Don’t be caught in a web of deceit.
Yesterday, an article by New York Times writer David Segal appeared in many newspapers around the country. The article was remarkable because, for one thing, it made the topic of “black hat” or deceitful search engine practices front page reading for the general population—most of which not only don’t know what search engine optimization is, but don’t care how Google determines what results they see, because they’re not involved in the search or ecommerce industries.
But the other remarkable factor was that it documented how the website of one of the United States’s largest and most successful retailers, JC Penney, dominated the search results for months, via ways which Google says was unethical. Now, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s webspam team, says Google will “take strong corrective” action, which essentially means that JCPenney.com is “demoted” in the search engine rankings.
What Google claims JC Penney did—and which JC Penney claims they did not authorize—was paying for links into the site. Paid links by the thousands came to JCPenney.com from questionable sites. The links inflated JC Penney’s “authority” with Google, as their search algorithm highly values incoming links, and led to JCPenney.com dominating the unpaid search engine results page for several months for just about every shopping related term you could think of, such as “dresses,” “home décor,” “tablecloths,” “luggage,” “furniture,” “skinny jeans” . . . the list goes on and on.
The article says that some of the 2,015 pages that linked to JCPenney.com were site-related, in other words, they related at least nominally to clothing, but most did not. The links to JCPenney.com came from sites that the writer describes as “hovels”: sites about “diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists,” among many others. The article describes this practice as “black hat” optimization: “the dark art of raising the profile of a website with methods that Google considers tantamount to cheating.”
The lesson from all this for the average business owner is that incoming links do matter. In fact, they matter a lot. But think twice before you succumb to the pressure of the sites that advertise hundreds of links for the low low price of . . . whatever. In most cases, even with companies that appear to be the most reputable, you will end up with spammy links to your site just like JC Penney did, and eventually, your site will get dinged, just like JC Penney did. It may take a while for Google’s spam team to find your site and discover what you’re doing, and you may even enjoy some benefits from the increased exposure if you do fall for these “link schemes,” but when the search engines do find out, your company gets the equivalent of concrete shoes and you sink in Google’s search results, perhaps never to rise again.
Take some action now. Find out what links your site already has by using Yahoo Site Explorer or Open Explorer (both free tools) find links to your site. The Yahoo Site Explorer linking tools is one instance in which the Yahoo product is actually more informative than the Google product. You can search using the Google search tool link:www.yourURL.com. This search returns only a sampling of sites that are linking to yours, and in particular only the higher PageRank sites, but it’s still useful information. (Note there can be no space between the “link:” and the web page URL.)
So how can you engage more users and potentially increase merit-based inbound links? Create unique and compelling content on your site and the web in general. Use the external links tool on Webmaster Tools to learn about other sites interested in your site. Cultivate interest from other sites that relate to yours in some way. This process takes time and effort, but when you approach link building in this manner, you know you won’t be the next JCPenney.com!