Industry Trends

Black Hats, White Hats: SEO and JC Penney

A good friend of mine who works for a search engine giant that will not be named tipped me off to two very interesting articles about search engine optimization.  The first is a fascinating New York Times expose (requires registration) of “black hat” SEO tactics used by J.C. Penney to goose their Google search rankings during the recent holiday season. The second is from the popular SEO blog, and makes for some very interesting reading as well.

I’ll be honest with you — this story makes me glad that ServInt spends most of its energy building an honest, organic buzz from satisfied customers, rather than manipulating search engine results to make sure we pop up at the top of every Google search. That doesn’t mean we don’t think “white hat” SEO isn’t valuable, or that we shouldn’t always be certain that our web strategy maximizes our search engine opportunities. But I can’t help feeling that the best form of SEO — and I mean that literally — is delivering a product that is so superior that your customers will eagerly spread the word about you online. The question is: how can SEO take maximum advantage of that?

If you’re an SEO expert, I’d be curious to get your thoughts on this. Was the JC Penney event a watershed for the SEO industry? Am I right about old-school “word of mouth” being the best form of SEO? Is there a way to combine killer word-of-mouth buzz with killer SEO strategies? I bet you’ve got some thoughts here, and I really want to hear them. The most compelling insight gets a free round-trip airplane ticket to meet with me in McLean, VA, where we can really discuss things in detail.

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  1. I was reminded of this post the other day and wanted to know if Fritz & Servint was planning on owning up to the stated promise: "The most compelling insight gets a free round-trip airplane ticket to meet with me in McLean, VA"? I'm sure this post was forgotten, but I was interested in meeting Fritz & the team -- hence why I decided to participate in the debate.
    Dustin Woodard /
  2. Fritz: I just had recalled this conversation and came back to see if you were still planning on picking a "winner" to visit you in McLean, VA.
    Dustin Woodard /
  3. Man alive, this is some great discussion. Just keeping up is tough -- but let me throw some quick thoughts out there. Firstly: Richy, once again, you're right on target with your thoughts on blog content relevance and frequency. I will admit to not posting new, interesting stuff as often as I'd like -- but that's going to change, and change soon. So stay tuned. You'll be hearing more from me and the whole gang here -- and our goal is to use this space to inform. Any SEO points we get as a result will be a bonus. B, Dustin -- your point/counterpoint is fascinating to watch. I'm learning a lot from just listening -- but certainly not enough to call a winner in this debate. From my seat -- and I admit to only having a basic understanding of "link buying" -- it seems like the decision to buy or not buy has a lot to do with brand identity. That may be hopelessly naive of me -- but I know that a lot of ServInt's "secret sauce" is related to our reluctance to take anything but the highest of the high roads when it comes to sales and marketing. Our customers appreciate straight talk and intelligent insight, and we enjoy extreme brand loyalty, in part, because that's what we give them. At first blush, link buying seems antithetical to that. Anyhow, you're giving me a lot to mull over, and I'm learning a lot from both of you -- so thanks.
    Fritz Stolzenbach /
  4. @B there are many competitive fields in search, beyond porn, pills, and casinos - those just happen to be the ones that catch most affiliate attention (and the hardest to get natural links from). I've certainly had success holding long-term #1 rankings for many coveted terms in the highly lucrative financial industry, but competition comes in many forms. For example, in the recipe space, there are literally hundreds of millions of sites focused on food & cooking plus big sites like Yahoo, AOL, and Wikipedia trying hard to rank for food & recipe terms. Trust me, there are far more people looking for recipes then plastic surgery - affiliates clearly make higher commission per sale at the plastic surgeon site, but the top recipe sites (with no affiliate deals) makes far more money then the top plastic surgeon site. Online business now very much reflects offline. To say that the Casino & Car Insurance industries are the only competitive industries in the world is very narrow minded. There's a lot of money being made outside the affiliate world. JC Penney brings in over $1.5 billion a year in web-sales and another $16 billion in offline sales. In JC Penney's space, ranking for things like "prom dresses" is certainly possible without paid links. Having a well-optimized site with smart structure and great content plus some creative unpaid inbound linking campaigns could have got them there, but they went the easy, but more dangerous route of buying links. I'm still surprised Google didn't penalize them harder.
    Dustin Woodard /
  5. First and foremost: the JCpenney story is a painful one for all of us SEOs out there. Link building is vital in every single SEO campaign (and that's a fact, content is one thing; but in loads of industries good content will not get you a single link) - but getting links from casino site footers is something that doesn't just raise flags with Google - it's completely useless. Their campaign could have been just as succesful with a little less risk; but I guess the risk came with the affordable nature of their link building efforts. Word of mouth is a nice concept on the web, and it can be highly effective in certain industries - especially the hosting industry. I love linking to Servint from some of my sites; and I don't mind voting for a service I appreciate. The fact that you guys run your affiliate system in-house is an excellent decision seo-wise too - not sure if that was the reasoning -- but it helps you guys out for sure. Word of mouth lacks in the anchor text department though; and limits your options when going after very, very tough terms. Who's going to link to you guys with an anchor "managed VPS hosting"? When you're competing with companies buying links with the "right" anchors; you're bound to lose. Hate it or love it; but that is the way the cookie crumbles. :) Buying links still works; and if done correctly is basically impossible for Google to counter. Yes, a good product is vital. Yes, happy customers are key. But if your number one competitor also offers a good product; and also has happy customers - they're taking your business if they're intelligently "playing" the SEO game... @Dustin - I know you mean well; but if you've been able to rank well in competitive industries without buying links, your view of what a competitive industry is must be skewed. Us SEOs look at "online casino", "car insurance", ... terms as tier one terms; and if you look at the backlink profile of sites ranking there... there's a lot of link buying going on.... Try beating that with "natural" links.
  6. Great link thanks! I don't want to thread jack so I'll leave the FB vs google thing for another day, at least you have a topic for your next blog! Re SEO, I understand the pressure to be numero uno on google, like a green card it promises untold wealth and success, but the reality is usually (for both) that you still need inerrant worth. Some folks put so much stead in voodoo and cheating, if you want traffic relating to your business ( as opposed to wanting people looking for baby strollers to end up looking at your tonka enhancement pill site) then its fairly simple, write awesome, relevant content, code the site well and get sensible, relevant backlinks and play the game. Google makes it so easy for you with webmaster tools. They tell you when your code is awful, they tell you when your site is slow, they tell you when you have 404's etc. Assuming your expectations are relevant (i.e. you want to be 1st for "armpit nebraska webhosting" and not just "webhosting"then you should get there. Long tail has been a huge boom for us, we get 50% from long tail queries and they tend to have a higher propensity (propensity and targeting are two huge things to discuss in FB v Google V the rest). The LT results come from blogging for me. The blogs fun when we have time, its real, it doesn't cost money or involve selling our first borns or black hatting it. Its just good honest content. It you want to be the first search result for an irrelevant term then you are not going to have long term success. I love the fact that people think they can outwit google. Google makes mega bucks, they did not end up in their current position by being stupid (outside of privacy related decisions). They have consistently adapted their algorithms to penalise new methods of cheating. In the end it basically comes down to relevance and respect (how respected is your content by the rest of the web). Our sites (relative) success was noticed by a firm we work with and they asked us to draw up a plan for them. Their problem was their site was all about their boss and how big his tonka was. The result was all they ever showed up on google for was his name. The site went into great detail about him and how he cured famine and basically was the greatest demigod ever. End result was nobody found him who didn't know about him before. If you write about chumps, you will get people looking for chumps.
  7. LOL! Having been a horrified bystander at many of those coach-kissing field trips over the years, I can tell you you're right about the insidious power of the presentation deck. Interesting thoughts about FB, Richy. I agree that their product seems like a no-brainer for marketing efforts that benefit from precise targeting. I don't mind telling you, though -- we've seen pretty mixed results. Probably because our prospects are smarter than the average bear. We're in re-evaluation mode. Meanwhile, somebody forwarded me the following link the other day, and there was much to ponder in it: Thanks for writing -- good thoughts, all!
  8. I would be very interested to see how long any penalties are applied for compared to the average and just how much JCP spends on adwords. FB is emerging as a very attractive advertising medium, even more so than google as you can target more specifically than with google. I wonder if google has half an eye on its ad revenue when punishing a potentially large client. FB has to worry google to some extent, FB has demographics , google for now has size. Whilst FB creeps me out with their idea of privacy they have huge potential and I think perhaps JCP may return from coventry sooner than one of my sites would. I don't believe for a second JCP management weren't advised of the risks but I can see them not understanding them. Plus we all know a good powerpoint presentation with plenty of marquee text and dissolving transitions can convince the desk warming golf brigade of pretty much anything up to and including trying to kiss a coach on the freeway.
  9. We get a fair stream of clients via google and bing. We are on the front page for some search terms, seo is a constant consideration in how we develop our sites. However, we have a very basic philosophy of optimisation over cheating. I don't doubt that google is far smarter than I. I do not want to upset the beast so we basically try and live by googles methodology, lots of useful content, well coded and accessible. Yes we use sitemaps, alt tags et al, theyre there for a reason other than seo but they help with the seo. We found we got excellent results just using great content + coding along with paying attention to google webmaster tools. We do not use any blackhat techniques at all. Why take such a big risk for such a short term gain? I have no doubt that google will twig and our sites will get banned. We have different approaches for different markets and we have sites for each. The threat of permanent exclusion from google is too drastic to risk any We could have spent a fortune paying for some consultant, instead we opted to keep it all in house and we tend to get sites on the front page for our intended terms in a few months which is fairly good for a well contended market. We took about 6 months off development, just coming back to it now with a few more sites to launch. It just seems that people go to such extremes to cheat when just playing by the rules can result in great rewards. Wordpress has made rolling out a site and seo optimisation incredibly easy.
  10. Fritz, I agree that employing black hat methods are a sign of promoting an inferior product. It's certainly much easier to promote a great product. As the web continues to add further layers on transparency on people and products, (via reviews, personal recommendations, etc.) great products will benefit most. As for the SEO industry, surprisingly, I haven't seem much worry as to whether the JC Penney situation tarnishes the industry. I think it is because we have reached a point in time where the demand for SEO experts is far higher then the supply (due to increasing complexity, plus more and more SEOs are running their own web businesses). However, I am seeing more and more SEOs declaring themselves white-hat. Interestingly enough, the SEO firm JC Penney used labeled themselves white-hat and even had several pages explaining how they perfectly followed Google's Guidelines. Clearly one must judge someone by their actions, not their words.
    Dustin Woodard /
  11. Dustin, thanks for your candor and your thoughtful reply. I guess my simple formula is this: if I have to choose between SEO and great product/word of mouth, great product will win, every time. But, as you say, the preferred circumstance would be great product/word of mouth *and* some competent "white hat" SEO. A corollary to this theorem is that using "black hat" SEO when you've got a perfectly good product is downright stupid. I mean, don't these JC Penney tactics suggest to the layman that your product isn't good enough to win on its own merits? I suppose that's stating the obvious. I have to admit, I'm also fairly convinced that if purveyors of SEO (and only some of them do this, thank God) don't stop packaging themselves as semi-illicit "code breakers" of a sort, they're going to condemn themselves to a market ghetto of their own design, and shrink the aggregate market for SEO services in the process. If "SEO" becomes a dirty word thanks to things like what happened at JC Penney, the entire market will suffer.
  12. White-hat versus Black-hat SEO has been a topic discussed within the industry for the past decade (as well as the various shades of Gray). The JC Penney story isn't super surprising since people have been buying links for years - what is more surprising is that Google's algorithmic brand bias was introduced about a year ago and the bias clearly gave companies like JC Penney an opportunity to dominate high-value terms until they were caught. JC Penney & their SEO agency were clearly willing to gamble. Greed (especially if bonuses were on the line) was clearly at play. They were willing to sacrifice themselves long-term to enjoy the short-term gains. Most businesses, especially if they are tied to the web like ServInt is, can't afford the risk associated with strategies that Google is clearly against. What JC Penney did wasn't illegal, but they may suffer for it. I'm actually surprised Google didn't take stronger action then a manual -60 rank penalty. Every SEO operates differently. I'm thankful I've never needed to buy a link to rank a site highly, even in competitive industries. I find that the majority of sites do a very poor job with basic SEO and even the larger, more advanced sites with SEO teams still fail to realize their sites potential using white-hat on-page optimization techniques. I, too, am a fan of building a solid product or site to gain word-of-mouth. In fact, in my decade+ as an in-house SEO (I broke away to consult for the past 1.5 years), the sites I worked on never spent a penny on advertising - we relied purely on SEO & Word-of-Mouth. Notice I said SEO & Word-of-Mouth? It's true the two work well together for things like reviews, social sharing, etc., but relying purely on word-of-mouth is not an SEO play. Without a well-polished site structure, lots of great content, smart linking, and hundreds of other factors, your site will not rank, no matter how great your word-of-mouth is. Plus you want to make it easy for fans of your service to spread the good word in the right places, otherwise their referral will be purely offline, which will not factor into your site's opportunity to rank for those who haven't heard of you yet. Let's not also forget that having a high ranking can also influence the word-of-mouth potential for your service. For example, if you are ranked #1 for Virtual Private Servers - who do you think CNET might choose to interview when a reporter is assigned an article on that topic? Chances are they will run the search on Google & trust that if Google (aka the entire Web Community via their linking) picked you as #1, then you must be the best to talk to. As a long-timer customer of ServInt, I can vouch for your product & customer service, but must say that I'm disappointed that I don't see that reflected in your rankings. You can't rely on word-of-mouth alone.
    Dustin Woodard /
  13. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ServInt, Nick Loui. Nick Loui said: RT @servint: "Black Hats, White Hats: SEO and JC Penney" by #ServInt VP of Mktg @servintfritz [...]
    Tweets that mention Black Hats, White Hats: SEO and JC Penney" by #ServInt VP of Mktg -- /
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