A few years ago, having a Web site meant creating some content and publishing it online -- end of story. No one really thought a lot about how customers would find it or how you could push it to the top of search results. Then, around 2006, the term Search Engine Optimization started to appear. And since then, SEO has been an important part of every company's Web strategy.
SEO is important, but it's critical to optimize your site for search in an ethical way that follows the rules laid out by search engines like Google. If you don't, there are consequences, as JCPenney found out last week.
As the New York Times recently reported, JCPenney goosed the Web in such a way that their own site was the top result for an unreasonably broad range of searches, from bedding to rugs to dresses. JCPenney even beat out Samsonite's own site for searches for Samsonite luggage!
The bottom line is that JCPenney employed SearchDex, an SEO firm, who used black hat techniques to unscrupulously pay hundreds of Web sites to add links back to JCPenney. Many of the links were added to sites that ostensibly had nothing to do with the sorts of products mentioned in the links -- a link about evening dresses appears on an online casino, for example, and another dresses link is housed on a site about engineering.
When Google got wind of what was going on, they reacted by taking what the New York Times called "corrective action," and today Penny doesn't have nearly the prominence it had in search results just a few weeks ago. Things could have gone much worse: in 2006, when BMW tried something similar, Google took the extreme measure of removing BMW from search results entirely for a limited time. At the very least, press for JCPenney is not good, and though the company claims that SearchDex acted without its knowledge, the reality is that the company comes across like it was trying to pull a fast one on consumers.
How can you avoid a fate like what befell Penny and BMW?
- Play by the rules. Google makes no secret about the what kinds of practices it considers to be black hat, so you can't really claim ignorance.
- Know what your vendor is up to. Again, ignorance is not an excuse. If you hire an SEO firm to bolster your search results, take the time to get detailed and in-depth reports on their strategy. SEO is actually pretty straight-forward, so don't be afraid it's going to sound like brain surgery.
- Check up on your site and your SEO practices. There are free tools, like SEOmoz's Open Site Explorer, which are handy for analyzing your site's SEO compliance. You can use it to check up on whoever is managing your site's search strategy.