Have the bad old days of SEO gone?

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Manipulation of search engine rankings leapfrogs between search aggregators and designers. Have we learnt anything in 20 years? It appears not.

Back in the mid-late 90s when Netscape was the T-Rex of browsers and search engines were in their infancy, web designers used keyword stuffing to get to the top of the search results.

The concept was simple: use the HTML <meta> keywords tag or some other element on the page to hide thousands of repeated words that flooded the search engine spiders with things that made it appear the page was more important than it really is. Porn sites used this extensively to draw visitors using ‘sex sex sex…’ all over the place, but the big corporate players were just as dirty in the search engine dominance games.

Google came in and cleaned up everyone’s act by outlawing the keywords meta tag and using algorithms based on content to index pages based on relevance. Hooray!

Curb the nonsense

A few years later search aggregators popped up, infiltrating search results like a digital canker. Sites used algorithms that made it seem no matter what you typed, they had the answer. For example you could search for:

strontium cat marmalade articulated penguin

and Google’s first link would be a site claiming in its excerpt to offer an answer. Of course clicking that top-placed link increased its relevance and the profile of the site offering the so-called wisdom, even though the result was just a content vacuum with the search terms auto-generated. It would always offer the message “sorry, no results match your search for strontium cat marmalade articulated penguin” and plaster lots of paid ads close by.

Thankfully these seem to be in decline as the search engines step up their game.

Shop the rock

That didn’t stop awful shopping sites like ciao, bizrate and dooyoo appearing in the top results when looking for reviews of products.

If you searched for some product by name and added “review” to your search terms because you wanted to find a place that had critiqued the product, you would almost always get link spammed by these sites that carry no official product reviews.

Their angle was that they merely offered the ability for consumers to write them if they wanted. The trouble being that the sites were (are?) so atrociously designed, nobody ever does. Content was just scraped and cobbled together from manufacturers’ websites and was either out of date or wrong, or the pictures didn’t match up (or, worse, clicking on the picture to get the “large” version popped up an identical, or smaller, photo to the one on the page already).

Quite how such misleading sites remained profitable is unclear. Again they seem to thankfully be in decline.

Blog stuffing

Of course now virtually everyone has a blog or a social profile, a YouTube channel or a Twitter account and we’ve been conditioned by the media into thinking we need to break stories first to feel important. Link sharing and re-tweeting (re-peating) is simply not cool; it’s attention seeking and downright annoying to see the same thing from 20 of your connections; all of whom think they are the first people to tell you some amazing fact about a mainstream media report.

The Internet has been clogged with utter crap for years but the crap is becoming thicker and more difficult to wade through. The latest craze at search engine optimisation manipulation is to make URLs as long as humanly possible because the title carries a lot of weight. Here’s an example of an article utilising modern-day blatant keyword stuffing:

Facebook to Build Server Farms in Arctic Circle [Facebook Looking to Minimize Server Cooling Costs & Will Build Server Infrastructure at the Edge of Arctic Circle]

That creates the URL: site.com/facebook-to-build-server-farms-in-arctic-circle-facebook-looking-to-minimize-server-cooling-costs-will-build-server-infrastructure-at-the-edge-of-arctic-circle/, then the title is repeated in both the browser title bar and in the heading on the page itself. Next the lazy, utterly non-newsworthy editorial journalistic tripe, cut ‘n’ paste from a myriad other sources including the corporate press release appears. Ubiquitous ads crowd the borders.

Finally, below the body are calls to action like “you might also like” containing articles on the same site of no relevance and of course a barrage of icons like +1, Tweet, Digg, FB Like, blah blah where people with no creative flair can tell their mates about the dribble they just read as if they’ve stumbled across an exclusive.

And — here’s the clincher — the keywords stuffed into the URL and article title become the title of the FB/G+ post, or are copied into the title element of the bit.ly link back to the article in the ReTweet, thus propelling the vacuous content to a self-fulfilling prophecy of Search Engine Top Dog.

If people and content creators cut down on the “me first” attitude we’d all have far less rubbish to sift through, and search engines could index truly useful and unique content instead of what’s perceived as fresh by manipulation of social channels.

[ P.S. don’t forget to check out the links to other relevant articles below, and share this post with all your friends many times over using any conveniently-placed social buttons, as you clamber to become the number one news source on the planet ]

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