Ryan Lanciaux

Random programming blog.

What Constitutes Ethical SEO?

"nice post!!thanks for the info..that's great and cool"
                                               -Random Spammer

As a web developer / someone who has a blog, I understand dealing with spam is one of the necessary evils of having a comments enabled on my site. For the most part, my site has remained far enough under the radar that most spammers do not waste their time. More recently, however, there has been a gradual influx of comment spam with a title something along the lines of "[Company Name] SEO Test." There is worse spam for sure but it was definitely annoying.

A quick Google search pointed me to a Web Development and Search Engine Optimization company hosting an SEO competition. I checked the rules and sure enough, there was a rule stating that only Ethical SEO Techniques would be permitted. Quickly, I emailed the organization one of the comments (with url, ip, email, etc) exepecting the offending parties would be removed from the competition, eliminating additional garbage comments. I was shocked to receive their reply.

Unfortunately this is not against the rules of the competition – I would encourage you to remove the spamming links for your website to discourage this behaviour but as I said I can’t actually penalise this person for making posts on other peoples websites.

Sorry about the spam.

Gaming the System
In my opinion, Search Engine Optimization should be about perfecting a website and the website's content; not tricking google into thinking more people find your content useful than actuality. Optimizing tags and titles is one thing but gaming the system to garner search ranking is wrong and is detrimental to the web as a whole. Just because commenting is legal and allowable does not make it ethical. Unfortunately, this practice will continue to exist as long as it gets results and organizations act as enablers to those who would use these tactics for financial gain (not to mention increased search engine ranking for the enabling organizations).

Link Spam is Digital Graffiti

Imagine for a second if companies condoned this practice outside of the Web – what if McDonalds or Nike paid for their logos to be spray painted on other's property? To make matters worse what if after receiving numerous complaints they held a press conference and said "soap and water removes the paint" or "just hire some guards and the problem will go away."? I think it's safe to assume that practice would not be received so kindly (h/t Matt Braun on the graffiti analogy)! Fortunately a link is not as hard to remove as paint but the concept is similar.

Solutions anyone?
Social networks such as Digg, DotNetKicks and DZone have always been plagued by those who would try to circumvent the rules for personal gain. Where honeypots and captcha systems would traditionally help against bots, an increasing number of spammers seem to be actual people. The administrators of these social networks are constantly coming up with more sophisticated ways to combat spam but what should small blogs and websites do?

Currently, there are a number of methodologies for preventing blog spam that work with varying degrees of effectiveness but none are ideal. Obviously, you can moderate comments – this works okay but is painful if you are getting a lot of spam or a lot of comments. Also, make sure your comment links have a rel="nofollow" attribute (h/t Simone Chiaretta). Google does not take nofollow links into account when calculating page rank. Although this does not reward the spammer, it does not prevent spam.

What I would like to see is a centralized comment system like Disqus or IntenseDebate that lets a user login with OpenID, Google Friend Connect, Microsoft LiveID, Facebook Connect (whichever the user wants). There would be a standard vote up / down vote for every comment a user makes where the overall votes across all sites would determine the users rating. Casting a down vote would remove a minimal amount of points from the voter to prevent someone from going on a down vote rampage (exactly how StackOverflow works). Site owners could set restrictions that would prevent users with a rating less than a specified number from posting on their site. This may be idealistic and introduce a new realm of privacy concerns but if done properly, I think it would help eliminate a great deal of spam.

Wrapping things up
Although there are many less-than ethical tactics to increasing a site's ranking, site structure and site content are the best methods of SEO. I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and any suggestions you have in eliminating link spam.