Search engines form an integral part of our view of information online, with 39% of Americans using a search engine during January of 2004. With search playing such a central role in our access to the Information Superhighway, it is critical that search engine results pages (SERPs) contain relevant, appropriate results which correspond with what the user is searching for.
While search engines such as Yahoo, MSN and Google are constantly striving to improve the quality of their SERPs, businesses and individuals are also striving to get their sites listings improved; often for search terms which don’t necessarily relate to that page. In fact, artificially influencing SERPs is such a problem that recent Microsoft research indicates that of their selected sample of the web, 8% of pages are spam, created to artificially affect positioning.
Major search engines are attacking this problem in a variety of ways. Google engineers are "working to improve every aspect of Google on a daily basis", MSN has their research team developing new identification techniques to prevent spam making its way into their listings, and Yahoo continues to employ methods such as paid inclusion to clean up heavily-spammed market verticals such as adult entertainment and online gambling. This ongoing battle means that search engines are in a constant state of flux, and search engine owners are continually playing a game of cat and mouse with the spammers and those who are attempting to improve their listings in an effort to keep SERPs relevant.
In their efforts to improve website listings, search engine spammers analyse the methods that the search engines use to rank normal sites, and then attempt to take advantage of those processes. One of the most common techniques is called ‘link-spamming’ or ‘link-farming‘ and involves acquiring (or trading) numerous links from other (preferably related) websites, all pointing to their target site. This has the effect of making the page look more popular or important to search engines, thus affecting its position for certain keywords. Although this practise is also seen to some extent amongst ‘honest’ webmasters, it is virulent amongst those attempting to artificially boost their ranking, to the extent that people pay for links from other sites, never intending to directly attract people via those links, but to only attract search engines.
The problem for search engine owners is in identifying spam attempts, without penalising honest linking, keyword uses and other elements of web-development which can be used for spamming just as easily as they can be for normal web pages. Search engine spam is an ongoing problem, and given the importance of search engines to the process of finding anything on the Internet, one that’s not likely to go away quickly or easily.