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Even the Big Guys Screw Up SEO

When I first saw the title of this Sunday’s cover story in the Business section of New York Times, my first thought was “Really? This is news?” But I quickly realized that if you don’t spend your life immersed in the world of search, the fact that a major retailer was using black hat techniques to improve their rankings in Google, would be news. I wasn’t surprised because I think it happens way more often than Google lets on.

The article, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, by David Segal tells the story of how J.C. Penney’s website was coming up #1 for a whole bunch of search terms (aka key phrases). They even outranked manufacturer’s websites for their own product names. I’m not sure how this came to the attention of the  New York Times, but they hired a search engine marketer to figure out why J.C. Penney’s site ranked so well. He was able to reverse engineer the process and discovered that J.C. Penney was up to some pretty shady SEO practices or what we call in the industry “black hat SEO.”

Before I explain what they were doing and why it was a problem, it helps to understand a bit about how rankings work. There are 2 types of search engine optimization; there is onsite optimization and offsite optimization. Onsite SEO is when you do everything you can to make your website appeal to the search engines. Offsite SEO is when you do things around the web to improve your rankings. The majority of offsite SEO consists of getting other websites, blog, etc. to link to your website. This is because Google considers a link to your site as a vote of popularity and in general, the site with the most links to it wins the rankings war.

What was going on in this situation is that J.C. Penney’s SEO company improved their rankings by paying for links to the site. This is a big no-no in Google’s book and when they catch you doing it, your site disappears from the search results.

Although they don’t say so directly in the article, I’m willing to bet J.C. Penney had no idea what their SEO company was doing to improve their rankings. Often, the marketing executives in charge of hiring the SEO company have no idea what it takes to improve rankings so they don’t know the difference between white hat techniques and black hat techniques. All they cared about was the fact that their rankings were going up which drove more traffic to their site and presumably made more sales.

I’m even willing to bet that SearchDex, who J.C. Penney fired when this story came to light, wasn’t even doing the link building themselves. Link building is an incredibly time intensive process and frankly, it’s insanely boring. There are companies that specialize in it and most of them use methods that won’t get you in trouble with Google. What this company did wrong was pay for them and use link farms.

I think it’s important for any business owner to read the full article because it’s a cautionary tale. If it can happen to a major retailer like J.C. Penney, it can happen to you. That’s why it’s important to have a basic understanding of how SEO works and know what your SEO company is doing in your name.  It’s kind of like bookkeeping. If your company fails to pay payroll taxes, the IRS won’t go after your bookkeeper, they’ll come after you. Google is a lot like the IRS in that respect; they don’t have any sympathy for the “I didn’t know” excuse.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 at 10:07 am and is filed under Cautionary Tales, Search Engine Optimization. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Even the Big Guys Screw Up SEO”

  1. Tia Peterson says:

    The emphasis on link building is completely nuts to me. There are other ways to drive traffic using search engines. I work with a client who is now getting over 60% traffic from search engines via thousands of long-tail keyword searches and we do nothing beyond writing about the news in their industry. We don’t do any link building for those posts. The extent to which we promote them is using Twitter.

    I’d love to hear a success story of SEO without crazy amounts of focus on link building. I predict that as these methods continue to be exposed, link building is going to be a thing of the past.

  2. Angel says:

    Great Article!
    I don’t think that this was a screw up. There’s no big seo company that doesn’t do link building with link purchasing. It would would be endless otherwise.

    What I think was the story was that JC started link building, they liked the idea of ranking better and better and everytime they got asked by the company for a more aggresive aproach, they said hell yea!
    Let’s not forget that to go so aggresive with link purchases, you have to spend a huge amount of money so JC should be very aware from the beginning.

    Just my opinion.

  3. Elge says:

    Good point Angel. Rankings are kinda like crack. When you see them going up you get addicted to the high.

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