SEO lessons from the NYT JC Penney Google Link building exposé

On February 12, 2011 the New York Times released a scathing report on how Google had failed to identify a paid link building scheme that saw retailer JC Penney owning highly specific, and presumably valuable, search terms during the lucrative holiday season. In the article, the NYT suggests that by design JC Penney gamed the Google algorithm to place in the first position for a multitude of keyword phrases, in some cases outranking well known brands for their own name. It further blasts Google for not catching on to what JC Penney was doing, insinuating that Google somehow did not filter these bad links out because JC Penney is a major Google advertiser.

So what happened here? Did JC Penney actually think that a 1st place ranking for every vaguely relevant retail-related keyword term under the sun was worth risking search results purgatory? Did Google really sit back and do nothing while a major advertiser made a mockery of its coveted 200+ point algorithm during the ultra competitive and highly lucrative holiday shopping season? It’s hard to say because anything is possible in the increasingly aggressive organic search space, but one thing is certain; there is more to the story than meets the eye.

In this situation JC Penney categorically denies involvement in any black hat link building schemes. Google too denies doing anything untoward, stating in no uncertain terms that it does not give preferential treatment to high rolling advertisers, adding that its algorithm had started to catch on to JC Penney when a major change was made in February to how it valued links. It is here where the real controversy begins, and it’s a two-parter: Just what did Google change in February that would suddenly detect such a scheme? And what if JC Penney really didn’t do anything wrong?

Black Hat Offensive?

JC Penney’s adamant denial that it in no way engaged in any paid link scheme highlights a concern that legitimate SEOs have repeatedly expressed; black hat techniques can be reverse engineered and used by competitors as a weapon. Currently there is no way to protect against a vicious competitor paying for links in another site’s name. SEOs have long asked that Google just ignore these types of links, usually low relevance and low quality in nature. A no-penalty-no-reward approach by search engines would level the playing field making paid link schemes a useless link building method and ensuring that such links could never be used with malicious intent.

Did Google finally do just that? Did it finally decide to ignore paid links? Or was the February shift something more far reaching?

Google’s Trust in Paid Links

When Google’s Matt Cutts stated in the NYT article that corrective action against JC Penney was happening naturally in the algorithm itself due to a shift in “how we trust links” he may have let the cat out of the bag.Google announced an algorithmic change in January that was intended to lower the value of scraper site content in search results, but the change noted in the NYT article is something different; the JC Penney debacle was about paid links not scraper sites. Google’s February 14 release of a site blocking Chrome extension that would eliminate sites chosen by individual users from its search results may offer another clue as the announcement of the extension includes this statement, “We’ve been exploring different algorithms to detect content farms…”

In recent weeks Google has released an algorithm change targeting scraper sites, admitted that it has changed the way it “trusts” links, and in a related-yet-unrelated move, unveiled a Chrome extension designed to allow users to filter entire domains out of their search results when they query Google in Chrome. These three clues lead to some obvious conclusions. It seems that Google is waging war on low quality, low relevance and unnatural links in a variety of content types across the web, something that if true would have impacts on everything from paid links and link exchange networks to poorly orchestrated article marketing and excessive content syndication.

What’s Next for Link Building

Link building is a necessary evil in the algorithmically driven Google-verse but the once simple idea of “one link equals one vote” for a site has spawned a whole business of gaming the system with unearned links. Link building has become as much a gamble as a strategy and increasingly there are more grey and black hat areas than there are legitimate white hat techniques. Even areas once considered safely white hat have faded to grey as the algorithm has been adjusted to compensate for a proliferation of useless, duplicate or irrelevant content on the web. It seems that Google is finally taking notice of the many ways that links are being built by design rather than naturally and doing something about it.
How this will change the way link building strategies are developed and implemented remains to be seen.

Thanks to the NYT JC Penney exposé SEOs can forget about search engine purgatory and start worrying about past link building efforts coming back to haunt. When Google advises Webmasters to “Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings” it now means business: The road to Google hell may be paved in poor quality unnatural links and it seems like efforts to eliminate the impact of those links in search results is just beginning.