...or; The deceptive self-imposed spam

While the rest of the world is busy fighting spam, several (more or less) credible sites have given up the battle and instead begun spamming themselves. I would have been perfectly ok with this self-destructive behavior hadn't been for one innocent victim; the hyperlink.

Hyperlinks 101

A website, URI and globe mashup. An illustration for hyperlinks.

Hyperlinks, a simple, but nevertheless powerful concept that in most cases adds value to documents on the web. It's a fundamental part of, and one of the primary reason for the success of the www. In case you missed it, the core parts of "WWW 101" regarding the functionality of hyperlinks, is summed up pretty good by the following quotes;

(...) the link, the basic hypertext construct. A link is a connection from one Web resource to another. Although a simple concept, the link has been one of the primary forces driving the success of the Web.

A hyperlink, is a reference or navigation element (...) that automatically brings the referred information to the user when the navigation element is selected by the user.

And, although written in a slightly different context, the following from Matt Cutts (of Google's Webspam team) serves as a good reminder and description of a different aspect of hyperlinks.

Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice (...)

So with hyperlinks being such an important and valuable feature of the web, it was inevitable that someone would try to abuse the system. Soon we had hidden links, link spam, comment spam, splogs and many other methods to gain inbound links in an effort to game the search engines for better rankings.

"SPAT spam"

When the old media embraced the web and made pageviews a primary selling point for advertisements, a new type of link spam was born. The self-promotional anchor-text spam, or "SPAT spam" for short. Ok, so it really doesn't have a fancy name, the former is just something I made up (but hey, I've always wanted to coin a phrase!). It's probably also arguable whether or not this technically is spamming. But linking the name of a person, product or company to a page on the publishers site, instead of linking to an official site/resource you'd espect the link lead to, is nearly as annoying as the more traditional methods of spamming and surely could be considered1 to be spam given its unsolicited and undesired nature.

Most likely this method was conceived to generate page- and ad-views, simply by forcing readers to view a (often very sparse) "info-page" before they could get to the resource they wanted to visit. The last couple of years we've seen several publications further develop this technique, often trying desperately to keep visitors from leaving their site. On sites such as Engadget (which have perfected this method to the extreme) you quickly notice that most, if not all, in-article links leads to other articles or collection pages on the site. Consider their recent post about the Sony Walkman E010 DAP, by clicking the in-article links you soon realize you're in a twisty maze of little passages links and that navigating from the post to any kind of page with more/official information is next to impossible.

Given the Web2.0 bloggers adoption rate of the above mentioned linking technique, I'm guessing a desirable (and very much valuable) side effect is improved keyword rankings for the linked terms and names. For some it's probably the primary reason for deploying linking strategies as described here. With payments for advertisements being shifted away from displays towards user actions/clicks, surely publishers wouldn't annoy their readers this much just to generate another pageview.

"c'SPAT spam"

Recently the web has been plagued by a variation of this type spam; The concealed self-promotional anchor-text spam, or "c'SPAT spam" (again a term I'm making up). Basically this is just a combination of the above described linking method and the age-old tradition of hiding links. Often done by styling (the self-promotional anchor-text spammed) links to make them look like the other/normal text on a site, in effect concealing the links from readers. Although I haven't done any research on this issue, I'd say this clearly is done in an effort not to annoy readers (with spammy links) while still cashing in on the added benefit of improved keyword rankings.

Thumbnail of a screenshot with the hidden links outlinedConsider Valleywag's recent post about ethics and hidden agendas (fitting isn't it? ;-). At first glance it's easy to assume the post has 3 in-article links. Take a closer look at it though, either by hovering your mouse over the text (the :hover styling reveals the links) or by temporarily disabling CSS (Shift+G in Opera). It quickly becomes apparent that the post actually has 8 links, 5 of which are hidden from the user by being styled to match the normal text. Although the links are still visible in the sense that the actual anchor text still can be seen, I cannot see it any other way that this in fact is hidden links with the sole purpose of improving keyword ranking for the linked terms.

I'm no expert on this, but I'm pretty sure this fails to pass most search engines' "content quality guidelines". If this isn't a definitive black hat SEO technique, it clearly belongs on the darker side of the gray areas.

Another issue with these links are that they're mostly just doubling up the topic tags/links listed elsewhere on the page. As such the in-article links are completely redundant and even more useless. This isn't me just being picky, this is a usability issue and something that accessibility guidelines recommends against. Oh, if you think I've picked especially incriminating examples, I can assure you I haven't. Spend a couple of minutes on either of the sites I've mentioned and I'm certain you'll find much worse examples than the ones I've used here.

Inconclusive conclusion

I'm not exactly sure what I'm hoping to achieve with this post. I wish it magically would remove all the spammy links and stop any further abuse of our dear hyperlink, but sadly I don't think that is likely to happen. At least not until the major search engines steps up, takes responsibility and implements measures against these methods. Until then our dear friend the hyperlink will continue to suffer and slowly its value will be completely deteriorated.

Now if you're someone considering deploying the deceptive linking strategies described here and just happen to stumble upon this page; reconsider. I'm convinced that favoring UEO over SEO will bring you benefits, at least in the long run. I can't speak for anybody else, though as one single user I'm thoroughly annoyed of being threated as 2nd class citizen - while the bots are being catered for and enjoy the free lunch & drinks on the upper deck.

Footnotes
  1. A key factor in calling the above linking method for spam, is that a user/reader isn't necessarily aware that a link entitled Firm1 doesn't lead to Firm1s website but rather to a page info and/or posts made about Firm1. What clues are given really depends on which browser is used and how this is configured. As such both the link and target page could be described as being both unsolicited and undesired, key elements when defining something as spam. It is with this reasoning I describe the above mentioned linking methods as spam. I realize that this conclusion is debatable, I do however believe I have enough arguments to justify it and that many users/readers will support this. (locate)

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