A few clients sent me yesterday’s great NY Times feature story on JC Penney’s underhanded SEO techniques, so I figured a blog post was in order.  The Times uncovered huge numbers of spammy links pointing to JC Penney’s site, which it suggests helped it achieve #1 Google rankings on a number of keywords for months. While probably the most damning, this was only the most recent in a bad few months for Google in the mainstream press and the SEO community:

  • In November the Times ran another fascinating front-page business section story on Google search results, this time focusing on an online eyeglass retailer who purposely treats his customers terriblybecause he’s found that their negative online reviews (with links) help his organic rankings.  He goes so far as to threaten customers and post things like this on forums where negative comments appear: “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”  Danny Sullivan, possibly the most respected expert on SEO, told the Times “it’s fair to say this is a failure on Google’s part.”
  • Two weeks ago the Washington Post featured a story titled “How you and Google are losing the battle against spam in search results.”  Among other things, the articles points out that one measure of Google’s success rate — the percentage of people to visit a site after a search — fell 13% last year.  Internet pioneer Tim O’Reilly told the Post “It’s clear that Google is losing some kind of war with the spammers.  I think Google has in some ways taken their eye off the ball, and I’d be worried about it if I were them.”

Meanwhile, a number of prominent SEO experts have been offering their own in-depth criticisms, andpleading with Google to stop rewarding spam-like techniques.  Like anyone who practices good SEO techniques like rigorous keyword research and on-site content optimization (often called white hat SEO), I have long been frustrated and perplexed by many of the commercial search results I see on Google — and by the ability of companies using bad SEO tractics (black hat SEO) to achieve success — so many years after these tactics became common knowledge in the search community.  The recent string of bad buzz is, in my view, mostly good thing.  I’m optimistic that it will help:

  • Embarrass Google into putting more resources into fighting bad SEO tactics
  • Decrease Google’s emphasis on links — the main vehicle for bad SEO
  • Increase Google’s use of other, less “game-able” factors.  Bruce Clay, for instance, predicts huge growth in the importance of social media “likes” and local search results, which he thinks will increase from 20% of all search results to 50% by the end of 2011 and 70-80% by the end of 2012
  • Cause a lot of large and mid-size companies to back off link spam and question their SEO consultants about it — for fear of getting punished like JC Penney.  I suspect a lot of online marketing managers in the Fortune 500 got emails from executives today saying something to the effect of “we aren’t doing this stuff are we?”
  • Help efforts to establish a credible third-party designation for good SEO consultants

The bad news of course is that the buzz will encourage more bad SEO activity by smaller companies willing to take the risk who didn’t previously realize how effective it is.  Bad SEO companies won’t be going out of business anytime soon.  But hopefully all this press will help to start a shift in the tide.