Every time a big site gets caught (or outed for) spamming, a slew of articles hit the more “mainstream” blogging circles (Slate.com, TechCrunch, etc) that typically give partially accurate accounts of what has gone on and why. The issue we’ll address here is how, often times, “SEO” and “Spam” are used interchangeably.

Common Questions

Let’s start by looking at some of the questions that commonly come up in the wake of one of the highly visible events like JC Penny’s, BMW, or RapGenius being penalized by Google.

Is SEO Spam?

This one has an easy, definitive answer since it’s a broad generalizing statement. To be clear, no. Not all SEO is spam. Here’s Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, saying as much:

So. We can put that one to rest. Easy-peasy.

Is Spam SEO?

The short answer? Yes, assuming you’re talking about link schemes, buying links, keyword stuffing, auto-generating content, etc. (Email spam is, typically, totally separate from SEO.)

This is, however, where it gets murky. Mainly because some SEOs want to ignore definitions when they don’t feel right. Their intentions are good, though. Essentially the line of thought seems to be: “I’m an SEO and I hate spam. I don’t spam, therefore – I consider spam to not be SEO.”

That’s all well and good… save the fact that they then repeat their personal opinion online as if it’s industry-accepted fact. Making simple, declarative statements like “No, spam isn’t SEO” without nuance makes it sounds like we all got together, had a meeting, and hashed this out. The fact is, there was no meeting, and no matter who is making the claim, there is no single person that is the “decider” for what does and does not qualify as SEO.

This can cause pretty significant confusion, especially when it comes from well known SEO bloggers/conference speakers, etc.

To fully explain the answer on this one, we need to tackle a few sub-questions.

What is SEO?

SEO has a pretty simple, logical definition – it’s even in the Random House Dictionary.

search-engine optimization [surch-en-juhn] noun
the methods used to boost the ranking or frequency of a website in results returned by a search engine, in an effort to maximize user traffic to the site. Abbreviation: SEO
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/search-engine optimization

Makes sense, right? Search Engine Optimization means… optimizing for your appearance in search engines. It’s pretty self-explanatory, yet some in the SEO community find a way to tie themselves into knots over trying to alter that meaning to fit their own personal preference.

SEO, in most cases, comes down to intent. (More on this in a moment.) If you’re doing some link spam to improve your search engine rankings, then that spam is, generally, SEO. (“Good” or “valid” or “ethical” are entirely different questions.)

At it’s base – anything that improves your rankings in search engines is optimizing for search engines, and, by definition, search engine optimization. (As I write this, it makes me a little sad that this even needs explaining. That fact alone speaks volumes about the state of the industry.)

Is SEO Just for Google?

No. SEO existed before Google. And, assuming there will one day be a search engine with more market share than than Google, it will continue to exist “after” Google as well.

SEO is a generic term. You can optimize specifically for Google, or Bing, or Duck Duck Go (or any other search engine). All of these acts would be considered “search engine optimization”, despite the fact that what works for one engine may hurt your results in another.

Is ALL Spamming SEO?

Assuming we’re still talking about the types of spam mentioned above (link schemes, buying links, keyword stuffing, auto-generating content, etc.) then… well, maybe.

This one is tricky because things can be done with the intention of SEO, but lack the desired result.

So, the question really becomes: If a tactic does not improve (optimize) your search engine visibility, is it SEO?

Quite a bit tougher.

Strictly speaking – no. If it doesn’t lead to improvement, then it isn’t optimization, then it, by definition, can’t be SEO. Yet, it was meant to be SEO.

Given that the purpose and intent were entirely SEO driven, people generally say that even ineffective tactics are still SEO. Sometimes, it’s just useless index bloat. While it may not be technically correct, it saves us from having to reclassify tactics as SEO or non-SEO every time the effectiveness of said tactic changes. Also, if there is just one search engine out there where that tactic works, then it would be considered SEO (see the point above about SEO not being just for Google). This makes it even harder to definitively call something “not SEO”.


It’s easy to get caught up in the semantics of all this. I, personally, still think it’s important since we should (in my opinion) have some level of consistency with how we speak within the SEO community.

I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to be on the outside, trying to figure out how to grow my business through SEO when there’s countless, conflicting points of view flying around the web.

Generally speaking, when people say SEO they actually mean Google-Optimization. Given their massive market-share in the US, it’s certainly understandable, though still incorrect.

Also, generally speaking, when people call something SEO Spam, they mean it’s something against the Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines. This is also commonly used as the defining line between “white-hat” and “black-hat” SEO.

Calling Spam SEO

The concerning thing here is when there’s a lack of nuance.

When Rap Genius does a tit-for-tat aimed specifically at increasing their Google rankings, it’s considered spam and called out as such.

The problem is many of the articles/blog posts/tweets about it end up equating SEO and Spam as being one in the same. Ultimately, their spammy tit-for-tat was an SEO campaign. It was against the Google Webmaster Guidelines, so there are slews of people who will line up and say it’s not something you should do (I’m one of them, actually – assuming we’re talking about your primary business website and not a throw-away affiliate site.)

This can give some business owners the impression that all of SEO is this sort of shady business, when that isn’t at all the case. However, that does not mean we should try to stomp our feet, insisting that spammy SEO isn’t SEO at all.

Just as crappy mechanics are still mechanics, crappy/spammy SEO is still, technically, SEO.

As an industry, I think we do ourself a disservice when trying to distance ourselves from certain practices by claiming they’re not SEO at all. It makes us seem like we’re constantly adjusting what we do for a living to whatever the specific flavor of the month happens to be. It doesn’t make us seem professional – it makes us seem dishonest. (Also, it’s a blatant “No True Scotsman” fallacy, and akin to pro baseball players claiming Barry Bonds doesn’t play baseball because of his steroid use, but rather an entirely different sport.)

Yes, there are specific SEO tactics that are clearly spam.

No, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an effective SEO campaign without resorting to spammy tactics.