Sunday, February 27, 2011

Google Penalizes JCPenney and Overstock.com Websites

Everyone in the world of SEO at this juncture is aware of the recent events involving JCPenney and Overstock.com and the penalties each company's website received from Google as a result of their actions. Essentially, Google determined that JCPenney and Overstock were using link-building tactics that violated their webmaster guidelines, thus dropping their rankings for queries that they had maintained listings on the first page of the organic search results for long periods of time.

JCPenney was hit the hardest, after New York Times journalist David Segal broke his exposé on February 12th revealing that the retail mogul had been buying links from unrelated websites in niches that included real estate, banking, engineering and gambling. Segal, along with an unidentified SEO savvy assistant, looked in to the matter after noticing JCPenney was ranking in the first position, or close to it, for nearly every industry related search query. Segal's suspicions grew as he contemplated how JCPenney's website could rank ahead of a company like Levi's website if someone were to search for "skinny jeans." In the end, JCPenney's rankings fell for a number of searches as far back as the eightieth page in the search results, eliminating any chance that a person would come across their website for those queries.

Overstock.com realized a similar fate after Google uncovered their strategy to build links on .edu websites that belonged to colleges and universities across the country. Overstock's approach was rather crafty, as they offered these schools 10% discounts on all of their products for any student or faculty member in exchange for a link back to their website. Ultimately, .edu links are very strong and can have a significant impact on a website's rankings once they are cached. Ironically enough, Overstock got wind that they were in violation of the webmaster guidelines before Google contacted them, releasing a statement that they had ended their "programs" with these institutions in an attempt to remain within Googe's standards. Overstock's penalty was not as harsh, as their ranking positions for certain queries fell from page one to pages five or six.

To the average person, it may not be clear as to why JCPenney and Overstock were in violation of Google's policy. In simple terms, Google's webmaster guidelines explicitly state that any links that are acquired for the sole purpose of manipulating the organic search engine results pages are in violation of said guidelines. For example, if you want to rank for "queen size beds," and you purchase and abundance of links in a short period of time from websites using "queen size beds" as the anchor text for each link, the acquisition of those links appears overwhelmingly unnatural.

For years, it has been understood that Google casts a dark eye towards paid links. The reality, though, is that for competitive online niches, buying links to improve rankings is at times a necessity. I don't think that the recent media coverage surrounding JCPenney and Overstock tells us anything new about Google. Rather, it is a reminder that when you buy links from websites that have nothing to do with your product, you increase the likelihood of a slap on the wrist and a drop in your organic ranking positions.

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