Spam or SEO? The Penney drops

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Submarine pioneer John Holland

I walked into the office today to find an email from my US bosses citing an article in Saturday’s New York Times. The NYT highlights the case of JCPenney, the major US catalogue retailer, who got caught with their pants round their ankles as a result of running a backlinking campaign. I’ve been told I’m the only SEO profesional in the whole company: mini-panics like this prove the point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but I think the thrust of the NYT’s piece is that backlinks are “Underhand, unfair and damned un-English”, as the Royal Navy described the idea of the submarine. One might say: “It’s just not cricket”, but recent events have proved that not even that is immune to unscrupulous practices, and anyway this is the other side of the Pond. I digress, constantly.

Anyway, I don’t know anyone in the search world who thinks that link-building is necessarily “Black Hat” per se (some of them even work for Google).

Having said that there ARE some link-building techniques which might be described as “Black Hat” and I would never advocate these. Besides, the industry I’m in does not lean towards the NEED for “Black Hat” SEO unlike, for example, gambling. When I worked for an online casino, rival companies were using all sorts of “Black Hat” linking techniques to get around Google’s more stringent rules then in force in the UK on SEO and PPC for online betting sites — they are still tough in the US. These included crafty JavaScript redirects which sent the Google Bot to an “allowed” site and humans to the (money-making) “illegal” gambling page.

Even so, I never felt the need to resort to such measures, and I successfully got my employer’s site to the top half of Google page 1 for ALL targeted terms.

I’m not surprised that JCPenney deny all knowledge of the spammy campaign that proved their downfall; working for search agencies I was surprised how often clients were completely (and sometimes aggressively) disinterested in exactly what SEO entails. Yet these same companies were often being charged obscene amounts of money for links that  were practically worthless — and in the case of JC Penney positively harmful.

Often, such links are charged at say $500 plus a time for a cost outlay of less than $2 — a profit in excess of 25,000%. Perhaps it serves them right.

Actually, more often than not, the links are not even bought, they are RENTED — stop paying the rent and they simply disappear. In my short time here, I’ve already been offered this “service” twice.

The fact that linkbuilding is so widespread can be inferred from studies — including the one just we’ve just carried out with our tame agency — which show that the leading domains (including all our rivals) are linked-to by hundreds of thousands of websites using EXACTLY the same keyword-rich anchor text — you might almost think it had been orchestrated.

On the other hand, I’m always very happy to see links being built as a result of SEO policies that include expanding, interesting, relevant and enticing content which makes people WANT to link to our sites. There is even a term for it: link bait.

Hopefully, the coming site relaunch planned for later this year will deliver such.

At the moment, given the current difficulties of changing backend code and adding new content to sites without incurring duplication “penalties” — or riding roughshod over longstanding corporate website guidelines — it seems that careful, intelligent backlink building is the only feasible option.

I’m trying to get this across to my bosses. To be fair, that is my job: the role of the in-house SEO is as much communicating the risks, realities and opportunities of natural search to the company as actually doing it.

But I could do without the NYT’s “assistance”, God bless ’em.