The Perils of ‘Black Hat’ SEO

This week has seen one of the biggest ‘Google Slaps’ in recent history with department store JCPenney severely penalised for engaging in ‘black hat’ SEO practices.

For those who haven’t heard, the New York Times (which is starting to get a reputation for these types of exposés), ran a story outlining how JCPenney had been allegedly engaging in dodgy SEO practices (you can read the full article here) in an attempt to artificially influence Google’s ranking algorithm.

Whilst not illegal, these dodgy SEO practices do go against Google’s policies, and as a result, Google responded by manually penalising JCPenney’s site, causing them to drop from high on the first page for most of their key search terms to somewhere on page six and below.

What JCPenney, or more accurately their SEO firm (who was subsequently dumped by the company), were doing was engaging in extensive paid link schemes on completely unrelated sites. Basically, what they were doing was paying thousands of dodgy or unrelated websites (like a nuclear engineering site and a Bulgarian property site) to link to them, thus artificially increasing their popularity in the eyes of Google.

Now most, if not all SEO firms engage in some form of link-building for their clients. However, this is perfectly fine providing you only get links on related sites or those with high authority themselves. In other words, a genuine reason for one site to link to another. Extensive (and/or paid) link building from what is often referred to in SEO circles as “bad neighbourhoods” is likely to result in Google issuing some harsh penalties for hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The issue for all businesses who are undertaking SEO services is to make sure their SEO firm is not engaging in dodgy or black hat techniques.

What will be interesting to see over the coming months is how long Google impose this ‘manual penalty’ before allowing their algorithm to re-rank JCPenney back where they belong (probably somewhere low on page one or onto page two).

Google have always claimed that their algorithm is very intelligent when it comes to detecting when a site is engaging in dodgy practices, and most ‘penalties’ are handed down algorithmically without the need for manual intervention. So what happened with JCPenney? Why were they able to get away with it for so long before someone noticed?

Cynics have suggested it’s due to the massive AdWords budget JCPenney spend with Google each year, but I don’t believe so. Google have always kept the paid and organic side of their business very separate and there’s also plenty of brands with far bigger budgets than JCPenney that would probably get the preferential treatment (if they were doing it, which I don’t believe they are).

In my opinion, the reason why they were able to get away with it without drawing attention from Google’s algorithm is due to the weighting in Google’s search algorithm regarding the strength of the brand. It’s been rumoured for a while that one of the factors Google uses in assessing a site is how much of a “brand” it is.

This may sound like a hard thing to gauge, but when you have the resources of Google, it’s actually not. For instance, by checking the ‘About Us’ and ‘Contact Us’ pages of a website (and verifying against Google Maps listings, Yellow Pages, other directories, etc), Google’s able to get a picture of how many offices a company has, where they’re located and generally how big a business is.

They’re also able to use social signals like Facebook fans, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, Youtube views to assess the size of a company.

Even other factors, like a company’s Wikipedia page or how many searches occur each month for a ‘brand name’ help Google to assess how big a brand is.

JCPenney would have ticked all these boxes, meaning Google would have had leeway in its algorithm for some dodgy links (either because of others pretending to be affiliated with the brand for their own personal gain or even sabotage by competitors).

The second point is probably the most valid because Google have always said it won’t penalise you for something your competitors could do to you. (Eg: Theoretically, it could have been one of JCPenney’s competitors that planted all those links to deliberately sabotage them).

Now normally, companies engaging in dodgy linking themselves leave a trail. This might be in the form of a link wheel where one of the dodgy linking domains is actually registered to the original company, requests left up on forums for paid links or even ‘honeypot traps’ set by Google where they pose as webmasters of dodgy sites trying to see who approaches them. In any case, if someone involved in dodgy linking has forgot to ‘dot an I’ or ‘cross a T’ somewhere along the way, you can bet Google will find it.

What this suggests is that either the firm engaged in the dodgy linking was covering their tracks perfectly or the few blemishes they did have were being offset by the ‘value of the brand.’ Either way, Google’s algorithm didn’t have enough evidence to punish them.

However, when the story broke and JCPenney fired their SEO firm, it gave Google enough evidence to suggest they had been doing it deliberately and imposed a manual penalty on them.

What this case highlights more than anything is that the world of link-building, whilst necessary to get solid rankings, has a very black underbelly and all businesses need to be careful about which SEO firm they choose to deal with, as picking the ‘wrong’ one can have disastrous consequences online.

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.