Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a powerful way for businesses to draw traffic to their Web sites and--they hope--increase sales along the way. Today, in fact, you might even say it's a foolish company that doesn't use some kind of SEO, because its competitors most certainly do.
But SEO is a tricky business. You must walk a fine line between helping the search engine recognize your relevance on certain topics and deceiving it with artificially exaggerated signals. JCPenney, whether intentionally or not, took the latter route.
A New York Times report recently called attention to the fact that JCPenney had been at the top of Google's search rankings for a wide variety of products throughout this past holiday season. Those high rankings weren't the just reward for stellar popularity or one-of-a-kind marketing prowess, however; they were the result of black hat SEO techniques, presumably used by SearchDex, the SEO firm JCPenney has since fired.
To be precise, thousands of links were placed on hundreds of sites across the Web--many of them completely unrelated to the keywords in question, some apparently abandoned, but all leading to JCPenney.com.
That's a huge no-no in the Google world, and JCPenney's results have now reportedly been deflated again. (In other cases, it should be noted, Google has not been so kind. On catching BMW performing similar tricks a few years ago, Google actually removed the company from its search results for a while, as The Times points out.)
The story raises all sorts of questions not only about black hat techniques like these--which, however morally reprehensible, are generally not actually illegal--but also about Google's behavior, given that the company that succeeded in getting away with the tricks for so long happened to be a major advertiser.
Such questions aside, however, it's also an excellent opportunity to draw out some key lessons about how SEO should and shouldn't be done.
1. Pay Attention
Particularly given that JCPenney says it knew nothing of the links and that SearchDex has thus far declined to comment, the case is a good reminder for small businesses that they had better be aware and stay aware of the optimization techniques being used on their behalf.
Whether it is someone in-house or an outside firm, don't simply assume that those handling your SEO are doing it ethically and well. Scrutinize budget requests and pay attention not just to results but also to the means used to achieve those ends. Sometimes, as in JCPenney's case, the long-term results might outweigh any short-term gains.
2. Know Thy Master
Google has a fairly lengthy set of guidelines for webmasters, including quality rules distinguishing what is and isn't acceptable. Your SEO team should be intimately familiar with these, but it's a good idea to be familiar with them yourself, the better to judge your SEO team's efforts.
3. Take the High Road
According to SEO software maker SEOmoz, acquiring links from known link brokers and sellers is the second worst thing you can do for your search engine rankings. (The very worst thing, it says, is "cloaking with a malicious/manipulative intent," or presenting different content to search engines than you display to users, while next in line is linking to Web spam sites.)
Undertaking such illegitimate tactics is, from an SEO perspective, like shooting yourself in the proverbial foot. Don't do it! Just a singe instance could bring Google's wrath down on you, as we also saw in the DecorMyEyes case late last year.
The five best things you can focus on in your SEO efforts are the following, according to SEOmoz:
- Keyword-focused anchor text from external links, or the specific words external sites use as anchor text to link to your site.
- External link popularity, which considers the quantity and quality of external links to your site.
- A diversity of link sources.
- Keyword use anywhere in the title tag.
- The trustworthiness of the domain based on its "link distance" from trusted domains.
JCPenney's links, of course, used anchor text carefully chosen to match search terms like "dresses" or "home decor," and they were placed on a large number of sites, albeit poor-quality ones.
A much better approach is to stick to legitimate SEO strategies to make your site visible.
4. Communicate Your Intent
Make it known to everyone involved in your online efforts that you will not tolerate the use of unscrupulous SEO tactics. That's doubly important when you're in the hiring process. Individuals can be tempted by the prospect of winning their employer short-term results, so it's up to you to make sure that temptation doesn't overpower your corporate goals.
5. Keep Tabs
Assuming it was ignorant of them, JCPenney could probably have uncovered its SEO problems before the New York Times did by using webmaster tools such as SEOmoz's Open Site Explorer, which was used in the report. Billed as a link popularity checker and backlink analysis tool, Open Site Explorer is free for up to 1000 links with metrics. Another such tool is Yahoo's Site Explorer. You need to use such tools regularly to monitor your search traffic, rankings and backlinks for any irregularities.
Of course, the JCPenney story is of particular concern to companies that outsource their SEO. This is a very common practice, and the story highlights how dangerous it can be. Just as close supervision is critical to the outsourcing of other functions, such customer support, so it is for SEO.
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk .