Recent JC Penney SEO Allegations Shed Light on “Grey” Areas

The New York Times published an article over the weekend, Search Engine Optimization and its Dirty Little Secrets, in which they hired David Pierce of Blue Fountain Media (and, no, I’m not linking to their website because they’re getting enough press attention and link juice from this story as it is… not that this blog is worth anything :) ) to play “SEO Private Investigator” and look into JC Penney’s SEO tactics after the retail company was outranking seemingly larger websites and companies for some very competitive keyword terms.

After plugging JCPenney.com into DMoz’s Open Site Explorer, Pierce was able to uncover some pretty shady and completely unrelated websites which were linking to JC Penney’s site.

Taken directly from the article:

Some of the 2,015 pages are on sites related, at least nominally, to clothing. But most are not. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were tacked to the bottom of a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. “Evening dresses” appeared on a site called casino-focus.com. “Cocktail dresses” showed up on bulgariapropertyportal.com. ”Casual dresses” was on a site called elistofbanks.com. “Semi-formal dresses” was pasted, rather incongruously, on usclettermen.org.

These link building services were apparently performed by a Dallas-based company named SearchDex (no link for you!), who JC Penney contracted out to perform the services. How they formed a relationship still seems unclear to me, but if you have info or something I missed please let me know. There is a reference to a Stanford alumni newsletter, and Searchdex’s CTO is listed as a Stanford alumni, but that doesn’t seem to be related. Both companies are based in Texas so I’m going to assume that it was through a connection or referral.

Either way, a lesson that can be learned from this article: Always research the SEO “firm (yes, there’s a reason I always put this in quotations)” or consultant that you may be hiring.

A few things that I usually check when trying to decide a “firm”‘s legitimacy:

1) The website’s Whois information, to see if the domain was registered in the US or elsewhere. Usually, if it’s a company from India, the Philippines, etc. I write them off (sorry to stereotype but in the past five years I’ve yet to find an offshore SEO provider who meets my standards). SearchDex’s info is unknown, so onto number 2:

2) The inbound links of the company’s website. If you’re promising to be SEO experts, you should at least be able to build your OWN website’s authority, right? (Please don’t use this blog as an example, it’s brand new and one of many websites I use)

Well, despite listing themselves as “being founded in 1998 and headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with offices and staff located in San Diego, Kansas City, and Ft. Lauderdale”, they have a very limited number of inbound links and a fairly low Google Pagerank (which I assumed dropped after Cutts and Google found out who they are, but maybe not). Either way, if I was researching this company and saw the lack of quality inbound links to their website, it would have been a red flag for me. MOST of the time, you can also use this method to find:

3) Who their clients are and what inbound links THEIR websites have. A lot of times, “firms” will find ways to get links from clients’ websites to their own in order to gain more inbound links and authority for their own site, especially when the “firm” is also a website design company. These links are usually footer links, and might be image links with the company’s logo on the bottom of their clients’ page, or a small sentence or two.

I wasn’t able to find any of Searchdex’s clients using this method, but after looking around on their website, I did find a few of their clients listed on their “news” section.

They are:

The goal of this blog post isn’t to call out these two websites and create a stir-up, so I’m not going to go into details of what I found, but let’s just say that I found a few links that leads me to believe that a) someone is actively building links for both of these websites, and b) someone that is doing this may be familiar with some black-hat tactics.

The point I’m trying to make here is: even though I agree with JC Penney’s response to the NYT Article that a lot of the allegations are unwarranted and unnecessary (see why below), they should have done their research and known who they were dealing with when they were considering hiring SearchDex.

Here are a few issues I have, with both the story, and some underlying topics:

a) Who at the New York Times decided that David Pierce and Blue Fountain Media would be hired to conduct the JCP “investigation”? Yes they are a very legitimate company and I respect their work, and they are also in New York, but it seems a little fishy to me that NYT wouldn’t reach out to more than one firm for their opinion. Blue Fountain’s website is sure to get a lot of quality links for their investigation work, that’s for sure.

b) SearchDex will probably just put together a new company website, new company name, and will likely never really see a huge impact from this, while JC Penney takes all of the heat for simply not knowing enough about SEO. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect mothers to tell their kids that they’re not going to JC Penney’s anymore because they do black-hat link building (those monsters!). But will SearchDex ever be held accountable? Probably not.

If there’s one thing that upsets me about the SEO industry it’s that there are people out there who know how to beat the system and still come off as legitimate and “gurus” simply by knowing how to keep from being transparent.

One example is a company called Lawyer Edge, I spoke to a former client of theirs last week who expressed a concern with some things they did for them and, sure enough, they were right. They have designed hundreds of lawyers’ websites, and many of them have the same content, the wrong firm name on some of their pages, improper on-page attributes, and one of their clients even had multiple pages about Cialis and were flagged as a mal-ware threat. Long story short: they just had no idea what they were doing.

So what did they do? Changed their names to Vuria and apparently went on like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, every lawyer who paid them for their services ends up being screwed and nobody is held accountable.

c) There is a fine line sometimes between White Hat and Black Hat.

Is buying a link on a WordPress blog that much different than buying a link on a directory?

It’s not always black and white, especially for a website like JC Penney which can obtain links from pretty much anywhere and it could be justified. But as always, using “good taste” as the measuring stick for a potential back-linking website is probably the best advice anyone could take from this.

Websites that:

a) Have numerous links to unrelated websites on the same page- always see what other websites are being linked from the web page where your link would be. If they’re not related, go to gambling, porn, offshore, or drug sites, probably best to stay away.

b) Sell links and aren’t a trusted directory- I only hold a few general directories, like DMoz, Yahoo!, BOTW, Business.com, etc. in the “trusted” category, unless it’s a niche directory with a good amount of authority.

c) Have content that is completely unrelated to your product or service- part of Google’s ranking algorithm is the text surrounding the link, so if the content isn’t related to your website, that link likely isn’t worth much.

d) Just seem shady.

are probably the ones you want to ignore and not try to get back links from.

As always, when it comes to SEO: If you’re going to hire someone, make sure they know what they’re doing and you can verify their past work along with references. If you’re one of those brave souls that are going to try to do it themselves: make sure YOU know what YOU’RE doing, one slip-up could cost you.

-Murph

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