Intent, Content & Spamming – Is There A Difference?

The difference between intent and content is what Google is missing.

Dirty White Hat

My White Hat Feels Dirty

Keywords at their most basic level are what we use to communicate, and if you think back to those COM 101 days, you’ll remember that the way it works is our thoughts are encoded in our brains into words, those words are spoken or written, and then decoded by the brains on the other end.

This is why when you say something, it may not come out (or be received) the way you meant it to be.

If we think of our websites as having conversations with search engines, this is how people get into trouble, and why search engines are failing at their job.

Search engines decode our websites’ content by parsing the language and applying a set of algorithms to it. In theory, they then rank content according to how well it matches the query. Oh, if only it were that simple.

What actually happens is that the search engines (Google especially) do a very poor job of decoding the intent behind the content. This is why spammers thrive.

For all Google’s lip service saying they know how keywords are actually used, and how they use Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) to decode intent, they miss a dozen spammers who are happily stuffing keywords and cloaking content. And getting rewarded for it.

So here’s my effort to level the playing field. Here are a few things spammers (ahem: SEOs) are doing to game the system that still work.

1.  Keywords In The Top Left Of The Page

You’ll see this on a lot of sites – a keyword (usually relevant, but with no valid purpose) in the top left corner of the page, just above the logo. It’s not hidden, but it provides no benefit to the user.

2.  Keywords In The “title” Attribute On Links

As soon as people figured out they could stuff ALT text, they realized they could stuff links too. You’ll see a lot of top ranking sites using this on their links – if you hover over the link, you’ll see a pop up with a keyword for the link just like you do ALT text. It’s often referred to as a “tool tip”.

Again, no benefit to the user whatsoever. Sure, it used to have valid purpose back when the Internet was invented, but now it’s nothing more than an instrument of spam.

3.  Keywords In The Domain

No matter what Google or anyone else says, there’s a clear preference for keywords in the domain name that goes beyond just the link anchor text you’re likely to get from your inbound links (see below). Spammers know that keywords in the domain name can help you rank better in Google. Test after test has shown this is true, despite what Google says.

4.  Keywords In Site Navigation Links

“Home” is a perfectly acceptable link! It’s universally recognized, it’s clear, and it’s short and to the point. It doesn’t need to be “Keyword Research Home” or “Lemon Law Home”. But Google continues to reward it. I’m sure Web designers everywhere would throw a party for Google if they would finally change their algo so that this stupid stuffing trick stopped working.

5.  Keywords In Link Anchor Text

This is exactly what Google claims to ferret out with Penguin. If it actually worked that way, I’d throw a ticker tape parade. Because the way SEOs get links is anything but natural. In the early days of the Web, you got a link on someone else’s site by asking, “Hey buddy, we have similar but not competitive websites. I think my users would benefit from your site and vice versa. Want to trade links?”

There’s nothing wrong with this type of exchange, but Google de-values it because it’s an exchange rather than a one way link (which in the early days of the Web would only happen if you paid the webmaster for it, but I digress…).

Instead, the link behavior they reward is “check out this article for more info on keyword research techniques“, when in a natural world, these are the keywords a person would actually use for the link anchor text: “check out this article for more info on keyword research techniques”.

Before you start screaming obscenities at me (I’m an SEO, not a Spammer! Those are valid SEO techniques!), let me say that I use (almost) all of these techniques from time to time on the websites I optimize. Because here’s the thing. They work. And as long as Google’s going to show preferences to sites that do this, I’ll have to do things that make me a little sick to my stomach every time I recommend them.

So here’s my plea, Google. Start putting as much emphasis on intent as you do on content. And help those of us out there who identify as “white hat” SEOs feel a little less dirty from our success.

Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Keywords & Content | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: is the President of an online marketing consulting company offering SEO, PPC, and Web Design services. She's been in search since 2000 and focuses on long term strategies, intuitive user experience and successful customer acquisition. She occasionally offers her personal insights on her blog, JLH Marketing.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://twitter.com/ApeRedMedia Ape Red Media

    Hi there, great article and sentiment. Can you tell me why a sites pages that have shown well in SERPS for over a year (postitons 1-5 on page 1) have at the start of this month dropped off the map! Not even showing in the first 40 pages! Is there something a competitor can do to drop you off the map or is it more likely to be Google’s algorythms?

  • http://www.highrankings.com/ Jill Whalen

    Jenny, good article. But unless search engine have changed something recently, link title attribute information is and has always been (as far as I’ve been able to tell) ignored by the major search engines.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Hey Jill, thanks for the comment. I’ve read your stuff for years. There’s always been a lot of debate over the title attribute… although you’re right, Google says they don’t index it. A lot of spammers still use it and claim it works, so I thought it should be included.

  • http://www.highrankings.com/ Jill Whalen

    Hey Jenny,

    It’s got nothing to do with what Google says (they aren’t always truthful). It’s simply the way it is, regardless of what spammers think. Simple enough one to test. Like I said, I haven’t tested it in awhile, but I’d be shocked if they suddenly turned this one on. Will try to see if I have any old tests up for this one when I have a chance.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Glad you enjoyed the article. SEO being what it is, it’s not really possible to tell you why a site would drop out of the rankings without a lot more research. If you don’t have a Google Webmaster Tools account, sign up for one. If you’re violating their guidelines, they’ll most likely post a notice there that will give you some idea of where to look first. Another strategy is to match up the date the site dropped with one of the major algo updates – see this list: 
    http://jlh-marketing.com/a-timeline-of-recent-google-updates/. Hope that helps!

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Jenny-

    I’m not fond of some of Google’s alleged algorithmic choices, but I would be careful of the “blame Google” mentality. 

    Searchers are poor at communicating intent in query formulation. We should not blame Google, or any other search engine for that matter, for poor query formulation. 

    For a positive and accurate search experience, searchers have a responsibility to formulate “good” queries. However, query formulation is not taught in grade schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. Heck, many SEOs even do poor query formulation.

    On a different note, the title attribute, though not used for ranking purposes, if implemented properly, can and does serve usability purposes. If an ignorant SEO keywords stuffs the title attributes? Then it’s a clue to the Spam Police. 

  • Piyush Khera

    Nice post Jenny. I agree with your post. If Google is not capable enough at this point to pick up these spammy techniques it will do tomorrow. It is always good to think in a long run rather than just getting quick wins.

  • http://twitter.com/AuthorityBuzz Authority Buzz

    In my opinion, I think you’ll see a lot of these on-page strategies start to go away because of the (now known) risk of over-optimization.

  • http://twitter.com/SETX_WebDev D Alan Redd

     An algorithm is a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps. It is what it is. Intelligence goes way beyond that. It takes intelligence to determine intent .. not an algorithm .. The overall intelligence of the Google algorithmic machine isn’t even that of an insect ..

  • http://www.facebook.com/sebastien.lybepe Sebastien Bosse-Platiere

    great article !
    But you miss one point : spammers will always find a way to trick Google’s algorythms…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    Fantastic day!  There is actually a course for that now called “Power Search with Google”.  Check it out:

    http://www.google.com/insidesearch/landing/powersearching.html 

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    It’s a seesaw between Google and the spammers. Google gets a little smarter, the spammers get a little more clever. Better mousetrap, smarter mouse. The algorithm isn’t perfect, but Google is trying to get there. Intent is hard enough to get when you’re talking with someone face-to-face at times. It can be even harder when you’re reading something, especially when the thing doing the reading isn’t a human. 

  • http://twitter.com/alchemyv Alchemy Viral

    Here ruddy hear. The obsession with keyword injected anchor texts simply doesn’t wash especially when you consider no writer worth their salt would do it, wo why do it for SEO?  Even if you do use stop words in the anchor text an attempt to fool Google.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Hi Shari,

    Thanks for your comment, I’ve read your work for years as well, and seeing you speak back in 2002 was what I’d call the birth of my user experience passion. Of course I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I do think that Google in particular is falling short, and I’m disappointed in how they’ve put the onus on the webmaster (with rel tags especially) to do their job for them, when there are obvious elements of their algorithms that need improvement. The bottom line is that as long as they reward spam behavior, their results will suffer for it. 

    You are of course correct that the title attribute has a legitimate purpose; I should have pointed that out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    Would creating keyword anchor text be a front end way to tell the search engines what the page is about?

    Schema or some form of micro-formatting is doing the same thing.  Just on the back end.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Ben-

    What you are referring to is aboutness. Content labels communicate aboutness to both machines and humans — search engine and searchers. Navigation labels communicate aboutness. Even coding can communicate aboutness.

    The problem Google and all search engines face is determining aboutness from the author perspective and the validation perspective (do others say the same or similar things about website content that the author says)…and even the searcher perspective (query intent).

    It is not an easy thing to do, with and without search engine spammers making it difficult for the rest of us. 

    The folks behind schema.org, though I respect their intent, need to get outside perspectives on what they are doing. Developers everywhere don’t like to acknowledge that their mental models are not the same as those of end users. And so we end users are constantly inundated with technology-centered design that doesn’t support our fundamental needs and tasks.

    Tech support, customer support, and other types of phone/chat/email support would be less if companies and organizations would focus on end users for than they are currently doing. 

    I feel Google favors technology-centered design. I don’t spam any search engine, but I will not always follow Google’s suggestions if my usability tests and other data sources contradict their technical recommendations. 

    So, Jenny, maybe you can add that to your list. Google should not reward technology-centered design and development over user-centered design and development. But honestly, do most Google staff understand the difference?

    My 2 cents.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    Very nice Sheri!  Saw your article on Aboutness, too.  Your 2 cents is worth a dollar!

    Oh believe me, I use to be an Integration Specialist.  I know exactly what’s on a developer’s mind, and it is not the end user.  They expect their program to be used “as designed”.  I guess that’s why Google has Power Search now and will show the user’s how to use Google.com “as designed”.Google promotes spam, and we have to play the game or our competitors will take us out of business.I’m on clean up duty as we speak because of someone getting all wild with article directories and all we wanted to do was run one directory offsite…  Looks like we need 100 of them though by reviewing their niche full of spam masters.Their spam just outweighs our spam.  :-(

  • Carlos Gonzalez Rotger

    Nice post! I had to laugh when I read that about using the “home” link to stuff keywords there, because this morning I notice how Google has at the bottom of the Analytics page the link “Analytics Home” ;-) 
    Carlos

 

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