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The newspaper industry in general has a tepid relationship with search engines (particularly Google), but that doesn't mean that more than a few newspapers don't love SEO spam.

A post yesterday on GigaOm details how one former columnist at the struggling San Francisco Chronicle found that the Chronicle had taken her articles and liberally changed them up in a clear attempt to improve the article's ranking in the SERPs.

Violet Blue, who used to be the Chronicle's sex columnist, discusses what she discovered on her not-so-safe-for-work blog:

My Google search results did not return my column’s original archive, as it always had in the past. Instead the top results were a copy of my column on an SFGate subdomain (articles.sfgate.com). The column had been stripped of all links, and divided across several pages. My bio was missing, as were all the comments. Freakishly, all the commas were gone. And the URL had been changed. The address was comprised of words; to my horror the URL had been keyworded to say “ashamed porn star” — the exact opposite of the article’s content. **See update** Worse, when I clicked around on the articles.sfgate subdomain I couldn’t navigate, couldn’t find content by author (or find anything), and was essentially trapped in a dead end of static content and ads.

Violet's immediate reaction: call the subject of the article in question and apologize. After a few angry tweets and emails, and a week of delay, Violet was finally able to get in touch with somebody:

By the following Monday I got a phone call with their VP: Digital Media. She pressured me not to talk about SFGate on my own Twitter account...I told her I would be fine with my content appearing on articles.sfgate.com if the necessary fixes could be made, and she indicated a level of difficulty in restoring the articles so as they would likely have to pull my content from the subdomain. The commas could be fixed, the bio was actually there but on the last page (unlinked). Restoring my articles’ links would be the dealbreaker; they could not do this.

Unfortunately for Violet, there's no recourse readily available. As per her contract with the Chronicle, the newspaper has the rights to do with her content what it wants. She was told if she wants her content removed altogether, she can pay for the Chronicle's "estimated losses on ad revenue".

Venture capitalist Tim Oren did some digging and notes that the Chronicle is just one of a number of newspapers using technology from a company called Perfect Market, and this technology is behind the changes made to Violet Blue's articles. Perfect Market's "proprietary technology" is designed to "[help] publishers create value from their online content with little effort and no risk". It does so, of course, by turning quality content into what many of us would classify as 'SEO spam'.

Oren makes three important points about the use of Perfect Market's technology:

  • It may hurt a newspaper's relationship with writers, as some writers are certainly going to react the way Violet Blue did.
  • The intent of the pages Perfect Market's technology creates is "isomorphic, from a search company's point of view, to those created by more questionable tactics such as scraping". Given this, it's unclear how long search engines will allow this to last.
  • "A keyword stuffed, link stripped dead end page" is harmful to the newspaper's brand.

Given the economic challenges so many newspapers face today, it's not entirely surprising that newspapers are turning to SEO spam, even if it's ironic given the rampant complaints about search engines that come from the newspaper industry on a regular basis. Yet the notion that SEO spam is going to help newspapers in a no-risk, minimal-effort fashion hints that some newspapers may be more lost than previously thought.

Photo credit: arnold | inuyaki via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 11 March, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2393 more posts from this author

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Jack Hubbard

Jack Hubbard, Managing Director at Propellernet

It's fascinating to see another move by a newspaper playing into the short-game trap of driving a bit more traffic today at the expense of editorial integrity. I can completely understand why newspapers would want to ensure that their websites are as search friendly as possible. Google is probably the single biggest source of traffic for newspaper websites, and SEO is simply a question of increasing circulation and subsequent ad inventory. What I don't get however is why a newspaper would allow a technology solution to become editor-in-chief. Surely a better solution is to train Violet and her colleagues on how they can adapt their style so that their content is SEO-friendly and will therefore reach a greater readership. In my humble optinion SEO for newspapers is about educating good writers to adapt their already engaging content in a keyword friendly way. Good people have better judgement than good technology. Serving up a daily portion of spam for Google is not the answer. When you add this to the sweeping trend of publishers selling links to brands for SEO benefit, you have to wonder where all this is heading, and which publishers will still be standing when the music stops.

over 6 years ago

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Roger Bauer, CEO at SMB Consulting

This is yet another example of "desperate times call for desperate measures." Newspapers still haven't figured out how to play the Internet game effectively. Hence their pending death as we know them. I agree with Jack in that it would be far more beneficial for newspapers to train their writers to adapt their style to be more SEO "friendly." Shame on the SF Chronicle for stooping to such a low level and stabbing their writers in the back in an effort to game the SERPs. I guess it's easier to just shove the knife a little deeper and flippantly say "you can buy back your content if you want it removed."

over 6 years ago

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Rahman Mehraby

Unfortunately, this misconception still exists and to some extent prevails that you can manipulate the page code and insert some keywords here and there to gain top ranking in search engines.

Eliminating some external links, which isn't necessarily helpful in convincing search engines that the content tries to help readers, is one of those outdated tricks some newcomers to the realm of SEO think of as golden techniques!

Somebody should tell such newspapers that synonyms are as good as the kewords and repetition doesn't help serach engines or human readers. Some useful links to other sites will add to the value of the content. Besides, ... maybe they should find more reliable SEO specialists.

In addition to all this, how could a newspaper justify to violate the right of its authors by removing the author's biography? It's very shameful, even worse than the SEO spam those wise experts are implementing!!

over 6 years ago

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copper clad aluminum

I think you’ve made some truly interesting points. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. I am really impressed that there is so much information about this subject that have been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class. Good one you, man!

about 6 years ago

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speaker cable

I'll answer in a full post. Too many ideas, in fact. I was thinking about this very thing yesterday as I walked past the display case at my employer and some of my childhood favorites were on display (the author was a major benefactor to us)--I always ask new employees whether they've read her books and sadly, the answer is no.

about 6 years ago

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bar stools

I just found your website a few weeks ago and this is what brought me here. I finally today just made my mirror and I LOVE it. Thanks so much I will keep checking back for all the great crafts!

about 6 years ago

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dog treats

dog treats

over 5 years ago

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