SEO/SEM: Visitor Abuse

Section: Articles


At 2am on the last Sunday in October then the United Kingdom puts its clocks back. It does this to move from BST back to GMT. The clocks go back in the rest of Europe on the same day, and America changes its clocks a week later.

In 2010, the clocks went back, the same as any other year. If you didn't know when the clocks went back then the most obvious answer was to search on Google - today's source of knowledge for the Internet-aware generations. While this would generally give you a useful answer to an important question, it appears that marketing departments wanted to ruin the web once again and pollute the useful results.

Finding the offending article

As a member of the BCS, I get regular emails with the latest professional computer-related news. Just after the clocks went back then this article showed up in a newsletter about "Clever use of keywords boosts website's SEO". Ignoring the fact that the keywords boosted their ranking, not their optimisation (a common journalistic confusion), the article claimed that Expedian Hitwise were applauding View London for their use of keywords. The most import thing was apparently that it was a "great example of how combining a forthcoming event with keywords that optimise your website can result in increased traffic to your site." The BCS link was broken, but easy to fix to find the source.

The offending article

Expedian's article was called Clever Clocks Go Back campaign boosts View London traffic by 31%. As with most blog posts on these kinds of subject, it started with an image that was vaguely related to the topic. It then went on to show how View London exploited the event, including the Google results of the offending page:

Google result for View London abusing the 'clocks go back' keywords

The rest of the article then shows how View London's traffic was affected over the period. They apparently received over 14% of traffic for "clocks go back" searches - 50% more than the BBC and RTÉ (UK and Ireland's national broadcasters) and three times as much as several UK schools (which often have informative pages on bank holidays and other important events). In absolute terms, and ignoring the search term, then it would seem good to get so many hits. As the title suggested, and a final graph shows, this was nearly 1/3 more traffic than they normally receive. But where did it come from?

Handily, Hitwise also provided a list of the top ten search phrases for hits on the View London site during the period. They were as follows:

  1. clocks go back 2010
  2. clocks go back
  3. when do the clocks go back 2010
  4. jingle bell ball 2010
  5. take that tickets wembly 2011
  6. view london
  7. clocks going back
  8. clocks change 2020
  9. what time do the clocks go back 2010
  10. clocks going back 2010

In those results, numbers three and nine were obviously looking for information on when the clocks went back. Numbers one, two, seven, eight and ten were almost certainly looking for information on when the clocks go back as well. Numbers four and five were just general hits for events, and number six is people finding the site by searching for its name or their plans. That means that seven out of the top ten results were interested in a piece of specific information and showed no intention of being interested in the topics being promoted in the description in the Google results.

When SEO becomes SEM

In light of those search results, how many people got what they wanted and how much benefit was it to View London?

On the positive then the site did at least include the information that people wanted - in a small 150px by 130px box (19,500 pixels in total) that was hugely outweighed by the 147,200 pixels of external adverts and 126,120 pixels of event adverts. That leaves you with over 14 times more space used by adverts than the content you searched for. If you were on a netbook or smaller laptop then your experience was even worse - the information was off the bottom of the screen, because advertising is obviously far more important!

On the negative side, how many people really wanted all of that extra junk? Multiple adverts, no doubt tracking their browsing habits, lots of additional and unnecessary content, filler text and links to things that people weren't looking for. What's worse is that the page is huge. For a few dates that could be transferred in a matter of tens of bytes, View London padded the page up to nearly 900KB. That's less than 1KB of useful information and the best part of 1MB taken up with Flash adverts, image adverts and more! According to then it'd take 45 seconds to load on a T1 line. That's just excessive.


Sure, the raw numbers look good (lots of people hit the page) but how many people a) saw the ads and ran, thinking it was a spam site, b) found the information they wanted and left, providing no extra value to the site, or c) saw it as an obvious abuse of keywords and decided they'd have nothing to do with the site again? I know I'd have been in the last camp, if I had ignored the description in the search results and just blindly clicked through.

In my opinion, this is yet another example of the popular phrase of Search Engine Optimisation turning in to Search Engine Manipulation. The View London site has no need to provide information about the clocks going back - it isn't part of the core focus of their site. However, someone in Marketing decided that they could work to the detriment of most visitors by getting themselves up the search engine rankings on that unrelated topic. Rather than encounter useful information, people were hitting a page with more adverts than content.

I admit that there is no way to stop this in a capitalist market - if people see a way to benefit financially and it is within the law then they will. My issue is with the methods they use, the benefit they gain and the impact on the visitors. Yelling "look, our SEO is fantastic because we got 30% more traffic" is meaningless, yet marketing falls for it every time. Engagement is the key. Make your site interesting and relevant for your target audience and you'll get the hits. Make it accessible to visitors and it will also become accessible to search engines.

Why waste your money on noise in your stats and focusing on the search engines when the value comes from real, legitimate customers, all of whom are human? By all means, streamline your site and make sure that it is obvious what topic a page covers, but do it for the benefit of your users rather than manipulating the search engine to fool uninterested visitors into visiting your site.


One brief footnote on the topic. I wrote a comment on the subject on the Hitwise blog on Wednesday 10th November, saying exactly the same thing about value for the customers and value of the extra traffic versus it being noise (only it was shorter). At the time of writing (Saturday 13th November) the comment still hasn't seen the light of day. I don't know whether it ever will or not, but this article covers everything I said and more.