Is that trackback link a pigs ear or a silk purse?
Did you ever look in your comments box and spot a trackback that had just your snippet and some anchor text of a site trying to rank for their target keywords? Of course you did! You probably didn’t approve it, but if you did then they got you and you are a sucker! Yet what is it with these annoying things? What is their point? Why don’t they just feck off and die a nasty somewhere?
Just this very day I received my own piece of trackback spam from a site that had been made to look like it actually added value.
The site itself had a sign up form, it talked about anti spam initiatives, it used words like community and participate, it gave account holders the option to review content requiring a sign up to view the reviews, it did lots of things that amounted to not very much. It was also butt ugly, and about as useful as a bacon sarnie at a barmitzvah. It reminded me of an old keyword stuffing project I played with some time back in 2004. Keyword after keyword after keyword supplemented with rss feeds and not very much else, and for very good reason too, but more on that later. It looked like the kind of site that you just wouldn’t really want to play in. It had no coolness factors, it wasn’t styled, it wasn’t anything really other than a big pile of texts beneath crafted titles designed to get search referals from people who knew not much better.
General Footprints and Red Flags
The site sending this particular trackback had obvious footprints, yet to some these might not have been so apparent. Not everyone looks at a site through cynical eyes, some just think ‘oooh a link to my blog, how cool’ and approve it, or worse still their blog is set to automatically approve such things.
Snippets snippets snippets
This is where it usually starts, you see a snippet a little like the one above in your comment moderation thing, you hop on over (usually out of curiosity) and find that chunk of your text in some long list of other chunks of text from other scraped rss feeds from other unsuspecting bloggers discussing similar things. No commentary, no context, just snippets.
Ads ads ads
You are also likely to see a huge smattering of contextual ads all over the shop, presented in a way that leaves you little option other than to either click an ad or hit your back button. Your reasons for interaction are limited by the lack of availability,followed very closely by the lack of motivation to do so – in essence you see very quickly that its a big pile of old crap.
Now to the person following this trackback, the semi or experienced blogger, the likelihood is that he’ll just hit his back button. He’d have seen the scraped snippets, muttered a little, (deciding it’s a splog )and left it at that. Just another one of those nonsense crap websites he’d be forgiven for thinking, yet in truth that would be about as far from the truth as you could get.
These things, whilst limited in shelf life, really have a window of time whereby they earn people money. Some of these things do things like cloak the content to search referrals so that visitors don’t even get the sploggy content, instead just getting the adverts dressed up as links. Others put in sneaky noscroll attributes in the body tags and disable the history so that users have little other choice than to either hit the red x or click the advert to escape.
There’s a certain idealistic nonsense with the notion of so called ‘clean’ SERPs. Search engines like to wax lyrical about the integrity of their indexes, the natural search teams are big on extolling the virtues of their anti web spam mechanisms and creating the best experience for their users, whilst at the same time their revenue generation departments are continually looking at ways of getting their advertisers both clicks and eyeballs. It’s almost like there exists an agreement to continually disagree. There’s this very hot potato that is perpetually passed back and forth between the two departments, as these competing constituencies look to achieve their individual aims whilst continually frustrated by the requirements of the other.
Bad SERPs are Good versus Good SERPS are Bad
If we consider a notion that ‘clean’ SERPs = good user experience, and that too good a SERP = bad advertiser experience and that bad advertiser experience = low revenues, then we can begin to at least appreciate some of the reasons why sites that offer a poor user experience are allowed to thrive. We can also begin to attach legs to the idea that in lots of ways a SERP that contains an imprecise or mixed bag (think wikipedia, social media) of results that may not be as useful, might just help that user click on one of those contextual ads to the top or left of the results. Net outcome being, a dollar in the pocket of the search service.
All things to all men
I’m sure that there exists a mind or two in paid corporate search, whereby they dream of a time where every one of their top ten results is filled with a paid ad of sorts. Just think of a SERP that contained paid links for every single query! Wouldn’t that be the most phenomenal economically efficient use of it’s technology ever? Relevancy would shoot through the roof as advertisers clamoured for very specific keywords relative to their content, ad prices would rocket with SEO becoming little other than a quaint memory of some idealistic information retrieval system.
Imagine further, a world where every query had a page with a perfect score, or a page trying very hard to fit that perfect score and paying for the privilege too. We might even laugh and snort at such a conception as being completely ridiculous and unlikely, yet there is a reality that suggest that the continued upturn of investment in search and the web in general can only realistically lead to one outcome for both natural and PPC search. Those paying the money will cherry pick and invest in the keywords and topics that are most profitable, which will be those that are most easy to convert and monopolise and monetise.
The splog creators of today are the lazy version of the real content creators of tomorrow. Sites like Mahalo and wikipedia should be petrified by the likes of Google Knols a sure fire sign of where the minds at Google at least are seeing where the future lies. Heck, why return a wikipedic result when a knol of the same, can be plastered with contextual ads or subtle product placements.
Some might suggest that Knols has missed the boat already. A look at some of the SERPs of today reveals that there are a multitude of savvy site builders already seeing the benefits of associated keywords and themes; building traffic to serve the needs of people looking for information. Domains are skillfully leveraging their authority and trust scores to grow their content bases and SERP penetration, the traffic gained being used to get people to sign up to ideas, buy associated products, click on ads, make money. Every single day, the Internet becomes that little bit more commercial. Niches increasingly populated, hobbyists outdone by smooth sophisticated technologists doing the same, only better – web 2.0 versions of stuff already done. People like this certainly see the value and are actively advertising on knol based searches, already building preparing for the opportunites presented.
Idealism versus reality on a competitive planet
Of course it’s wrong to suggest that splogs and
mashup real content creators are one and the same. They are not. Whilst they both share an equal objective of making money they are very different in one important and fundamental way in that one creates and adds value for itself and others, whilst one creates and adds value for itself alone. Therein lies the difference.
Should anything be done about companies creating real content for monetisation purposes? Isn’t it what the search engines want after all? Does it really matter that a better ‘free’ SERP damages their bottom line, or does the dichotomous nature of the factors that make up its business dictate that these are just a side effect of the business that cannot be effectively policed, not without some huge hue and cry from the publishers that benefit.
I find it a little amusing that despite all the crap, despite all the mutterings about how good content is defined as that which gives the user a better search experience and of how web spam is all evil and bad, the reality remains that these things continue to thrive, even though a responsible ad channel could reduce their raison detre in a heartbeat! Cut the ability to earn at its source and you instantly reduce the motivation to do so, right? Well perhaps not.
Impressions and clicks equals money in the bank.
Stock price is king – Despite all the words the fact is that these splog things earn them money. Forget the idea of SERP pollution, that’s just collateral damage which can be fixed with a periodic clean up; so long as the advertisers of their networks continue to see a ROI, then sites like the ones described will continue to proliferate.
What effect this will have on the whole web economy in general is up for debate. Perhaps the continual battles of the internal constituencies of the search engines themselves will help keep things in equilibrium. Perhaps it’s simply a case of one not being able to function without the other. A near perfect index, with near perfect results giving people too much choice and options would certainly lead to a diminution in click throughs to ads, whereas a SERP that went too far the other way would quickly lead to complaints and at worst lead to some altavista type meltdown of user base.
It’s a clever duck and it never stands still
What is abundantly clear is that splogs and the content that they use can be a complex moving target that is never that easy to pin down or eliminate. We can’t rely on others to deal with what is a problem for us all. We can’t dictate to the search engines that they shouldn’t allow such things to prosper as in most cases our individual voices will fall on deaf ears. It isn’t really in their interests to eliminate this stuff, and we shouldn’t be too trusting of them either. Sites labeled as thin affiliates know only too well the pain of arbitrary decisions, not to mention the individuals targeted for far lesser crimes.
As for the likes of me and you – Maybe it helps to bear in mind that we can make a difference, we can choose not to help them or make their lot easier. Look at your trackbacks critically, don’t accept them all carte blanche, take timeout to see what they are about, if you are about in forums or other blogs then think of who you are linking to and in what way, if you are a blog owner or forum operator then don’t allow these types of ‘visitors’ to use you to fuel this stuff. These people just crap on your doorstep and don’t care for the mess they leave behind. Don’t rely on nofollow to do it for you either as you never really know what power your link is giving them, be that today or a couple of years down the line!
Postscript: I have to laugh else I’ might blub like a baby; can you believe that a mere 2 hours after writing this, 10 splogs are trackback spamming me for links, using my content and supplementing it with ads. Something tells me that RSS feed were never intended to be used in this way
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