Chapter 8: Toxins & search engine spam penalties
Anyone entering the realm of search engine optimization is likely to encounter some questionable (aka “black hat”) tactics, or Toxins, as we call them in our Periodic Table of SEO Factors.
These are shortcuts, or tricks, that may have been sufficient to guarantee a high ranking back in the day when the engines’ methods were much less sophisticated. (They might even work now, at least until you’re caught.) We recommend staying far away from these tactics, because employing them could result in a penalty or ban.
Rest assured, It’s hard to accidentally spam a search engine, and the engines look at a variety of signals before deciding if someone deserves a harsh penalty. That said, let’s talk about things not to do.
Showing search engine crawlers something different than what you present to users is called “cloaking,” and it can potentially be used to trick users into visiting irrelevant or harmful pages.
Unlike some of the other Toxins, cloaking is not something that can happen by accident — it’s a deliberate attempt to manipulate search results, and if you’re caught doing it, you can expect a very heavy penalty.
“As long as your intent is not suspicious, you can do this and expect to not get banned. It’s when you reserve some content for spiders that you don’t display to users that things start to cross the line,” explains Johnson.
For more, see our articles on SEO: Cloaking and Doorway Pages.
You might assume that the more times a keyword shows up on a page, the more relevant search engines will consider the page to be to the query. Nope. Inserting keywords more often than is natural or useful to users is called “keyword stuffing.” It’s one of the oldest spam tactics out there and it can still get you penalized.
Don’t repeat keywords over and over again in your headings, copy, footers — anywhere — to try to improve your rankings. There is no magic formula for keyword frequency, and keyword density is a myth.
Instead, focus on addressing the user’s intent. Whether that results in a keyword occurring only a couple of times or over a dozen times is far less important than the quality of your content and the value it provides to your audience.
Ripping off someone else’s intellectual property — an article, song, graphic, photo, video, etc. — and passing it off as your own is illegal. That’s not the only reason why it’s bad for SEO, though: users generally want the original source of the content, and search engines want to provide it for them.
Google’s 2012 “Pirate” update took aim at sites infringing on copyright law. Sites are subject to Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) takedown requests. Plagiarizing or hosting plagiarized or illegal content can get you delisted from search results. Check your Google Search Console notifications if you suspect that a DMCA takedown request has been filed against you.
Seeking backlinks is an essential aspect of SEO, but the rules change when money is involved. Paying for links that pass link equity violates both Google and Bing’s guidelines, and doing so can have dire consequences for your organic visibility.
“You could be penalized or banned by Google, and neither is a good situation,” says Julie Joyce, director of operations at Link Fish Media. “Depending upon how bad the problem is, it can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to get back to where you were.”
To be clear, you can pay to have a backlink placed on another entity’s website (as would be the case with ads), but those links cannot pass link equity. Paid links should be indicated with either a rel=“nofollow” or rel=“sponsored” link attribute.
Schemes aren’t just limited to buying links, either: large-scale guest posting services with keyword-laden anchors, link exchanges, blog spamming and other illicit practices may also result in penalties from search engines. There are numerous examples of brands getting busted for attempting to manipulate search algorithms using these methods — even involving Google itself. If you choose to ignore Google’s rules, be prepared for little mercy if caught. And don’t believe programs that tell you their paid links are undetectable. They’re not, especially when so many of the cold-call ones are run by idiots.
It’s far better to see your rankings gradually rise over time than take shortcuts and have to claw your way back after a penalty.
For more, see our articles on Link Building: Paid Links and SEO Spamming.
Site owners who stuff keywords into their pages may also try to obscure those attempts by hiding the text. Whether it’s by matching the font color to the background, positioning text off screen, decreasing font size to zero or any other method of concealment, hiding text is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can result in a penalty.
Links may also be styled in a way to make them invisible to users, which some site owners might do to visually obscure paid links while attempting to pass link equity. Whatever reason you may have, hiding elements isn’t something that users benefit from and is unlikely to improve your SEO.
There is, however, the case of expandable content that reveals itself when the user interacts with it; for example, mousing over a link within a Wikipedia article may reveal more information.
Whether the obstacle is an interstitial, a deluge of ads or some other intrusive element, making visitors jump through hoops to find what they’re looking for can hurt your user experience as well as your organic visibility.
Often used in attempts to extract revenue or manipulate site metrics, these types of bad practices are what Google’s Page Layout algorithm, also known as the Top Heavy Update, was created to address.
For better or worse, interstitials are now a common part of the mobile user experience. In 2017, Google rolled out the mobile intrusive interstitial penalty to discourage site owners from abusing such elements.
More recently, Google updated its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines to address this trend, stating, “A single pop-over Ad or interstitial page with a clear and easy-to-use close button is not terribly distracting, though may not be a great user experience. However, difficult-to-close Ads that follow page scrolls, or interstitial pages that require an app download, can be truly distracting and make the MC [main content] difficult to use.”
Not all interstitials are liabilities. If “used responsibly,” interstitials pertaining to legal obligations (such as privacy or age verification), login dialogs and other banners that use a “reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible” would not be affected by Google’s mobile intrusive interstitial penalty.
“There is a lot of chatter around ‘is CTR a ranking factor? Is dwell time a ranking factor?’ And it leads some people to try to artificially increase the time people spend on the page, but for bad reasons . . . Interstitials, that’s one way, essentially, to waste the time of your users. Sometimes, we’ll see some pages that are not going to load the content fully and then you click on the button and it’s going to say, ‘Oh, wait a second, time for us to load the content,’ as if it took 10 seconds to call a database and build the content.
These are all tactics that clearly are made to artificially increase dwell time. It sounds very petty because that’s just wasting time of the users for the sake of fulfilling an SEO urban legend. But also, it is harmful to our [search engine] users. So, this is something that we definitely recommend against and that we reserve the right of taking action if it is really abusive.” –Frédéric Dubut, senior program manager lead for Bing
SEO Guide chapters: Home – 1: Factors – 2: Content – 3: Architecture – 4: HTML – 5: Trust – 6: Links – 7: User – 8: Toxins – 9: Emerging
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