Shady SEO Practices: Learn from JC Penney & Overstock

by on February 27, 2011

in Search Engine Optimization

SEO Devil's AdvocateSEO practices have recently hit the mainstream with articles in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal focusing the shady linking practices of JC Penney, Overstock.com and the resulting Google response. I’m not going to rewash the entire situation with a cautionary tale about link buying and questionable SEO, but I’d like to approach it from the pragmatic position of a business that needs to compete on the internet. So I’ll offer some background and then suggest what businesses should take away from this SEO uproar.

Search Engine Optimization Devil’s Advocate

Despite what many may think, Search Engine Optimization for large websites has its own set of problems. After working with some large brands over the past few months I appreciate the challenge; it’s an entirely different set of problems that aren’t always of a technical nature. As a result, I find the recent media attention on the darker side of SEO interesting and approach it more as a devil’s advocate than a proponent or detractor. So removing the good vs. bad question, what can we learn? Let’s briefly review…

JC Penney Buying Links

Incomprehensibly, the New York Times ran a big story outing JC Penney for buying links , which violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This practice is used in an attempt to manipulate Google’s search results and is tantamount to touching SEO’s third rail . In JC Penney’s case, the result was a Google penalty on a massive scale, dropping the ranking for hundreds of products into the depths of unfindable. Beyond the buzz and drama, it’s important to note that Google didn’t uncover JC Penney’s shady SEO practices, so these practices worked but the company got caught.

Overstock: Discounts for Links

Shortly after the storm surrounding JC Penney reached its peak, another main stream media outlet dropped a bomb: Google Penalizes Overstock for Search Tactics appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The article described how another ecommerce retailer ran afoul of Google by offering a discount to those that would provide a link to Overstock’s website. Google’s response was the same, but the circumstances were much less clear and ventured into the grey area of what is and what is not acceptable as an SEO technique.

Oh by the way, Google didn’t find this violation either. It was uncovered after a thread discussing Overstock’s ranking bubbled up on SEO industry forum WebMasterworld. So once again, violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines worked.

SEO Basics: Get a Grip

After a reviewing some of the recent high profile SEO shenanigans, businesses should take a step back to ensure that they understand SEO basics to make wise choices when pursuing Search Engine Optimization. Whether it’s performing SEO internally, hiring an agency or getting the help of a SEO consultant, businesses need to have enough understanding to make intelligent decisions. Here are my recommendations:

Treat SEO Techniques As a Business Decision

Let’s set aside the White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO debate – as I said, I’m the SEO Devil’s Advocate ;) . The approach to Search Engine Optimization is a business decision and the sooner businesses recognize that, the better of they’ll be. Is using Black Hat SEO techniques worth the risk of getting caught? Here are a couple thoughts:

  • JC Penny Had Top Holiday Rankings. Are They Really Worse Off?
  • Overstock Depends on Google for 100% of Its Business
  • Google Didn’t Find Any of the Violations.

Successful SEO: Get Comfortable With Grey

Businesses interested in using Search Engine Optimization are looking for black and white answers in the grey world of SEO. There is no rulebook and we all depend on experience, testing and sharing to be successful. I saw a recent tweet from @Bill_Slawksi that boils the less than exact nature of SEO nicely:

An SEO Observation by Bill Slawski

SEO Knowledge: Build It or Rent It

Businesses need a good understanding of Search Engine Optimization to make wise decisions. Generally there are only two ways to get that knowledge: build it or rent it. Building Search Engine Optimization knowledge is a long-term effort which requires a consistent commitment, but I’ll bet that a solid foundation of knowledge would have helped JC Penney ask questions that may have made them think twice about buying links on such a massive scale. Alternatively, renting SEO knowledge from a trustworthy agency or consultant can be a wise decision; however a company must know enough about the risky nature of some techniques to ask the “How?” questions. Regardless, understanding what you don’t know is the first step in building SEO knowledge.

Search Engine Optimization is intended to help businesses of all sizes create and deliver useful information to users. Whether those businesses choose to do it in a way that adheres to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (White Hat) or departs from approved methods (Black Hat), situations like that of JC Penney and Overstock should prompt every business with a website to make a conscious decision on how they choose to operate. Regardless of what color hat they choose to wear, every business should learn from this cautionary tale.

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