By now, you've probably heard about the trouble JC Penney got itself into with Google. In the months leading up to the holiday season last year, product pages on the Penney site came up No. 1 in Google searches for thousands of products and categories. Excellent SEO, you say? No, Penney's feat was accomplished using "black-hat" SEO tricks explicitly banned by Google.
A New York Times reporter investigated and, with the help of a white-hat SEO expert, figured out how Penney had pulled it off. The reporter sent his findings to Matt Cutts, Google's chief anti-spam guy. Google says it had already caught wind of Penney's SEO cheating and had tweaked its algorithms to devalue the thousands of junk links leading to Penney pages, and Penney's results began dropping down Google's rankings. Presented with the evidence, Google added some extra tweaks by hand, and the Penney pages that had previously been No. 1 for terms such as "dresses," "bedding," and "Samsonite carry-on luggage" dropped down onto the 6th or 7th results page.
Penney says it was unaware of what its hired-gun SEO company was doing and has now fired it.
The lessons in this tale for marketers should be obvious, but they are important enough that I'll be very explicit: Don't cheat at SEO. Know what your SEO company is doing in your name. Reputable SEO firms will work with you to improve your site overall so that it rises in the natural search rankings. If an SEO firm tells you not to worry, that you don't need to be involved in the process, don't walk but run out the door and find a legitimate supplier. You don't build long-term shareholder value by buying links on random, sketchy sites across the Web. When Google catches you violating its Webmaster guidelines -- and it will -- your search traffic will fall off a cliff.
It's instructive to dive into more detail about how, exactly, black-hat SEOs get the results (however temporary) that they do. Search Engine Land offers an excellent introduction to the subject, penned by ex-Googler Vanessa Fox. Even geekier is the account written by Doug Pierce, the white-hat search engine optimizer who worked with the NYT to expose Penney's cheating. As Fox writes:
When I caution companies against tactics that violate the guidelines, they sometimes say that I’m being a goody goody or as an ex-Googler simply have strong allegiance to Google. Some tell me that they have an obligation to use all of the tools available to them to gain an audience and revenue. But the truth is just that I’ve seen too many analytics reports with traffic down and to the right. And I feel my obligation is to help companies build sustainable audiences and revenue.
Building a long-term search strategy that adheres to the search engine guidelines may mean that it takes longer before you start seeing traffic from search engines, but that traffic is not at [risk] of drying up at any moment.
Please share your experiences with SEO firms, good and bad, on the message boards.
— Keith Dawson , Senior Editor, The CMO Site
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