This past Sunday, an investigation by the New York Times revealed that JCPenney has been using blackhat tactics to game Google’s search results. According to “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” by the New York Times, JCPenney has been ranking in the top spot for just about every product they sell. Search Engine Land has a good followup on the subject, but since we’ve been getting so many questions from our customers and partners about it, we figured we’d throw in our two cents.
There are a lot of moral and ethical questions about using blackhat techniques to trick Google’s algorithms into thinking your website is more popular than it is. We don’t use blackhat techniques and we don’t recommend them, but we’re also not your moral compass, so we want to focus on one thing: did it work?
One good payday does not make a business
JCPenney may have topped the rankings for months, pulling in some good cash from the deal, but it didn’t last. Search Engine Land reports that JCPenney has virtually disappeared from the search results and that JCPenney has fired their SEO company. So, in a word, no, it didn’t really work. Sure, they got great traffic for a while, but in the end, Google bit back. The Google giveth and you better believe that the Google taketh away.
This isn’t the first time someone has gamed Google
Late last year, the New York Times broke another story about questionable SEO tactics with the story of a man named Vitaly Borker. Mr. Borker sold sunglasses through his website and his SEO strategy consisted of harassing, overcharging and outright scamming his clients into writing bad reviews about his business. All this talk about his business ended up bolstering his rankings and pretty soon he was profiting off of questionable business practices. People try to scam Google all the time. Mr. Borker was caught and his website was penalized into purgatory.
Scamming Google is like breaking the law: you’ll eventually get caught
Using blackhat can help you rank for a time in the same way that robbing a bank can solve your immediate money problems. These are both short-term strategies that don’t pay off in the long-run. Eventually you will get caught. Period. Matt Cutts leads Google’s Webspam team and they are very, very good. In fact, they’re the best in the world. On a long enough timeline, Google will always outsmart blackhat SEOs. It’s just a matter of time. Don’t give into the siren song of empty promises. Otherwise your traffic will look like this.
Five tips for avoiding blackhat SEO firms
1. Make sure that any SEO value a company builds for you will be available if you cancel
Many companies like to build a website for their clients and own the domain for the site. That’s fine, as long as it’s clear who owns what. Sometimes companies will try to hold your website hostage if you stop paying them. Before signing an agreement, make sure you have an exit strategy.
2. Make sure the search terms they show you are actually worth something
Lots of SEO companies will brag about rankings they have but they’ll be things like “San Diego puppy shows in winter.” In general, the longer a term is, the easier it is to get. These long tail keywords are less competitive because there are fewer searches for them. Whenever you’re presented with keywords, ask how many searches there are for that keyword.
3. Beware promises of being number one on Google
No one can promise a number one organic ranking. Google’s algorithm may change at any moment and your rankings can change with it. As far as organic results go, no one has a priority line to Google. As a side note: don’t get confused between PPC and SEO. Google Adwords (PPC) does have official partners (we’re one of a select few), but this certification reflects nothing on SEO.
4. Look out for anything that sounds deceptive or is a quick fix
This is the problem JCPenney faced. They wanted the results without the work, so they tried to take a shortcut. If your SEO company uses words like “trick,” “deceive,” or “hide” in relation to Google, then you should probably steer clear.
People like to “trick” Google by using hidden text or keyword stuffing. In the end, this kind of stuff will hurt you. Good SEO can take a long time, but it’s worth it. No one can promise instant results with SEO alone. At OrangeSoda ,we’ll blend other products and services with SEO to get results right away while we’re building long-term value. That’s very different from promising instant SEO rankings.
5. Read Google’s own guidelines on SEO companies
They’re fantastic and fairly comprehensive. Among other things, they cover a number of spammy practices to watch out for, as well as what to do if you think you’ve been had.