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Resist the Dark Side of SEO: A Cautionary Tale for Marketers

SEO-Dark-SideIn an exceptional piece of modern-day investigative journalism by David Segal, the New York Times uncovered an elaborate JCPenney link-building scam, orchestrated by its former “black-hat” SEO firm. 

Unbeknownst to JCPenney (allegedly), the firm built thousands of spammy paid links to for key search terms such as “area rugs,” “dresses” and “furniture.”

The result was top rankings in Google for JCPenney products that most likely drove millions of organic site visits during the 2010 holiday season — a critical time for the retailer, which has seen sales sink to 2001 levels and is still reeling from the death of its catalog business. According to the Times, the No. 1 spot in Google for “dresses” alone could have generated as many as 3.8 million organic visits per month.

The Times had an SEO expert, Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media, analyze JCPenney’s remarkable organic performance. Pierce described the program, “As the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen.”

The Times turned over its findings to Google, which took “strong corrective action,” according to Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team. JCPenney has since seen significant drops in its organic rankings due to algorithmic and “manual” adjustments by Google.

Does Google Show Preference to Major Advertisers?

The article gets even more interesting when the Times points out that this was the fourth occurrence Google was aware of in which violated its guidelines. The intriguing part is that, according to an Advertising Age report, JCPenney spent $2.46 million a month on paid Google search ads, making it one of Google’s largest advertising partners.

Google categorically denies there is preference given to advertisers, but apparently this is a topic that has caught the interest of the European Union in its investigations of potential antitrust abuses by Google. 

Marketing Lessons

So what can marketers learn from the JCPenney?

1) #DontMessWithTheCutts Dont-Mess-With-The-Cutts

To quote my colleague Keith Moehring, “#DontMessWithTheCutts.” Matt Cutts and Google’s webspam team are on a mission to protect the quality of Google’s search results. They are smarter than your SEO firm, and far more powerful. So it’s best to play by the rules.

Like anything else in life and business, just because the other guys are getting away with it (for now), doesn’t mean it’s OK to “cheat” the system.

2) Don’t Be Desperate

Decisions driven by desperation can be very dangerous to your business’ long-term health. Don’t let slow sales, or short-term demand for website traffic and leads, force you to sacrifice your integrity and your business’ reputation.

3) There are No Shortcuts or Guarantees in Search

If you’re not sure what your SEO firm is doing to generate links and traffic, then ask. Pleading ignorance when Google catches you will get you nowhere, so make sure you understand their tactics and that their response passes the “icky” test (i.e. that feeling you get in business when something just doesn’t feel legit, and most likely isn’t).

Authentic search engine optimization requires time, and a combination of on-page optimization (i.e. page titles, URLs, page descriptions, alt text, headers, copy), link building from credible sources and content publishing on your domain (blogs, videos, case studies, press releases, photos, ebooks).

Commit to doing it right over time, and you will reap the rewards.

4) Focus on Content & The Long Tail

Content publishing is the most powerful strategy available to build inbound links, boost search engine rankings, drive website traffic and generate leads.

Concentrate your efforts on attracting organic traffic from long-tail keyword phrases. The long tail applies to the collective strength of lower search volume, longer keyword phrases in the demand curve tail, and their ability to out-produce a relatively small number of top traffic-driving keywords at the head of the curve (or header phrases).

Resource: 9 Content-Driven Link Building Tips

The Dirty Little Secrets of Search

I highly recommend you read the full New York Times piece: The Dirty Little Secrets of Search


Paul Roetzer is founder and president of PR 20/20, a Cleveland-based inbound marketing agency and PR firm. He can be found on Twitter @PaulRoetzer.

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