To the seasoned search engine optimization professional, there are a number of “black hat SEO” tricks you want to avoid at all costs. For those who have never heard the term, black hat refers to SEO processes that serve to direct search results to particular target pages in a manner that blatantly goes against best practices, common sense and search engine guidelines.
It’s like practicing black magic or joining the Dark Side of the Force or blatantly counting cards in a seedy Vegas casino off the main strip. It’s a bad idea.
Some black hat SEO examples include Cloaking, Keyword Stuffing, Hidden Text, and Link Schemes. Although most of these tactics stem from techniques used long ago, each carries a significant consequence that bears mentioning. In 2011, the black hat SEO news is all about link scheming. And although all the fallout has not yet settled from other sites like Forbes and Overstock, we can certainly dissect some of the details and hopefully learn a lesson from all these stories.
Earlier this month, J.C. Penney, the mid-range department store chain based in Plano, Texas, was caught up in a bit of a news story that was propagated by a little investigative work by The New York Times that landed in the hands of a few people at Google (the kinds of people at a major search engine that you don’t want peering into your SEO practices).
What touched off this foray into J.C. Penney’s SEO activities was a number of curious results for a really wide variety of search terms. According to the investigative report, when you went searching for a number of common household and personal items (such as dresses, bedding, area rugs, skinny jeans, home décor, comforter sets, furniture, and tablecloths), the one website that turned up at the top of the search results was J.C. Penney. In fact, according to the investigation, J.C. Penney held the top spot for these search terms – and many more – for a number of months during the very busy (and lucrative) holiday shopping season.
Who was at the top spot? It wasn’t Macy’s or Wal-Mart. Nope. It wasn’t Amazon.com, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks, Dillard’s, the Gap, J. Crew, Crate & Barrel, or Sears. It was J.C. Penney – alone. Curious, eh?
Now, J.C. Penney is a huge company – with over 1,100 department stores across all 50 states. Founded in 1902, the company currently employs more than 150,000 employees and has revenues in excess of $4.19 Billion dollars. Given the size of their retail footprint and the time they’ve spent in the market, most would say that J.C. Penney knows a little something about selling clothing, footwear, furniture, jewelry, beauty products, electronics, and housewares. But is all of that enough to explain their total domination of these amazingly generic and unusually specific search terms during the most profitable retail quarter of the year? Yes? No? Maybe?
Well… The New York Times and Google didn’t think so – and Google went so far as to clean up the results (so to speak).
So, if J.C. Penney, given all of their retail might, couldn’t plausibly pull off such an amazing feat in the search engine results pages, how did the investigative team suggest that the department store giant make it work?
According to The New York Times investigation, thousands of links to the J.C. Penney website were plastered across innumerable sites across the web.
Note: Links aren’t free, folks.
These links to the J.C. Penney website were absolutely paid for by somebody who has a vested interest in the ongoing success of the retail chain. The execs at J.C. Penney, however, are absolutely denying any connection to the link scheme.
The New York Times investigators suggested that J.C. Penney solicited the aid of a skilled black hat SEO group that created bogus web sites that specifically related J.C. Penney’s website to all these specific clothing, furniture and housewares products – thereby violating Google’s guidelines and artificially driving up rankings.
Once the “alleged” scheme was discovered, Google pulled out their largest monkey wrench and forcibly adjusted the search results – effectively burying J.C. Penney in the search results pages.
Matt Cutts, head of the Webspam team at Google, tweeted a few times about the incident, saying “I really wish that our algorithms or other processes had caught this much faster.”
Darcie Brossart, Vice-President of Corporate Communications at J.C. Penney returned fire in a lengthy public statement. “The reason J.C. Penney outperformed the competition during the holiday season is attributable to having the right merchandise, great price points, a compelling holiday marketing campaign and the best department store customer service. It is naïve for the New York Times to suggest that these low-quality web links drove our business. Obviously, we are disappointed that Google has reduced our rankings.”
I have a J.C. Penney card in my wallet and they have an awesome deal on Van Heusen shirt and tie combinations, so I’m not going to rock the boat and make any comments there.
Lesson 1 – Act Natural. Any seasoned SEO will tell you that it’s not advisable to scam the system. Yes, J.C. Penney has denied any part in the uncovered link scheme (more on that in a minute) But SEOs will also tell you that if a site keeps getting the same top search returns for a number of competitive and unrelated products – it’s probably due to someone behind the curtain, rigging the results, wringing their hands greedily, and cackling to themselves.
Lesson 2 – The SEO community is changing. Not long ago, SEO was a smaller circle of professionals that worked to manipulate search engines. It was very much an “Us vs. The Search Engines” mentality. Today, higher stakes and a focus on off-page SEO has more of your competitors scrutinizing your links to see what you are up to.
It only takes one of your competitors to find and report you to Google to get you buried in the search results. For a large company, this may end up costing millions of dollars in lost revenue opportunities (see first lesson). Google doesn’t need to hire thousands of people to uncover these tactics. When enough traffic and revenue potential exists to alarm your competition, they might be willing to collaborate with Google just to bring you down.
Lesson 3 – Ditch the black hat guy behind the curtain. You’re better off spending a million bucks to hire an ethical SEO group to analyze your search results and analytics reports, provide good, relevant content development for your website, identify relevant keywords that cater to short and long-tail results, update your web content regularly, and build links that actually work for you.
The fact that J.C. Penny denied any knowledge or part in this link scheme is shocking. When you hire an SEO to boost your site performance, find out how transparent they are in their reporting. At the Fortune 500 level, understanding SEO and knowing what you are paying for ultimately falls on the shoulders of the Marketing VP or Director. SEO (done the right way) is not fast, cheap, or easy. Remember this and it could end up saving your job, and millions in revenues for your company.