Monday June 13, 2005

Search Engine Overload

This little spiel is a lengthy commentary on a discussion that has been taking place over at Devil’s Details. What began as an entry about an interesting menu placement choice has turned into a discussion on SEO abuse.

The site in question is Servus. While it is reasonably well-designed visually, it is what is under the hood that draws concern. A quick look at the source code reveals an enormous pack of what appear to be keywords, but they’re not contained in the HEAD’s META tags. They’re placed in the BODY of the document, hidden to visual browsers by CSS.

As I see it, this is not unlike the late-1990’s SEO-spamming tactic wherein a slew of text was placed at the bottom of a page and hidden by matching the color of the text to the color of the background. This new trick doesn’t strike me as much different except that instead of being appended to the end of a webage, the extraneous text preceeds the page’s content. Naturally, this raises some concerns.

Can you say “Biggie-Size?”

While it may be true that the world is moving ever more swiftly to broadband internet connections, the fact of the matter is that the smaller a webpage’s filesize is, the better. This applies with even more emphasis to the Home page. This is one of the reasons we use web standards in the first place. We want to trim down filesizes and streamline the user experience.

I had no trouble opening or downloading the page, thanks to my broadband connection. Still, I was curious to see just how much of this page’s weight was attributed to this hidden text. I saved the Home page to my desktop and checked the filesize: 249kb. I opened my text editor and deleted the hidden DIV and all its keywords. The result? The page came down—way down—to 10kb. Wow.

Semantics, Semantics, Semantics.

A webpage is a document, and is meant to follow an informational hierarchy. Menus and the main headline usually reside at the top of the page, with content and lesser page elements falling below it. Semantically, placing the keywords in a DIV at the top of the BODY tag is incorrect. Doing so implies that the keywords are content. Not only that, but the placement implies that the keywords are the most important content on the page: loaded first, appearing first, and making up the vast majority of the visible content. But that’s the intended perception, isn’t it?

Granted, CSS conveniently hides this massive brick of keywords to visual browsers, but we’re not all visual, are we?

Picture This (or not).

Accessibility is quickly becoming non-optional. Websites that offer information to the public owe it to their readers to make sure that as many people as possible can access the information they need. Thankfully, the DIV brick o’ words only appears on the Servus homepage, but just imagine the quagmire that text browsers, screen readers and other CSS-disabled devices could find themselves in upon loading that page. There is no “skip to navigation” link or any other reasonable way to get past the mass of keywords except scrolling. And even scrolling is a pain.

Final Thoughts

I’m not trying to single out or villanize the persons responsible for building this website. I’m sure this method has been employed before. Certainly there is pressure for designers and developers to get their clients’ sites ranked high. Not everyone can afford to be a purist. That being said, I can’t see that there’s much of a defense for this kind of practice, even considering all the defending that has already taken place. My concern is the impact this practice has on usability, accessibility and semantic value.

Given my lack of expertise in SEO, I’d be interested to hear what optimization-saavy folks think of this. Is it a common practice? And do you, as a designer or developer, think this is a legit method of attempting to boost a pagerank?


Jeff Croft » 4395 days ago #

I don’t find it to be legitimate at all, and although I’m not an SEO guy either, I have a hunch it probably doesn’t even help your search engine rank one iota. Even if it does help a bit, I have to think the bad outweighs the good.

sxates » 4395 days ago #

While I think the Hotel site went way, WAY overboard, I don’t think this is an immediate problem. Meta tags are pretty limited, and new tricks to improve rankings are always being worked on.

A partner of mine did something similar with one of his client’s sites. I won’t say exactly what, ‘cause I’d rather the technique not spread, but lets just say a few lines of hidden text (nowhere near 200k) put his client’s site at #1 on google for the desired search in a matter of weeks. Hard to argue with success…

Jeff Smith » 4395 days ago #

As far as I’m concerned, this is definitely a case of keyword spamming. I deal with SEO on a fairly regular basis at work, and tactics such as this are a definitely no-no. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been long before Servus was busted down to the bottom of the ladder in Google’s search results for a stunt such as this. From the reading and research of done regarding SEO, the best way to get up to the top of the search rankings and stay there is provide an excellent source of content related to the keywords that you are targetting.

Aside from the SEO standpoint, this page would be an absolute nightmare for anyone using an older browser that didn’t support CSS or any disabled persons using a screen reader. I mean, the least they could do if they wanted to load up the page with that many keywords is provide a “Skip to Content” link at the top of the page.

sxates, I’d be interested to know how long your partner’s client’s site stays at the top of the charts at Google.

Jeff Croft » 4395 days ago #

sxates said it: these are tricks. Fooling a search engine into thinking you’re something you’re not is just lame. If you rightfully deserve to be near the top of the list, then I’m confident you will be.

Zeerus » 4395 days ago #

Great article Jared. I was happy to see a few new posts when I fired up my feed reader this morning. I agree that this is highly unmoral as far as design and SEO goes. I haven’t studied SEO extensively, but I did write a paper on it for my school newspaper.

And I agree with everyone else. If you’re site deserves to be at the top then it will be. It may take a while, and you may not enjoy being pushed out by other sites, but you have to deal with it.

Matthijs » 4393 days ago #

Hi Jared, good writing. You summerise it better then I could do in a few angry reactions in that discussion you are referring to.
The thing that bothers me the most about it is that the webdesigner in question really seems to think he does something completely legitimate and not in any way opposed to any webstandards. I know very well that search engine spamming or deceiving is widespread. But at least admit it or be aware of it.

Terry » 4393 days ago #

I whole heartedly agree that there is just something deceitful about the method employed on servus. Yes it pertains to many of the keywords listed in the hidden DIV, but it just ain’t right.

Furthermore, I can confirm that if your website is really about what you say it’s about then you will eventually be rewarded for it. Agreed – it may take time, and you may watch some pretty meagre sites inch ahead of you, but in the long-run the ethical road will be pay off.

As they say, “patience is a virtue”.

» 4393 days ago #

Hi folks,

This site become really a point of, SEO, decent web design, moral content and so on. I have designed that page and I think it might be good to seperate this subject to some subdivisions.

Design : I am 100% responsible of the design of this web page so any positive or negative criticisms are quite welcome.

HTML & CSS Coding : I am 100% responsible of the coding. And I confess I did one mistake about accessability “Did not put a skip to content” link to the top. I apologize from disabled users but now it is done.

Content : This topic is out of your or my boundries , because the company decided which content has to be take place in the web page.

Hidden Content : I guess this is the point of everything. Because there is a huge block of keywords (or the list of the things that the company does) this site has been taken as an abusive for Search Engines. Well yes I suggested company to arrange some keywords which we can present in hidden content in order to get high ranks in search engines. But I wasn’t expected that huge content, so I told them this content may lead to a penalization. (I guess google did already). They promised to summerize them and I am still waiting.)

As “hiding” mostly understood as “cheating” or “deceiving” if it is directing you to a place where you have to be I guess it is not.

One another thing which frustrates you is these keywords are not seperated with comma so it seem hard to understand what it presents. I told them again to seperate them with commas, and still waiting.

I believe the content which cannot be presented in a meaningful way to eye but still describes your work, could be 249K or 10K (I don’t know the acceptible amount for that) can be presented hidden for content boosting and take you to the place you really deserve.

Anyway, we are not living for SE’s optimisation algorithm but I will do my best to put my customers at top. This content boosting is one of the methods only.

Who are for or against are welcome.
Thanks for your time…

Colin McKinney » 4392 days ago #

Another great article Jared

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