Search engines - what not to do

Search engines are constantly striving to get relevant and useful results at the top of their rankings. It is sometimes possible to trick a search engine by using techniques with the primary aim of improving search engine rankings rather than providing useful content for visitors. This is called spamming.


Search engine spamming

Spamming is used to describe techniques with the primary aim of improving search engine rankings rather than providing useful content for visitors.

Search engines want to list relevant, useful content, and are fighting a constant battle against spammers. Techniques that might work one month will often result in a ban the next month as the search engine improves it's methods of detecting spam.

Search engine algorithms do a good job against spam, but as spam increases, search engines tighten their algorithms and often accidentally penalize honest sites. Every webmaster should be aware of what search engines regard as spam, and make sure their site doesn't have these features.

Key word stuffing

Repeating the same word or phrases over and over again is of no use to your visitors. Google will now drop such pages altogether for the words that are repeated excessively.

Never repeat a word to the extent that it comprises more than 10% of the words on the page. A normal occurrence in good copy writing will be between 2% and 5%.

Invisible text

Spammers used to write text that was visible to search engines but not to visitors. This text could be inside alt tags in transparent images, inside <no script> tags, or just in very small writing in a white paragraph against a white background.

Alt tags and <no script> tags are still useful as accessibility aids for the small percentage of people who can't download images or execute JavaScript. They are no longer useful in search engines as Google realizes that words that most visitors can't see are not relevant to that page.

At best, Google ignores accessibility aids, but if it finds they have been stuffed with keywords then it will not rank a page for those keywords.


META redirects were used by spammers to divert visitors away from a doorway page into another site. Search engines will not follow META re-directs, and may ban a site using them, even if they are being used for honest reasons.

Search engines are OK with server redirects such as a 301 redirect which tells visitors that a page has moved.

Duplicate content

Spammers used to use link hundreds of similar pages to their web sites to artificially increase their link popularity. Nowadays if search engines find a certain percentage of identical content on 2 or more pages they will list the top ranking page and completely ignore all the others.

Interlinking of sites

If you have more than one web site, and link from every page of one site to every page of another site, then this is regarded as artificially increasing the link popularity of the sites and will be considered spamming.

How to tell if your site has been penalized

Search engines may penalize sites in one of many ways. They could drop your whole site completely from the listings. They could reduce the ranking of one of your pages, or they could ignore your pages for certain search terms.

The first check is to find a combination of words on your page that is unusual. Go to Google and type in the combination of words surrounded by quotes("). If no results are found then that page is not listed in Google.

This could occur because very few sites link to your site. If this is the case then including your site in a few directories will help. If you are sure you have a number of good quality inbound links then carefully check your pages for elements that might be considered as spam. Remove them, then e-mail Google with the details and ask for re-inclusion.

Google publishes their own webmaster guidelines which contain further advice.

Next > Search engine glossary


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