The search engine companies were able to defeat this trick by commanding their spiders to ignore repetitive keywords in the invisible title.
Spamdexers soon learned that they could embed invisible keywords in the text of Web pages themselves by using the same color as the background or by using extremely small text that shows up as thin lines on a Web page. Viewers would not see the text, but the search engines would detect them.
Because there are essentially no space limitations on a Web page, spamdexers eventually learned that it was just as easy to spam many keywords at once. The practice of celebrity spamming has become indiscriminate.
One pornographic Web site had the names of 400 female celebrities on its site written in tiny text, including Connie Chung, Amy Irving, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Sawyer, Gillian Anderson, Hedy Lamarr, Monica Lewinsky, Molly Ringwald and Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan.
"If you're a female celebrity in America, your name is going to be used to sell pornography online," said Victor Polk, an attorney for Kerrigan, who filed a suit against the owners of one pornographic site to stop them from using her name.
The tricks have evolved far beyond spamming keywords. They now include techniques that can automatically hijack viewers searching for information on say, Princess Diana, to a pornographic site. Modern Web page massagers say they can consistently place even the most ridiculously unrelated Web sites into the top few positions.
Do a search using a familiar keyword string like 'Nintendo Game Boy," "Princess Diana," "MP3," or the rock group "Genesis," and you will find real estate firms, music stores, personal Web pages and pornography sites that use these popular keywords to steer traffic their way.
Even the keyword "spamdexing" first turns up an article about search engines that flashes on the screen for a few seconds before sending you off to Allsexgames.com.
One of the most abusive spamdexing techniques, according to Edgar Whipple, technical director of index engineering at AltaVista, the fifth-most popular search engine, is to place an entire, invisible copy of a dictionary into a page's code so the page will pop up no matter what search term is entered.
"We're always on the defensive," he said. "It's a real pain."
For all that, spamdexing also has its positive side. To a certain extent, a well-tuned site helps the search engines accomplish their Herculean task of indexing the ever-expanding Web. And even legitimate businesses often refine their own sites using spamdex techniques (under which circumstances it is more commonly known as "optimizing").
"We, unfortunately, view these people as both outlaws and partners," Carpenter said.
Native Sun used several optimizing tricks in the last year to boost itself into top-10 ranking for such keywords as "Norstar," a manufacturer whose equipment it sells.
"If you don't do this, you're nowhere," Ellis said. "It's a very important marketing strategy. You've got to use your head."
Going After the Spiders
The proliferation of consulting firms and specialized software tools to inflate search engine rankings, however, may undermine the purity of information in the Information Age--raising the question whether any information in the future will stand on its own or simply be a construction of search engine manipulations.
Peck, who now runs his own consulting firm on Web site optimization, Green Flash Systems, readily concedes that he is seen by some as an outlaw even though all his clients are legitimate companies only seeking to keep themselves high in the rankings.
"Even a quality Web site won't show up," Peck said. "This is a market now where sellers have a huge interest in being No. 1 on a search list. Money talks in terms of the pages that show up."
"Anything created by a machine can be manipulated by a machine," said Fredrick Marckini, author of "Achieving Top 10 Ranking in Internet Search Engines" and the head of a consulting firm specializing in Web site optimization. "It's a constant cat-and-mouse game. But you absolutely have to pay attention to how the search engines work. If you don't, it's just like putting a sign up in the middle of a forest."
The latest technique involves creating special Web pages that will appear only to search engine spiders, each of which has its own electronic identifier. When a Web site detects the spider's identifier, it serves up a special page, precisely tuned with the right keywords and layout to ensure a high ranking.
When regular users click on the link in the search engines' listings, they are sent to the same computer the spider visited but given a different page, which could be anything from car parts to pornography.
"That one took us a long time to diagnose," Whipple said, adding that he calls the technique "spoon-feeding."
The search engines were finally able to defeat most spoon-feeding by fighting fire with fire. Whipple said the spiders can be electronically disguised to appear to be ordinary users.