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VW Search Spam: Just Good Design?

SearchEngineLand says VW is search spamming, because the site has a content area set via CSS to “invisible”. The main page itself loads in Flash, which they also note. Last I checked Flash was a visible medium. A visual display of data. In other words, invisible to people with disabilities. Other SEO people followed on today enhancing SEL’s assertion that VW is “spamming”. Lisa Barone suggests that this hidden text is “ridiculous” and that VW’s SEO people should “evolve”. (Sorry, Lisa… no backlink. I couldn’t find a permalink). I suppose it’s all the rage these days to “out” competitive webmasters who push beyond the obvious and try to accommodate their markets as best as they can.

Now take a look at this web accessibility project article on “invisible content”. Wow. Imagine that. Someone actually bothers to create alternative content for those people with visual impairments, such that when they go to Volkswagon’s website using their screen readers, they “see” more than “Flash banner loading” or some other uninformative nonsense. They actually get informed (via that invisible-to-you-and-me alternative text) that they are on the Volkswagon site… the one about those nice little VW cars.  Oh and look – the article is named “invisible content” and the URL is “invisiblecontent”, an exact match for “invisibleContent”. . I guess that’s why it was so easy to find in Google.

Sometimes it seems Google is unfair, but other times it sure seems that SEO people are pretty quick to jump on the judgement trail. Does it really matter that VW has “invisible content”? Does it really matter if you notice it? Is it really cause for one SEO to call another SEO primitive?

If you want to compete on the web, stay home or die trying. But please, stop whining. It’s ugly.

Update May 4: VW has taken the invisible content div off the site. The home page is still flash, and much less accessible than it was before. So now the more interesting bits should get discussed in the blogosphere:

  • Q: Did a fear of Google cause VW to purposefully violate best-practice (and civil rights law in the US at least) by making the site inaccessible to people with visual impairments?
  • Q: Did fear of an SEO blogosphere’s knee-jerk overreaction and hostile language do the same?
  • Q: Does Google, by fostering an environment of secrecy surrounding search placement and supposed penalties for “hidden content”, encourage an inaccessible web? Does Google reward webmasters for remaining inaccessible to people with disabilities?
  • Q: Does anyone care?

Note: I spent 10 years in disability research, including early involvement in the ADA and 508 as applied to the web. I worked for and with advocates for people with disabilities. Disability is a part of the world, and at least in this country, the law says people with disabilities should be accommodated.

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2 Responses to “VW Search Spam: Just Good Design?”

  1. Danny Sullivan Says:

    Actually, we don’t say they are spamming. It’s Google that says they are spamming. I actually agree with you that these types of rules are often silly and stupid. That’s what the long article we linked to was about, where I discuss how I pretty much at rules against cloaking and hidden text. Forget the technique; what’s the intent? The intent at VW really isn’t to be misleading. And the point of posting about them isn’t to say VW is bad but highlight how yet again, someone gets caught up in stupid technical rules that should change.

  2. john andrews Says:

    I’m with you on that, Danny, but I also think the “calling out” behavior exacerbates the problem. As for “we don’t say they are spamming”, that’s what I got from the title of the SEL article. It was (is) “Google features Volkswagon, Which Happens to be Search Spamming”.

    Imparting intent is my biggest issue… especially when Google does it (and Matt Cutts does impart intent on web masters openly and publicly). In this case even the label “invisiblecontent” doesn’t impart intent, as the accessibility article demonstrates. I admit “class=stealth” would be more damning, but since I worked on technologies supporting the Stealth airplane back in 1980, maybe even that accusation would deserve a hearing. ;-)