A new controversy involving the old issue of search engine spamming — where keywords or marketing information that may not actually be relevant to a site’s offering are used to gain higher rankings in search results — has again demonstrated the fine line site operators walk in generating traffic and revenue without garnering ill repute from the Internet community.
While unscrupulous methods of climbing the results charts of Google, Yahoo, MSN and other Internet searchers have been around for several years, the most recent controversy involves Web publishing software maker WordPress.org, which was highlighted on Internet blogs and reports for earning search hits on articles not available to general users of the site. The scheme has reportedly caused WordPress’ de-listing from the search indexes of Google and Yahoo.
“It’s hard for search engines to keep up with the billions and billions of pages that are served,” Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira told TechNewsWorld. “In any case, there is a very fine line between legitimately pushing up your search results and ‘stuffing the ballot box.’ “
Spira said although “search engine spam” has become a buzzword, the term applies to a number of efforts that, over the years, have attempted to rig search engine results to drive up traffic and advertising dollars.
“It’s a term that’s been applied recently, although people have been skewing results for years,” he said. “It’s just the latest twist on getting results up there.”
Spira, who stressed that the bulk of search results are not advertising, indicated legitimate search advertisers, who buy keywords for more prominent placement alongside or within search results, are not as impacted as the companies getting bumped out of the top results.
“What really matters is the companies whose search results are moved lower by unscrupulous actions,” he said.
Matter of Ethics
Among press and blog reports, there has been both widespread condemnation and consideration for WordPress, a small but popular open-source blogging software platform. Members of the Internet community have expressed both disgust and understanding of the reported search engine manipulation, exposed by the blog Waxy.org last week.
Spira said such actions — which are now banned by contract with most prominent search engines — sometimes go beyond “poor cricket” and can be illegal if trademarks are included in so-called “meta data,” which is combed by search engines.
IDC analyst Sue Feldman said search engine result-rigging is not illegal, but it is misleading and falls under the topic of “things that are frowned upon.”
Feldman told TechNewsWorld while the “dos and don’ts” of the Internet have become clearer in the last five years, there is still a lack of understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.
“The ethics become a little fuzzy,” Feldman said. “You could see how people are likely to jump on something without thinking through the implications. It’s important to make sure what you’re doing is playing by the rules and if you’re using search engine optimization, to make sure they’re playing by the rules as well.”
Feldman said the situation has intensified with the potential to reap advertising revenue that comes with higher traffic from the search engines. Calling it “a huge issue for search engines,” Feldman described the kind of cat-and-mouse game that is typical of the computer security industry, with both sides pushing technology for the upper hand.
“It’s like two grand masters playing chess,” she said. “The [search engine] spam makers come up with something clever. Then the search engines, which are also clever, come up with something to counter that. People are endlessly innovative and you’ve got this nasty game going on with users caught in the middle. It’s high stakes now because of the ad revenue.”