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In the battle to get real-time results into search engines, there's one business that stands to benefit a lot: spam. It's simply a fact of social life online that as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and others all struggle to provide the most relevant up to the second information, they are ceding quality control of results.

And that's only natural. Search engines have to relax their algorithms to get the most current information, which makes it exceedingly easy for spammers to win a spot at the top of search results pages. And as spamming gets easier for hackers, it also gets harder for digital marketers to get their results up on the page. Is there anything to be done about it?

The short answer is no. Spam now accounts for 88% of all emails, and Symantec's MessageLabs division has detected and blocked 2,465 newly compromised websites per day this year, up nearly 8% from 2,290 in 2008. According to Cisco's 2009 Annual Security Report released last week, social media presents an increasingy high security risk because consumers trust information sent from friends more than other links.

Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of SearchEngineLand, tells USAToday:

"It's simple to attach spam or a link to a corrupted website... Tainted posts moving quickly and intermittently into search results could be very hard to filter.... It's an entirely new cat-and-mouse game."

Web surfers are becoming more adept at avoiding traditional spam — they are increasingly wary of banking sites and unbelievable offers delivered to their email inboxes. But in social media, clicking on links from unknown users is increasingly common.

The standard Google algorithm screens web pages for spam before including them in the top of results, but real-time search puts new and topical content at a priority.

The benefits of real-time information bring with them increased risks. Trending search terms are important as they're happening, where they're coming from does not matter as much.

From a user perspective, high levels of spam may be easy to ignore in real-time data. If search engines can figure out how to filter out irrelevant results, great. But users understand that getting the most current data currently involves receiving some less useful information as well.

For spammers, thaat means the benefits are high. Getting into the top of Google's search results — albeit briefly — can be a huge win with little effort expended.

Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Search Products at Google, has faith in real time search, but admitted to TechCrunch that returning relevant results is harder in real-time:

"We can’t simply apply the PageRank algorithm to content shared in real time, but we look at the ecosystem and detect signals we can use to reveal authority, for instance. It’s difficult, but there are data points out there that can be used for filtering."

That said, she said she trusts real-time results “most of the time,” even if they don't come from friends in her social network.

However, the service could have real costs for brands. Some think real-time will lead to more spending on PPC campaigns by marketers. According to High Position:

"A simply constructed file, an authoritative landing page and a Twitter account is supposedly all it takes for spammers to get the upper hand; which means that the SEO industry may have to rely more heavily on PPC campaigns to produce consistent results, as the ability to produce authoritative organic results lessens."

And the newness of real-time search is one guarantee that spammers will run rampant on the service for awhile. As Dave Snyder puts it at Search Engine Journal:

"Seriously, any new feature that Google rolls out is a playground for SPAM. My head is spinning thinking of all the cool/evil implications of the service. I am sure lots of people are going to be testing how Google is choosing the results coming in the box. Some people might ask the importance of coming up for a mere moment in that position, but the sheer amount of traffic generated for a trending term can make even a 30 second window profitable."

While Google may benefit from marketers spending more money to show up higher in results now that Twitter (and spam) occupy more real estate on the search results, in the long term it is in the search giant's best interest to return the most relevant results for users. Or it will be replaced by an engine that masters that better.

Consumers are likely to become more savvy when it comes to social spam. And while it will be another irritation for digital marketers, it is likely here to stay. As as long as real-time spam remains profitable, it will continue to exist.

Image: TwitterAppsGuide

Meghan Keane

Published 14 December, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

It is fair points, i don't see the value but can see spammers smiling over the new opportunity to get featured within seconds to millions of people.  One of the issues is that even if Google just acccepts "verified" or known twitter accounts to show in the results what happens if their account is hacked.

What happens if their account is hacked as seems to be common practice now days in social media, the spammer can now add fuel to the fire by using a "trusted account". If someone hacks @econsultancy and starts twitting out self promotion on particular companies or software or included spam links most people would trust the news/link.

Social media still has a massive issue of trust and placing such power that your single tweet can be on first page of Google may produce more problems than you think.

It also presents the issue that how do you become know as a "trusted" provider of news, and can you control which items are indexed by Google.  You might have a really relevant link or tweet but Google picks up your related reply to a follower about the topic and not the original tweet.

Is there a canonical tag just for social media, such as please index/show only this particular tweet as the others are just related but not specific to the item.

almost 7 years ago


Aloysius Carl

Great Post!

David, you make a lot of very good points.  My bet is that "known" poster will have something to do with number of posts and number of followers - all things that can be cooked.   So let's say a spammer has one account to post to a topic and then 20 others that wind up retweeting it.  Sounds like they'll be able to figure out a way to have a major presence in the real-time results.  This really good be a spammer's heyday.  

almost 7 years ago


Lindsey Annison, Web PR Consultant at Clickthrough Marketing

The problem can only get bigger before it is dealt with in a way that re-delivers the quality element searchers expect. Even in non real-time search results, we have all been watching the quality levels diminish as spammers have found ways to feature in the top SERPs.

As the article says, even a 30 second window at the top can bring in money and make the effort worthwhile. Wholesale education of consumers would help, as so many people are just so good at 'unknowingly' making themselves ever more vulnerable. After all, most of us wouldn't fall for a 419, but look how many do? Ditto phishing etc.

Shorter links don't always help as there are still too few of those services offering a verification or preview process, and these links can often lead to less than savoury sites when a spammer leaps onto a trending topic. Curiosity of course killed the cat, and this is what so many spammers rely on to lead people into their "trap".

It is no longer the thirst for knowledge that leads us to click on that link, but often a rather unpleasant need to know about other people's downfall, personal lives, etc. Human nature will need to adapt I think to learn and evolve online in the face of 'crackers' (not hackers, they are coders), spammers and scammers.

almost 7 years ago

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