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In the old days, we would have called it spamdexing. However, much of the new poor relevancy is is not only approved by search engines, it is down right grade A certified by the engine themselves.
Take a tour down through this search [hotbot.lycos.com] and you'll find many are boughten spammed out listings (that is even excluding the new Goto.com listings). You'll see things like affiliate program urls, spamdexed titles, spamdexed metas, spammed domain names, spammed urls, and spammed page content.
But is it really spam? How can it be spam when the search engine is taking money for the listing? It can't.
If you purchase some of the services from the se's today, they not only come with keys to the crawler, they give you the keys to the algo as well. One goes so far as to tell you exactly what you need to put on the page for content to rank highly (pay per click).
Spam is growing everywhere, and this time, it has nothing to do with SEO. This time, the spammers are the search engines themselves.
The problem is that this specific search engine endorsed spam is spilling over into other engines. Some of the programs allow you to cloak pages, but others are wide open.
Today, it is becoming common in the corporate world to turn "optimization" over to the purchasing department. They simply head out to a search engine and purchase rankings via programs such as Inktomi's Index Connect (runs around 15-25cents per click average), or Goto, or Altavista's trusted cloak feed).
When ad brokers (formerly called optimizers), prepare pages for search engine programs, they are often just ignorant of the damage they could be doing to the other "honest" search engines.
The se programs want to make it easy for their customers to get good rankings. Pay-for-play has brought back spamdexing - big time back. But this time is it just a "drive by" spamdexing. Other engines are just running into those pages optimized for play-for-play systems.
What brought this all up? A pair of optimizers came to me yesterday and showed me a search results page that was as spammed out as I've seen in 3-4 years. They knew I had contacts at that engine and wanted me to take it up with them. I did. Come to find out, 71 out of the 100 urls on that search were paid for. Not only was the spammy serp legit, it was endorsed by the se itself.
We focus on serps, while the surfer focuses on finding good content, when the serps are "sold out" the surfer will go to better resources.
I think it is one of the main reasons that engines like Google have grown so quickly.
My guess is that engines that rely on 'bought results' are being used more by less experienced users. As people become more and more familiar with the internet they drift towards Google and the other 'real' search engines.
I just wish it would happen a little faster.