impact your site and is unwanted.
The second variety of traffic spam is not real, well not exactly. Your marketing team or SEO agency should be checking your referral traffic on a regular basis. In traffic monitoring applications, like Google Analytics, you will be able to track referral traffic and see the platforms users are visiting your site from.
Among these sites you may spot some odd links. They could be links you didn’t get yourself or show sites where your link doesn’t appear visible. Or you may not find a site at that URL at all. This traffic is problematic as it could be link spam or it could be creating traffic spam which skews your monthly data.
Some of the most common traffic spam sites you may spot are:
Note: variants which are also traffic spam may change numbers or domain .[area]
Referral spam does not necessarily harm your website, but it can affect the accuracy of the traffic data you collect.
Spam is a prevalent issue and can be a complicated one, especially if you have used a spam tactic in the past and are looking to get back on the straight and narrow.
If you think that your site is being harmed by search spam, link spam or traffic spam, you can contact a member of our SEO team for advice on: 0207 871 7662