Google Features Volkswagen, Which Happens To Be Search Spamming

Volkswagen Hidding Text

The Google Enterprise Blog recently featured the Volkswagen web site for using Google Enterprise search to power a new feature on the VW web site. As you can see, the Volkswagen home page has a huge search box in the middle of the page. Cool, right?

Danny and I think so. As Danny was explaining the news on the Daily Search Cast today, he noticed that the site loads the box up in Flash. Looking at the source code, he discovered hidden text! Yes, hidden text on a page that was featured by an official Google blog.

Here is the text that is clearly not visible on the page. It’s kept invisible using a special style called “invisibleContent:”

<div class=”invisibleContent”>Volkswagen of America presents U.S. vehicle information, pricing, incentives, deals, comparisons on Eos, GTI, Jetta, New Beetle, New Beetle Convertible, Passat, Passat Wagon, Touareg, Rabbit, R32 and the GLI with links to VW dealers, owner information, Volkswagen merchandise, and VW accessories. homepage, volkswagen, volkswagon, vw.com, home, landing, top, volkswagen.com, home page, home, top, back, VWofAmerica, Volkswagen of America, Volkswagon of America, VWoA, VWofA, volkswagon.com</div>

Google has guidelines against using hidden text. In fact, such use got a different car maker, BMW, banned briefly from Google last year. YADAC: Yet Another Debate About Cloaking Happens Again covers both of these points.

Even Google has violated its own rules. Back in 2005, text meant for internal indexing was showing up on public pages, causing one part of Google to file for a reinclusion request with another part of Google. From what Google said at the time in a WebmasterWorld discussion:

Those pages were primarily intended for the Google Search Appliances that do site search on individual help center pages. For example, http://adwords.google.com/support has a search box, and that search is powered by a Google Search Appliance. In order to help the Google Search Appliance find answers to questions, the user support system checked for the user agent of “Googlebot” (the Google Search Appliance uses “Googlebot” as a user agent), and if it found it, it added additional information from the user support database into the title.

The issue is that in addition to being accessed via the internal site-search at each help center, these pages can be accessed by static links via the web. When the web-crawl Googlebot visits, the user support system thinks that it’s the Google Search Appliance (the code only checks for “Googlebot”) and adds these additional keywords.

That’s the background, so let me talk about what we’re doing. To be consistent with our guidelines, we’re removing these pages from our index. I think the pages are already gone from most of our data centers–a search like [site:google.com/support] didn’t return any of these pages when I checked. Once the pages are fully changed, people will have to follow the same procedure that anyone else would (email webmaster at google.com with the subject “Reinclusion request” to explain the situation).

Postscript: The Google Enterprise blog updated us with a post telling us that they contacted the Volkswagen team and Volkswagen removed the hidden text from the page and placed them in the meta description of the code.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • http://www.seoptimise.com kevgibbo

    At least the disguised the fact it was hidden well with their choice of class name!

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone spam the search engines for highly monetizable words like “homepage” and “home page” before.

    I wonder what their homepage-based spam revenues have been like?

  • savage

    .invisibleContent { width:1px; height:1px; visibility:hidden; overflow:hidden;}

  • http://www.worldfire.com weslinda

    The better news is that the don’t just do this on the home page, they do this throughout the site with unique “content” in the invisibleContent area depending on where you are. Wonder if they are doing this for the “exposure”? Could that be the reason they were so obvious?

  • http://www.jlh-design.com JLH

    Nice catch, but in all fairness to Google, this certainly isn’t the first time they’ve had two sets of rules for the little people and for those who have connections. What would be news if they treated all sites the same.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joe Duck

    Barry it’s another good Google “gotcha” and shows that Google often implements the rules inconsistently. This is one of many reasons it would be nice to see pressure from you, Danny, SEW, WMW, SearchEngineLand to get Google to create a “Chief of Collateral Damage” who would help examine the ways the algo sometimes punishes “good” sites while rewarding “cheating” sites as they have here.

  • http://www.innerauto.com/ The Car Geek

    I think I already visited that site and it was a really cool site… Changing, adding, replacing your choosen VW aftermarket part and automatically computes for the cost of the VW was the coolest part of that site.. I did not noticed that they already broke some rules of the Google which regards in using html codes…

  • http://www.seoimage.com/ seoimage

    In fairness to Google, you cannot expect them to check every site before they will except ad or partnership dollars?

    Perhaps the Googlers like their VWs but not their BMWs?
    :)

  • http://www/thuk.co.uk Neuro

    Odd

    It would be ok if they where sniffing the flash and displaying text to a non flash browser.

    VW do seem to have a habbit of breaking the rules.

    Though I wonder if its a lame atempt to handle nonflash browsers.

    What is it with car manafacturuers and flash what does say ttremastered do for audi’s brand.

  • http://blog.outer-court.com Philipp Lenssen

    Google pinged them and VW quickly changed it:
    http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com/2007/05/vw-website-updates.html

    Question: Does Google reach out to all sites with hidden text before they ban them, or just to big ones?

  • Eugeniu

    Why do they hide content , there is a “legal” way to hide it . They can just place a small button and onclick will show the content :)

  • follett

    Just one small point -
    The Car Geek….
    I read your comments above (and of course noted the nifty little link that you have added in your post)
    Thanks for the 3x spam comments which you tried to add to my blog this am.
    It’s getting a little tiresome…

    ///
    I think I already visited that site and it was a really cool site… Changing, adding, replacing your choosen VW aftermarket part and automatically computes for the cost of the VW was the coolest part of that site.. I did not noticed that they already broke some rules of the Google which regards in using html codes…
    ///

  • ceggi

    Hi,

    I can’t see the with the class “invisibleContent” in the VW source code. I’m on http://www.vw.com and viewing the “Page Source” using Firefox. When I look at the CSS file http://www.vw.com/global/css/html_default_v2.css, I do see the “invisibleContent” tag, but I’d like to know how to see the we’re talking about in the source code as well. . .

    Can you let me know what I’m missing?

    Thanks!

  • ceggi

    Re-posting my question since it came out wrong–sorry for the duplication.

    I’d like to know how to view the div we’re talking about in the source code. I can see the “invisibleContent” class in the CSS, but not the div that contains the invisible text. I’m using “View Source” in the Firefox browser. Do I need a different tool to see the div? Or has VW already removed it?

    Thanks!

  • savage

    ceggi, yes they took it down already. read all comments before leaving your own.

    “In fairness to Google, you cannot expect them to check every site before they will except ad or partnership dollars?”

    i thought google’s core function was “checking sites” ?? a company who is going to “organize the world’s information” should be able to handle “checking every website” right?

  • http://www.netpaths.net/blog/vw-hidden-text-spam/ CVOS

    It looks like VW is quite embarassed over this. Did they hire a shady SEO firm or was hidden text the brilliant idea of the VP of marketing?

    Either way, you can see the old cached version here (it wont last long):
    vw cached spam

    the current page disallows caching. This will be interesting: VW doesn’t want search engines to cache its pages? They go from spamming for dollars to blocking indexing spiders?

    their code:
    meta http-equiv=”Pragma” content=”no-cache”

  • http://www.seekxl.de/blog/2007/05/10/vw-setzt-auf-google-search-appliance/ seekXL

    a good new design, but the tagcloud never change? static tagcloud?

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