Several months ago, the New York Times featured a story that shed some light on the inner workings of Google in dealing with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices that run contrary to Google's accepted SEO guidelines. As I read the story about J. C. Penney's SEO and Google's reaction, I began to think about SEO practices not in technical terms, but in business terms.
What is SEO Success?
SEO success, like any venture in business, is eventually measured in profit or loss. Any SEO professional will tell you that good SEO takes time to work. You may not see immediate results from your SEO campaign in a week, or even in a month or two. The accepted wisdom is that taking the long view is essential to measuring the ROI for an SEO campaign. A lesser explored corollary to this: loss from Black Hat SEO practices may not show up in the short term, but it can be very damaging in the long term.
Let’s look at the J. C. Penney story in this light. J. C. Penney operates over 1,000 stores throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The Golden Rule dry goods store was opened by James Cash Penney in Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1902. That store began the J. C. Penney chain. While the name changed, the company kept the Golden Rule as the core of their customer service philosophy. As consumer behaviors changed, so did J. C. Penney. In 1963, the J. C. Penney catalogue was launched. In 1994, jcp.com began offering merchandise via the Internet. As an established brand, J. C. Penney has more than just their bottom line to protect; their brand represents more than 100 years of history.
SEO for Google
In their role as a major Internet retailer, appearing in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) for specific products is virtually a requirement for growing sales. SEO efforts are necessary to achieve high placement in the SERPs, but in seeking a top result in Google, a company is implicitly agreeing to play Google’s game by Google’s rules. Google provides Webmaster Guidelines that encapsulate Google’s philosophy of web design and good web content. What are referred to as White Hat SEO techniques try to follow the spirit, as well as the letter of these guidelines. Black Hat SEO tactics, on the other hand, ignore or contravene these guidelines, and put their websites at risk of penalization, or even removal, by Google.
Black Hat SEO vs. White Hat SEO
So why do webmasters use Black Hat SEO techniques? Quite simply, Black Hat SEO works—at least until a site is removed from the SERPs by Google. This risk vs. reward calculation may be worth it to some webmasters for some websites. Black Hat SEO is very common in the online porn and gambling industries—so much so that new Black Hat SEO techniques often appear in those sites first.
White Hat SEO tactics take time and effort to deploy and deliver results. Most White Hat SEO is not even directly about moving up in the SERPs, it is about creating an engaging, accessible website full of quality content to attract and engage users. As a by-product of a website having content and intelligible links to its content, it will rise through the SERPs for appropriate phrases. White Hat SEO is a long-term approach for building and maintaining a digital presence.
Black Hat Tactic: Paid Links
So what did Google punish J. C. Penney for? The Black Hat SEO tactic that was used on behalf of J. C. Penney were the purchase of paid links on a massive scale to influence Google’s organic search results. In layman’s terms, a "paid link" is a link to a page that has been purchased, much like traditional advertising. There is nothing wrong with paid links in and of themselves, but Google does not want them to be a factor when determining organic search results, and considers them a violation of the search giant's Webmaster Guidelines, when not coded to be excluded from the search engine. Google sees attempting to influence organic SERPs through paid links masquerading as organic links to be a Black Hat SEO technique.
Google identified thousands of low quality links pointing to J. C. Penney with a variety of keywords not related to the linking page. Google and other SEO professionals interpreted this as clear evidence of a Black Hat SEO campaign.
SEO for Business
J. C. Penney claims no knowledge of the Black Hat SEO tactics used on their behalf. One might assume J. C. Penney’s SEO firm gambled that the short term gain of higher SERP placements through one holiday buying season would outweigh the risk of a manual correction in the SERPs. Or perhaps they didn’t even consider J. C. Penney’s long-term online presence. In either case, J. C. Penney is left dealing with the consequences by contacting thousands of individual website owners to ask them to remove each of the paid links.
Google may remove the manual correction after the Black Hat tactics are removed. Or Google may feel that J. C. Penney should be a Black Hat SEO cautionary tale. How will this affect the J. C. Penney brand? Only time will tell, but I wonder if this uncertainty was factored into J. C. Penney’s business plan.