The Dark Side of SEO gets in the Headlines

Yesterday the New York Times published a story about how a large US retailer had apparently been engaged in some fairly dodgy link buying as part of their SEO activity and consequently been hit by the Google Ban Hammer.  Predictably there followed a mass debate on Twitter and the various SEO forums about the rights and wrongs of the behaviour and ban.

The story goes that JC Penney used the automated link building service TNX to place thousands of anchor text rich links to their key category pages, and as a result, dominated US Search results for a huge range high volume keywords over the busy Christmas and New Year period.

The article even drafted in an SEO expert from a New York Web Design firm (?) who described the behaviour as:

…the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen…

So, some automated link service that costs a few quid a month to place is the “most ambitious” attempt at Black Hat SEO in history? Nah, its a little bit of drama, and it also leaves a fairly nasty taste in my mouth.

JC Penney Didn’t Know?

SEO clients absolutely should know what is going on in their name, marketing directors would know which TV channels they were appearing on, they would know which magazines were going to run features about the company.  They should also know who is blogging about them, linking to them, and writing news stories and reviews about them.

If link building is part of an SEO Campaign, it should be conducted in line with brand guidelines.  I’ve worked with retailers who had restrictions placed upon by suppliers about what kind of language could be used to describe products.

If JC Penney were spending any amount of cash with their agency, you would expect that to be accounted for, for the cost of any links to be reported so that the value of them to the campaign could be ascertained.

There is so much back end analysis that goes into a retail website to improve conversion at all stages in the funnel that I find it hard to believe that a savvy online marketing manager would not be asking questions about the campaign.  That’s why when Darcie Brossart says:

J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,

I’m actually inclined to believe her, but it doesn’t make her innocent – it means that she’s ignorant, and when you’re responsible for a website, you need to be in control of everything.  You might not be able to control who links to you, but you should know who does.

Was JC Penney’s SEO Company at Fault

Absolutely – even if they didn’t place the links themselves.

Pretty much any SEO Company – particularly one that could sign a blue chip like this would have access to a reasonable level of technology and internal processes in place to review things like inbound links.  Why?  Because SERPs are an expression of relative probability.  The Google search results are essentially a comparison list of websites that might be relevant to a particular phrase.  They are ordered to represent the probability that they are the best match based on a list of weighting factors, and this list includes links.

Competitor campaign analysis allows an agency to see what everyone else is doing in a particular vertical – this is almost certainly how the JC Penney links were uncovered.  What’s alarming is that the back link profile of JC Penney is so bad.  a quick scan of Yahoo Site Explorer suggests a lack of focus, almost no relevance from the sites being targeted, little or no consideration of brand when applying links, and precious little quality control.

There are fewer links to the website from news providers and genuinely interested parties than we might see from a UK retailer of similar importance.  This again suggests that the SEO agency weren’t really doing much link building – after all, why wouldn’t you just contact a news site that wrote a story and ask for a link?

Would you say anything?

In my experience, clients are often quieter when things are going well than they are when things are going badly.  Fewer questions are asked during meetings when the site is ranking well and traffic is up than they are when you are behind targets.

If you were an SEO agency running a campaign where links were not a consideration, and you saw rankings improve consistently, would you risk upsetting the apple cart.  I’ve known guys in SEO who have claimed credit for everything positive even when there is zero correlation between their actions and the results they are seeing.

Dark Forces at Work?

If you take the idea that the SEO agency and JC Penney are being honest and that the links were not placed by them, you come to the uncomfortable conclusion that they were the victim of a targeted attack from a competitor.  Does this happen?


Have I seen it?


Have I been asked to do it?


Have I done it?


In fact, I know of very few SEO agencies who haven’t had client’s request that they carry out negative SEO techniques against a competitor.  How many do it?  I don’t know because it’s not something you shout about.  It’s not something you shout about, because it’s against the law, and if you got caught for it, you would face a substantial damages bill.

If I wanted to run a negative SEO campaign against a client’s competitor, I would probably build a stack of artificial links via TNX, or better still via Digital Point, because it’s dirtier.  Then I’d file a spam report.  Once I’d done that, I’d kick up a fuss on a few of the bigger SEO blogs and forums to grab some attention, and force someone’s hand.  I’d follow the path I see in the NYT article, because as soon as you call the integrity of Google’s results into question,  they pretty much have to do something immediately as damage limitation.

What Can You Do?

A negative SEO campaign is pretty much the silent assassin, the first thing you know about being the victim of one is the feel of a razor sharp blade slicing through your rankings.  You can keep an eye on your back links via Google Webmaster Tools, and check for malware on your website on a daily basis.  You can maintain a high quality website that is difficult to hack, and you can behave ethically in what you do on line to ensure that if there is a spike of anomalous activity, you have a better case for saying it wasn’t you.  But essentially, when the shit hits the fan, you’re still going to get a kicking.

You need to set up Google Alerts for your brand name.  You need to use a social monitoring tool to track mentions of your website, you need to understand what the normal situation is, and you need to recognise when things change.  SEO is not about changing your meta tags, it’s about understanding the topography of the web in your local area, and using that knowledge to put yourself in the best position.

If you don’t understand what matters for your group of keywords against your group of competitors, you will never be able to rank above them without getting your hands dirty.

What Can Google Do?

Google can do whatever they like. :-/

Seriously though, Google can do what they’ve always done, evolve their algorithm over time to better represent user behaviour.  Google absolutely have to do something about the link economy that PageRank has created.  It is easy to spoof popularity by paying – ask any politician 🙂 – what is harder is faking interest.

They’re getting there…

As more social networking signals are being considered, and results are becoming personalised to the individual based on the interests of their connections, genuine relevance is getting harder to falsify.  Which is better for users and search engines alike.

Ambitious? Maybe

So, was this:

…the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results…


Well that depends.  It depends on whether it was an attempt to get JC Penney to rank for a few competitive search terms using a fairly well known automated link building script, or whether it was an attempt to leverage the gravitas of a story in a major international publication to out a competitor at the end of a fairly obvious negative SEO Campaign.

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