Bots Are Hot

September 2, 2022

Developer Michael I Lewis had noble intentions when he launched in 2020. Because Google and other prominent search engines have become little more than SEO and advertising ambushes, he worked evenings and weekends to create a search engine free from both ads and search engine optimization. The site indexes only user-submitted personal and independent sites and leaves content curation up to its community. Naturally, the site also emphasizes privacy and is open source. To keep the lights on, Lewis charges a modest listing fee. Alas, even this principled platform has failed to escape the worst goblins of the SEO field. Lewis laments, “Almost All Searches on my Independent Search Engine Are Now from SEO Spam Bots.”

SEO spam lowers the usual SEO trickery into the realm of hacking. It’s black hat practitioners exploit weaknesses, like insecure passwords or out-of-data plugins, in any website they can penetrate and plant their own keywords, links, and other dubious content. That spam then rides its target site up the search rankings as long as it can, ripping off marks along the way. If the infiltration goes on for long, the reputation and ranking of the infected website will tank, leaving its owner wondering what went awry. The results can be devastating for affected businesses.

In spring of 2022, Lewis detected a suspicious jump in non-human visitors on He writes:

“I’ve always had some activity from bots, but it has been manageable. However, in mid-April 2022, bot activity started to increase dramatically. I didn’t notice at first because the web analytics only shows real users, and the unusual activity could only be seen by looking at the server logs. I initially suspected that it was another search engine scraping results and showing them on their results page, because the IP addresses, user agents and search queries were all different. I then started to wonder if it was a DDoS attack, as the scale of the problem and the impact it was having on the servers (and therefore running costs) started to become apparent. After some deeper investigation, I noticed that most of the search queries followed a similar pattern. … It turns out that these search patterns are ‘scraping footprints’. These are used by the SEO practitioners, when combined with their search terms, to search for URLs to target, implying that has been listed as a search engine in one or more SEO tools like ScrapeBox, GSA SEO or SEnuke. It is hard to imagine any legitimate white-hat SEO techniques requiring these search results, so I would have to imagine it is for black-hat SEO operations.”

Meanwhile, Lewis’ site has seen very little traffic from actual humans. Though it might be tempting to accuse major search engines of deliberately downplaying the competition, he suspects the site is simply drowning in a sea of SEO spam. Are real people browsing the Web anymore, as opposed to lapping up whatever social media sites choose to dish out? A few, but they are increasingly difficult to detect within the crowd of bots looking to make a buck.

Cynthia Murrell, September 2, 2022


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