Link Farming & Other SEO Misdeeds Make Headlines

Grazed from Internet Evolution.  Author: Sean Gallagher.

Back in the early days of search engine optimization (SEO), I accidentally learned the fine art of "Google-bombing." After a colleague had written what I thought was a particularly off-base column, I linked to his article from my personal blog with the phrase, "incredibly idiotic." And others followed in kind. Before long, entering "incredibly idiotic" in Google offered up my colleague at the top of the results.

Fortunately, the years have offered plenty of other uses for those keywords, and my former colleague no longer has to live with the tag. But Google-bombing lives on. Just ask former US Senator Rick Santorum.

That's because Google's search engine ranking algorithm, PageRank, is a lot like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. The algorithm, named for Google co-founder Larry Page, depends on the kindness of strangers; it trusts people to link to a site with words that are relevant to the site's content, and, in Google search results, it gives more weight to pages that lots of people link to using those keywords.

But sometimes, the kindness of strangers can be bought.

The New York Times recently unleashed its investigative prowess on a Google-bombing campaign of a different kind: a "black hat" SEO effort on behalf of retailer JC Penney. Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media, an SEO expert, told the Times that the Penney example represents "the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of" to affect search engine rankings for a legitimate business.

 

That "most ambitious" effort used a practice called "link farming." While JC Penney denies that it was involved in the effort, someone acting on the SEO company's behalf paid to place links to JC Penney's e-commerce site on hundreds of sites using desired keywords.

For example, a link to JC Penney using the words "black dresses" was placed on a site called nuclearengineeringaddict.com. And many other sites with links to JC Penney were clearly unrelated to dresses, pants, or just about anything else the links were keyed in on.

The results were worth every dime, from a short-term perspective: In the run-up to the Christmas holiday, JC Penney was at or near the top for searches on a variety of search terms. With some studies suggesting that 90 percent of customers do research online before making a purchase -- on the Internet or in a physical store -- the search numbers affected both e-commerce and in-store sales for JC Penney. Forbes reported that JC Penney's Web sales were up 3 percent in the August-to-October fiscal quarter of 2010, and holiday sales were up across the board.

But link farming runs afoul of Google's policies on acceptable search engine optimization practices. Google spells it out plainly in its Webmaster guidelines: "Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank." Those who fail to play by that rule can have their own search rankings diminished.

And there's good reason for that policy. Link farming is a practice that Google can't yet detect through its algorithms, and it goes to the heart of how the mysterious Google PageRank works. The only way to keep more companies from link-farming and gaming Google's system (without paying Google for "sponsored" placement) is to make examples of the ones that get caught. That's what Google did to DecorMyEyes, the eyeglasses frames seller that gamed Google PageRank with negative comments from customers.

Still, it's not clear what the long-term impact of being "de-ranked" will have on JC Penney. While the company's ranking on Google searches has plummeted, its link efforts still put it near the top of results on Microsoft's Bing.

It remains a question whether JC Penney's SEO ninjas were incredibly idiotic or not.