What Would D-Mac Do


Monday, February 14, 2011

JCPenny and Paid Links

There has been an article from the New York Times making the rounds in the search industry over the weekend. Essentially, the Times worked in conjunction with Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain and discovered that JCPenny had engaged in a relatively expansive paid link project which included not only buying links on unrelated websites, but including links to irrelevant content on their own site. They contacted Google regarding their findings and within a matter of a few days, JCPenny's site no longer ranked for many of the competitive queries they previously were at the top for.

For their part, JCPenny claims that they had no knowledge of their agency (SearchDex) engaging in dishonest tactics to inflate their links and thus boost rankings. The article goes on to mention that they subsequently fired their agency upon discovering the approach.

The interesting thing about the actions of JC Penney’s SEO firm is that for the most part they were completely unnecessary for growing that brand’s link equity. Most large brands with large, dynamic sites have so much diluted link equity that more value could be provided by simply making sure they conserve what mass link equity they have than by trying to undermine engines' linking algorithm. Case in point: JCPenney.com has 38 URLs on their site that are temporarily redirected, and aren’t passing link equity for the 35,615 pages that are linking to them. Permanently redirecting these URLs would allow the engines to understand that these pages have moved permanently, and all link equity would be passed to JCPenney.com. Likewise, they have another 30 URLs that are giving 404 errors, representing 6,452 links, and 970 URLs that are blocked with robots.txt, that could be passing link equity from another 51,737 links. That’s almost 100,000 links that JC Penney could have had by hiring SEOs to find creative, white hat solutions to their authority problems and working with IT to implement the solutions. Unfortunately they took the easy, unethical route and bought their way to the top, which is almost always going to be a temporary, and sometimes tragic solution.

This is a story that has occurred before throughout the history of the search industry. Companies with large and respectable brands engage in some tactic (knowingly or unknowingly) that ultimately leads to a serious reduction in their rankings. This serves as a strong reminder to any company, large or small, that any attempts to mislead engines or inflate rankings result ultimately do not equate to viable long term strategies.

Artificial link building and link schemes have been repeatedly discouraged by Google, both in blog posts and on their official webmaster guidelines. Any attempt to game engines in this regard may, as the JCPenny example shows, work in the short term, but ultimately fail in the long term. In JCPenny's case, the drop in rankings will definitely cost them sales.

How to Avoid this Fate:

1. Avoid Any Practice that Appears to Mislead Engines
-If your agency suggests a tactic that will portray your site as being something it isn't, chances are it violates engine guidelines. There's really very few exceptions to this. There are ways of buying links that are acceptable but when these things happen, there are ways to ensure your site does not get penalized.

2. Build Links Organically
-Links are used by engines to weigh rankings because, ultimately, the belief is that they are a good indicator of how credible certain content is. The best and safest way to build links is to simply write content your users will want to link to to begin with. Not only does this help foster your user base, but it legitimately helps engines rank you for terms that are as closely associated with the audience you intend to reach as possible.

3. Demand Transparency
If an agency can't give you a straight answer on how they intend on building links to your site, through content outreach, directories, newswires, social media or otherwise, there's reason for concern. The simplest tactics outlined on Google's Webmaster Guidelines WILL produce results. Especially for a larger brand like JCPenny. There is definitely no reason a search agency in 2011 should feel like their SEO is a black box. If they are, then that could be a very likely indicator they are doing something with your site they don't want you (or Google) knowing about.

4. Don't Sign Off on Work You are Unclear on
-While I applaud JCPenny's efforts to pick up the pieces and move on, they probably are in this situation because they signed off on work they didn't entirely understand (assuming their statements are true). If an agency is going to do something underhanded, then likely, they will either be vague about what they are doing, or the client will be in on the practice from the beginning. Obviously if the latter is the case, then the client is just as culpable. However, anytime an agency is not forthcoming in how they will obtain links, there should be immediate red flags. There's no reason an agency should ever feel compelled to keep you in the dark on their day-to-day link building efforts.