SEO Experts Discuss Rich Snippet Manipulation - CPC Strategy

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

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

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).


Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin, CEO & Founder - SEOmoz - @randfish

The current system is not nearly as carefully controlled or well-monitored as other services from Google, e.g. Rel=auhtor snippets, inclusion in Google News, etc. I see no reason why Google, which desperately needs to maintain the brand of authority in search, would let this slide. While I wish the engine would clean up the spam, I’m also saddened that manipulative individuals and organizations have undoubtedly forced Google to be less open with future opportunities in rich markup. It sucks that in the SEO world, a few rotten apples consistently spoil an otherwise excellent industry.

 


Simon Heseltine

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

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

Barry Schwartz, SEO – Search Engine Roundtable@rustybrick

Regarding Rich Snippets, my advice would be, don’t abuse it.  Google isn’t dumb and they will catch it eventually.  First they might ignore it, but who knows, maybe they will end up giving your site a penalty and it leading to not only hiding all your real rich snippets but demoting your rankings or leading to a complete site removal.

 


Jon Cooper

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

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.


Brian Phelps

Brian Phelps, Director of SEO – SEO.com - @seocom

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

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

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

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.


Being able to manipulate Google’s search property presents opportunities for both spammers and for Google as well.  Spammers, or sites that are willing to manipulate rich snippets in their favor might see short term gains (until they are outed of course).  But Google also stands to learn from the apparent desperation of webmasters for any competitive advantage in the SERPs.

 

But the verdict is clear.  DON’T do it.  Google is going to catch on to this sooner or later and it’s not worth the risk of any sort of penalty or ban in the future.  I know it’s hard to resist shiny objects, but it’s this kind of short-term thinking that will get webmasters into trouble. And you’re smarter than that =]

 

About the Author+David Weichel is the Director of Paid Search at CPC Strategy. He specializes in conversion rate optimization, search behavior research and attribution analysis. David graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S. in Management Science. See all posts by this author here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001866442550 Ojana Ochena

    So called SEO experts who don’t know how to rank site #1. who gave them “SEO experts” title?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668397983 Kristen Holden

      Ojana, since you are so eminently respected in the SEO community, why don’t you tell us all of the sites you have ranking #1?…

      I can assure you I have heard most of the guys above speak and I will bet $100 they know a lot more about SEO than you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580053324 Tanner Jones

      Wow! $100?!?!?! High roller! Time to back down Ojana, #@*$ just got real.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668397983 Kristen Holden

      Tanner Jones I could have said $100 or $100 thousand he wouldn’t have taken or won the bet either way.

      The truth is that he called some of the most well respected SEO professionals in the world nobodies, which clearly showed that he has no idea what he is talking about.

      Perhaps he is just biding his time and waiting to respond with a zinger of a comeback line?…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580053324 Tanner Jones

      Read this
      https://plus.google.com/u/1/111294201325870406922/posts/UCUNUNMtFWk
      then this
      http://grindstoneseo.com/yeah-i-am-that-guy.html

      Having a recognizable name does not an “expert SEO” make. This “grindstone” guy made Rand Fishkin look silly about a week ago.

      Point is, maybe Ojana is full of crap and really doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about, or maybe he’s making bank. We don’t know. But being, as you say “eminent” in the SEO community is not a prerequisite for knowing your stuff. What if he comes back and says, ‘Yeah, I’m ranking for ‘web hosting’ or ‘payday loans”.

      What is more interesting is how quickly you jumped to the rescue of the “experts” and immediately discounted that Ojana might know something. All you’ve done is questioned his rankings, his knowledge, and then take a few personal shots at him.

      So, with that said, let me show you how to really talk down to Ojana in a researched methodical manner (watch and learn Kristen).

      “Ojana, you came out with a pretty strong statement that makes it sound like you know a lot, but were just recently seen asking for a free download to a google places knowledge product, which would give me the sense that you’re probably still learning
      http://www.blacked.in/showthread.php?t=34&p=2597&viewfull=1#post2597
      However, in the same forum, you said you wanted a ‘google+ clickjacking script’ so maybe you have a couple of pages that are getting some decent traffic?
      http://www.blacked.in/showthread.php?t=245&page=4&p=2599&viewfull=1#post2599
      Ojana, I guess what I’m saying is, the jury is out on you…, coming out confident, but still looking for seo knowledge products… you’re at least familiar with blackhat scripting which means that you probably have an innovative idea or two rolling around in that noggin of yours. Message me on facebook, lets brainstorm sometime.

      Anyways, to finish, let me save you from yourself Ojana, stop reading rehashed Google Places optimization courses, I know a guy that is really good at it that can handle it for you for much cheaper than you could ever do yourself.”

      See Kristen? Researched, elitist, snarky, everything you were going for, except better.

      Sincerely, Tanner

      PS – Kristen, if you’v put up with my smart aleck comments thus far, shoot me a message on facebook and lets talk SEO sometime, you’ve obviously got a couple of clients based on your fairly erratic “liking” of local Australian businesses on your facebook profile, and based on a FB vanity url like /seoagency. So if you can forgive my snarky response to your snarky response, I actually would like to talk to you about your day-to-day running a business, hiring/firing, etc. I’ll promise not to badmouth any experts, and I’ll tell you I’m actually a much nicer person when not commenting at 2:30 am to a random other person on the internet.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668397983 Kristen Holden

      Tanner, well played. I don’t have nearly enough energy to write such a response on a random blog post, but I loved reading your thorough version!

      haha just sent you a FB message mate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588911916 Lloyd Faulk

    I think you should have asked the people truly innovating and leading on these strategies and unfortunately it’s not the “SEO’s” you interviewed above. They go by another name – “blackhats”. Many of the guys above benefit by regurgitating the same “whitehat” BS the “almighty” Google spews forth.

    Circa 2005: Blackhat strategies worked very well, and some still do if used wisely, and with creativity. Black-Hat SEO used to be a very lucrative industry for those providing services to corporations wanting to rank overnight.

    Google knows better and will ban a site that is using deceptive tactics to rank highly. and why not when we can ban your site and literally the next day (or a matter of hours) you plunk down $500/day to get back to the tops.

    Don’t be fooled, Google is merely protecting their multi-billion dollar business.