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.