A couple days ago I reported on how Google is allowing merchants to spam rich snippets and essentially vandalize their search results. You can read the full article on rich snippet spam here.
At the end of the article I tried to come up with my own reasoning for why this Google would let this happen, but it simply led to some thoughtful musings.
Did Google create this problem for themselves? Has their aggressive approach to a richer web created desperation among webmasters to try and keep up with these recent changes and hyper-attractive Adwords listings?
Or has the SEO industry developed into a culture of spam and manipulation?
Being able to manipulate visual aspects of Google’s own search property is by no means something to be taken lightly. But are there lessons to be had from this? We reached out to a few thought leaders in the SEO industry to find out what they thought about the issue of rich snippet spamming.
What SEOs are saying about it
Tom Critchlow, VP Operations – Distilled – @tomcritchlow
Rich snippet spam is a very interesting concept, it feels a lot like meta keyword spam back in the day – almost like something that’s hidden in the code that users can’t see. In reality, however, the rich snippet abuse is clearly visible to the user in the search results and I think Google is going to be quick to take action on sites that abuse this. As a legitimate site I would be very concerned about manipulating this – even a few reports of spam will make Google take a look and if you are abusing it I would imagine Google will prevent you from showing rich snippets for a long time. That said, relying on spam reporting is not a good scaleable strategy for Google so they need to figure out a better way of detecting abuse of this…. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops over the coming months!
Taylor Pratt, SEO GT Product Lead – HomeAway – @taylorpratt
I think this is a tough place for the search engines to be in. They want to make it easy to implement schemas on your site to improve the adoption rate, but at the same time they aren’t taking the proper measures to ensure it is being handled genuinely. As a result, are users even finding them particularly useful at this point? I’m disappointed how slow the search engines have been to react to ensuring this is handled appropriately, because schemas in general are fantastic for the web. And like all things in the SEO world, you’re only going to be able to take advantage of this loop hole for so long. With as much attention as this particular issue is already getting in the industry, it would be wise for any site “misusing” the rich snippet system to seriously consider removing/fixing them before they get hit with a penalty of some sort (whether a penalty is warranted or not is a separate matter).
Simon Heseltine, Director of SEO – AOL – @simonheseltine
Any time you give people the ability to provide data to a search engine that the search engine will use, you’ll find people that will abuse that ability, whether it’s metered phone numbers in Google Base, or false ratings numbers in schemas. As with any exploit, it will only provide short term benefits, as once the search engines figure it out there will be penalties. So do you really want to risk your site doing something like this?
Douglas Karr, Founder – DK New Media – @douglaskarr
We’ve been pushing rich snippets because we’ve seen a noticeable increase in click-through rates for our clients. This is quite a gap that the search engines are going to have to deal with immediately. No doubt, the ability to increase CTRs will lead unscrupulous companies who depend on SEO to misrepresent their products via rich snippets. Blackhat SEO is already a booming business… this definitely opens the door for additional abuse. I would hope that the search engines not only read the snippet, but also analyze the page to attempt to verify it.
Barry Schwartz, SEO – Search Engine Roundtable – @rustybrick
Jon Cooper, SEO – Point Blank SEO – @pointblankseo
There’s no debating that this is a concrete issue, but it’ll be interesting to see how Google fixes this. Will they only have microdata start showing up from highly trusted sites? Will they only allow this microdata on ecommerce sites? And if they do, how will they sense that it’s an ecommerce site? Or will they totally back out of this particular markup and realize they’ve made a mistake?
But going forward, this particular snippet isn’t the only issue. I did a little experiment on a niche site of mine on authorship markup. The site is about a month old, and I created a G+ profile that’s now about 2 weeks old. I used Mechanical Turk to get 60-70 people to add the profile to their circles, I posted status updates on only two occasions & added a minmum amount of bio information (including a pic), then implemented the rel=author markup on the niche site. Sure enough, authorship markup was showing within about 7 days, confirming that this might be another snippet that will be abused in the future.
Bill Ross, Owner – Linchpin SEO – @billross
With any marketing channel that relies on an algorithm to build a visual representation of “value” for a piece of content or product, will always have individuals who try to manipulate or spam that algorithm. The primary issue, in my opinion, is what follows this manipulation trend; which is a further lack of trust from the user for the SERPs. Unfortunately, this lack of trust will call into question the “true value” of the markup, beyond its visual real estate in the search results (which certainly has value in itself). Would I recommend a company stop using semantic markup or not use it at all, don’t be silly, of course not, but I do feel that improper use is a short lived tactic (much like buying links) that search engine will eventually catch with their updated quality assurance algorithms.
The abuse of rich snippets is pretty concerning as many SEO’s believe Google may show some ranking preference to people utilizing them on their sites. It should also be a major red legal flag for Google since searchers may be persuaded one way or another based on the ratings that Google is allowing to be published on their search results. As this becomes more common, I expect Google to crack down on it. I wouldn’t recommend trying it on any site that you can’t afford to have de-indexed.
Gary Magnone – Thunder SEO – @thunderseo
From what I’ve observed, Google’s made it entirely too easy to influence rich snippets in live SERPs. Based upon the recent spam and seeing how easy it was to achieve the star rating in your experiment, I suspect that Google will be pulling back on rich snippet displays very soon.
My first guess was that it would require some form of manual review to ensure the legitimacy of a page’s schema markup. However, it may be more likely that Google examine the issue at the domain level, where they may be able to pick up on site-wide clues that reinforce the validity of a site’s microdata.
For example, in the recipe space, Google might pick up clues from images & user-generated comments on the page, which are common elements on recipe sites. Or in the e-commerce space, Google might identify the presence of a shopping cart installed on the site, which would indicate the presence of real products in a real online store.
Andy Betts, SEO – Bettzi.com – @andybetts1
Rich Snippet abuse has been building for a while. Originally rich snippets were viewed by many as a saviour / to help them get clicks beyond just a ranking (look at schema.org )
However – fake snippets are meaning that there is a growing concern that rich snippets could be seen as a new form of spam. I don’t think Google will let it get to this stage though. It’s really important to focus on providing a better user experience so people can trust more aesthetic snippets. Google needs to improve it’s policing of this and is should be adapting is algorithm to focus on aesthetic snippets and not text based results. I do know that Google have said that they are disabling peoples ability to use rich snippets if they are found to have been abusing them. If the fake snippet issue is not addressed then rich snippets could be viewed as the new form of spam.
Ian Lurie, Founder and CEO – Portent, Inc – @portentint
On Google’s part, it’s awfully naive for them to have left the rich snippet system so uncontrolled at the start. There’s so much precedent for this kind of spam, from the keywords meta tag to ALT attributes to hidden text. How could they not have a plan for handling the spammers from day 1?
That said, it’s extremely shortsighted of SEOs to abuse rich snippets. Google’s gotten better and better at filtering obvious on-page spam tactics. How long does it take for Google to zap a site that has text colored to match the background? 48 hours? Less? SEO’s spamming rich snippets are making a huge mistake.