What's Acceptable Search Engine "Spam" Technique?
After hearing a lot about it, I went over to SitePoint and read an interesting article by a "search engine optimization expert" wherein he enumerates his list of fifteen of the most egregious techniques by which companies and individuals "spam" the search engines. What's search engine spam, you ask? It's using inappropriate and deceitful methods of manipulating the HTML or other elements of a site to generate a higher ranking than the site would otherwise be granted by a typical search engine relevance calculation.
Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely am against search engine spamming and other forms of 'cheating', so it's not that I don't agree with the premise of the article at all. What I have a problem with is more about whether the technologies and techniques that are singled out are really search engines spamming or not.
For example, Wikis are singled out as a bad technology, yet a Wiki is just a minimalist shared white board, a technology that lets a group of people share the maintenance of Web-based content. The most popular is probably Wikipedia, which is a fabulous resource, but even Net-savvy publisher O'Reilly has a Wiki that they use to manage the interaction between the company, their authors, and user groups.
The argument of the article author, though, is that Wikis are dangerous because anyone can -- theoretically -- add content and therefore add bogus links back to a third-party site. Are Wikis therefore bad because people can "spam" them? Of course not.
Just like comments on a weblog or entries in a guestbook, pages on a Wiki should be monitored to ensure that the information thereon is relevant.
Another area of complaint: so-called "networked blogs". Again, the article's author arbitrarily decides what is and isn't legitimate content, stating: "some spammers start a blog, plug it full of garbage content such as comments on what they thought at 5:15, along with a link or two and some keyword rich text."
There are undoubtedly some people who exploit that idea, but I am far more reticent about deciding that a weblog where they talk about what they were thinking at a given time is garbage. As a quick example, perhaps the 5:15pm thoughts were interesting because the weblog writer had just gotten off work and knew that something frightening (or wonderful) was going to happen at 5:50.
Writing weblog entries or articles in a manner that allows certain keywords or key phrases to be repeated with some frequency seems like more of a smart way to ensure that your musings are rated as relevant with a search engine than otherwise. After all, in typical prose you might mention the subject of the comment once, then just refer to "it" and "the problem", "the company" or similar, making it impossible for a search engine to know what is the subject of the article in the first place. (and that's a good argument as to why you should also craft good titles for your entries too)
Who Makes the Judgment Call?
What bothers me about these two techniques that are highlighted is that we're sliding from the overt spam techniques cogently discussed in the Sitepoint article (techniques including invisible text and link farms, both discussed in detail in Three Ways to Adversely Impact your Google Pagerank) to techniques that are really more of a judgment call. I imagine that the author of the original article, for example, would find a comment added to this weblog entry that pointed to someone else's site offering ten smart ways to improve your search ranking to be spam, even though I wouldn't necessarily agree.
What I'm trying to say here is that I'm in agreement when we're talking about objective search engine spam techniques, but when we move into subjective search engine spam techniques, I'm a lot less comfortable with the entire topic and am confident that what I think is SES is going to be different to what you, the reader, would think is SES.
So my closing thought on this topic is that it's always important to take what anyone says about search engine optimization -- including what I say -- with a grain of salt. Think for yourself, read the published criteria from important search engine sites like Google, and make your own decisions on how to approach the problem and what kind of results you seek.