Dave McAnally, Natural Search Supervisor, Content Solutions
Spam in a search index is a pain. It misleads your users, affects your brand perception and prevents otherwise valuable results from showing up. Let me paint a scenario for you and we’ll dissect accordingly. Let’s say you are handling the search marketing for an appliance store. Your top selling range (self cleaning, induction heat –the whole bit) carries a model number that is unique and highly unlikely to have an alternate meaning (as model numbers tend to be). The manager of the appliance store (we’ll call her Casey) dutifully Googles the model number one day out of curiosity. Casey sees a few competitors who also carry that range along with the appliance store above the fold. But to her dismay, she also finds search results that are….PORN!!! OH NOZ!!!
She calls you immediately to find out A. Why on earth this is happening and B. What can be done to get these pages out of the results (and away from potential searchers who may be referencing the number from Consumer Reports and looking for reviews)? Well…for Casey’s interest and you, the marketeer, the following assessments should be made.
- Is it occurring in only one result? This is important because it’ll give you a big clue as to the nature of the beast. If it is occurring in one result, it’s possible a black hat SEO is cloaking a page using that model # (low volume, unlikely to be detected) to establish a site to drive suspect links to that feed into a site pertaining to their money maker (in this case – porn sites). If you see that multiple results come back in your engine of choice, you may be up against a spam bot that has thrown that model number out there amongst the porn content in the interests of squeaking by spam/content detectors. There are multiple pieces of software available that perform this very thing (of which we won’t be discussing here for obvious reasons).
- What are the site(s) that appear with the porn in the result? Are they static pages or are they things like blog comments or forum posts? This can give you further clues as to what’s going on. If they are forums (particularly unknown or long abandon ones), you are most likely dealing with a spambot that has posted similar messages across hundreds of forums on hundreds of servers. If they are static pages, you may have found a page designed to launder link popularity and funnel into a money making page.
Now once we establish A. how widespread the issue is, and B. where they are appearing, we can get a feel for how easy it will be for an engine to resolve the issue. As you may assume, a widespread issue spawned by a spambot will be difficult for engines to assess. You see, Google rarely ‘takes pages out of the index’ as that isn’t a scalable way of dealing with spam (per their own blog). Rather, they make tweaks to their algorithm to better assess results so in the future, they don’t re-appear. As the algorithm is updated, these results work themselves out of harm’s way. On the flip side, if it is an isolated incident, there are typically precise matters causing the page to rank that can be pinpointed quicker, and as thus, the offending page will disappear from the algorithm quicker. Not always the case of course, but that’s about the size of how such things work.
Now what to do? First thing you need to tell Casey is that these results are culled from and indexed by a sophisticated (although sometimes misguided) algorithm that has erroneously served these pages. That is to say, we can’t go to Mountain View and politely ask Google to take these results out because it could offend our customers’ good sense. HOWEVER, you do have a direct line of communication to Google right in your webmaster console (You do have a webmaster tools account for your website don’t you?). Google’s spam team encourages people to report results that are less-than-stellar. They use this information to tweak the algorithm (and in some circumstances, will remove sites from indexes).
Aside from letting Google know about this conundrum, you also have some proactive options on your own page. A model number like this isn’t going to be very competitive. So you have a great opportunity here to rank yourself. Build out content around it! Now is the time to engage your social media assets to promote that range! It follows that a nice byproduct of this ‘SERP Management’ is that you are in effect promoting and generating buzz around a product you sell. Things like model numbers don’t have the search volume around them that otherwise competitive top-of-funnel terms have. That means there are a lot of opportunities to rank fairly quickly. If that range is listed in Wikipedia under a manufacturer page, make sure the model number is present. Ramp up your sales feeds to crowd out those pages with the offending content. Every little bit counts right?
I think it’s a good idea to keep tabs on those model numbers and obscure words around your products because they do tend to provide good fodder for link spam. Said link spam can lead to some bad results and a bad user experience. At least with Google, they’ve made the effort to reach out to webmasters so there are some immediate opportunities to rectify these issues.