Thanks to Spam, Optimizing Your Website Could Damage Your Ranking

Everyone knows what a pain spam is. It clogs up mail systems, threatens security, rips off unsuspecting users, and lays time bombs, just waiting to be triggered with a single click, in our inbox. In fact, the malaise named for a canned luncheon meat is so ubiquitous that we expect it, as much as we expect taxes, political scandals, and bad Hollywood movies.

We know that email spam and the Web work together like PB&J, so what if spam took to the road (the Information Highway), taking potshots along the way and making our lives more miserable, without us even lifting a single clicking finger? Well, you don’t have to wait for an answer to that postulate, because, as it turns out, those of us who spend precious time and energy making our websites better may be suffering at the hands of the spammers.

And Google. While it’s somewhat speculative, a recent article at entitled “Rank Modifying Spammers” unveils the recent discovery of a Google patent called ‘Ranking Documents’ (if you’re the sort who enjoys losing themselves in a good patent, you can find it here). It should be noted that there’s no way of knowing whether Google’s employing the patent in their search engine, but as SEOBook and ZDNet surmise, if you’re a betting person, you may want to take odds and lay your money down.

Effectively, what this ranking system does is set the initial ranking for a site, and then react if (or more appropriately, when) the website has been changed. The patent language is, of course, a lot of legalese, but there are some points which make perfect sense, for example, when it states that

During the transition from the old rank to the target rank, the transition rank might cause:

  • a time-based delay response,
  • a negative response
  • a random response, and/or
  • an unexpected response

This is a nice way of saying that your site’s ranking by Google may be changed, seemingly in a random manner, until Google decides what your new ranking should be. The implications of this can be disastrous for webmasters and SEO consultants who constantly work to improve site rankings. This from SEOBook: “Let’s say that building links…has had a positive effect. Not so if the patent code is active, as your site may have already been flagged. Google then toys with you for a while before sending your site plummeting to the target rank.” While we can’t know whether or not this patent is actually in play in Google’s algorithms, if you’re seeing fluctuations in your rankings, especially after having changed your site’s content, this could be the culprit.

They also point to other culprits. First is the evolution of the search engine from a ‘stupid black box’ in the 1990’s to a sophisticated system today that uses cryptic methods and proprietary witchcraft to develop its rankings. Second is the spammer, but in this case, the club is far more inclusive than merely the true spammers – i.e., the founders of the feast. Now, SEOBook claims, the spammer – the enemy – is (gasp!) us. “Of late, Google appear[s] to have gotten bored of maintaining any pretense, and the battle lines have been informally redrawn. If you’re a webmaster doing anything at all that might be considered an effort to improve rank, then you’re a ‘spammer’. Google would no doubt argue this has always been the case, even if you had to read between the lines to grasp it. And they’d be right.”

Although it sounds like a stretch, if one steps back and looks at the following patent language, it’s easy to see how SEOBook reached this conclusion:

“The systems and methods may also observe spammers’ reactions to rank changes caused by the rank transition function to identify documents that are actively being manipulated. This assists in the identification of rank-modifying spammers.”

This does appear to suggest that anyone who changes a website in order to improve its rankings is being labeled a spammer. As the article points out, it’s the job of the webmaster to improve a site’s ranking, so vilifying the webmaster as spammer does seem unreasonable and to some, maybe even villainous.

Nothing against the big G – Google probably isn’t the only search engine inclined to consider doing this. But it looks like, once again, we’re paying for the true villains – the guys filling our inboxes with junk and phishing for our wallets.

Written by Malcolm James


  1. Maria Ortiz · September 12, 2012

    I think the article at SEOBook doesn’t deal with email spammers, which is what we usually mean by spammers, it probably deals with link building spam. I read the article but I couldn’t find anything about email spamming. I could be wrong, of course, I am far from being a spam or SEO expert.

  2. Becky Shatner · September 13, 2012

    Oh, this is certainly not the most fantastic news right now. I am not an SEO specialist, but I’m a small business owner. I’m one of those who believe that organic SEO is the best thing there is when it comes to Internet marketing. I am closely working with a local SEO company, and I know they’re working real hard for me. This basically explains why my website’s ranks have been unstable, and the guys have to do a lot of changes just to improve them. Then I find out today that it’s all about this so-called patent language (whatever that means). It’s just terrible!

  3. David Miller · September 13, 2012

    Simply put, because of spammers we are all f*ed up. Thank you! This is just so unbelievable! I am not really part of the core team, the SEO team, since I’m dealing with applications. But I know a lot of guys who are currently in the field, and I certainly pity them because of this news. It’s like all their efforts are in vain because they cannot assure them of the most accurate rankings. Worse, they are at the risk of being labeled by some “algorithm” as spam. To make things worse, they have an unfair disadvantage knowing there’s nothing they can do with mathematical mumbo-jumbo.

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