The Fine Line Between Search Engine Spam and Content

In Monday’s WSJ article “Web sites that exist only to sell advertising,” Lee Gomes complains how spam is clogging up search engine results pages and goes on to blame the major search engines themselves for the problem.

He writes,

“It’s new and improved spam: pseudo-useful pages that are usually just shells for ads… In many cases, a page might at first glance seem like a guide to your topic. But after a minute or two, it becomes evident that the information is virtually useless but is surrounded by an ocean of ads. In other cases, you find “referral services” — dozens of them — that promise to put you in touch with reputable contractors… A kind of schizophrenia exists at search-engine companies. Half their engineering staff is busy trying to keep useless pages out of search results; the other half is busy coming up with tools that make it easier for people to create and profit from the useless pages in the first place.”

John Battelle laments,

“He’s right, of course. We all have seen the crap that lards up results, pretending to be “services” of one sort or another. Is it spam? Well, it’s clearly affiliate- and AdSense-driven sludge. At best, it’s gray.”

Gomes stumbled across this phenomenon when he was researching the topic of roof repair, but you can find it in a myriad of spots. Take a search on Google for “Boston dentist” for example. Findadentist.com is at the top of this list. This site merely refers users to listings of dentists in the area and surrounds that “content” with a number of ads, including those from Google’s Adsense.

Is this really spam? Or is there true content here? What happens if Findadentist.com was to add user-generated dentist ratings? Articles on finding the right dentist? It already does have a quick summary on dental insurance vs. dental plans. When does a site cross the line from pure spam advertising to providing valuable content? John Battelle’s assessment is correct: it does feel a sludgy, but it’s very very gray. I don’t know the answer.

There are a number of small start-ups out there – some of which are looking for VC funding – which exploit this structural phenomenon. I think it’s going to take a while for the investors, search engines, and users to sort out what’s valuable content and what is spam. The question we should all ask is: is this site actually creating something of value for the consumer? Or is it merely playing a traffic game? Eventually, we’ll get there (perhaps with tagging or other social-influenced system), but it’s going to take some time.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by About.com where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.

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