Beyond the JC Penney Scandal: black hat SEO and the need to stop such actions
This week the NYT wrote a very popular article called “Search optimization and its dirty little secret“. In the article it talks about the fact that JC Penney was suspiciously getting the number 1 spot in many natural or unpaid (organic or algorithmic) search results on the Google website for various search words and phrases. The nature of these searches were usually commercial in nature and such search words included “skinny jeans”, “home décor”, “comforter sets”, ext. The search result performance lasted for three to four months and JC Penney beat even manufacturer sites in searches for product of those manufacturers. The NYT then did a initial investigation and found that the reason for JC Penney’s number 1 position in natural searches was because of all the paid links that it had in various websites. These links to JC Penney’s different departments would be in websites that had absolutely nothing to do with the product. This technique is called black hat search engine optimization (black hat SEO) and it is frowned upon by various search engines, including Google. One of the ways that Google, and many other search engines, ranks search results is by links from other sites. The more legitimate the website the better the link and ranking but having links even in shady websites also gives you status on the rankings. Also according to a study being No. 1 in Google meant that 34% of Google users would click on this site, while being No. 2 got less than half the amount of Google users clicking on their site. Companies that use this method are punished by search engines, like Google, usually by automatically making these companies appear later in a search result when doing a natural search. Although JC Penney denied they participated in practicing black hat SEO, Google reviewed their case and did a “manual action” against J.C. Penney. What the “manual action” did was that although Google did not completely erase JC Penney from its natural search results, like it had in the past with another company, but by last Wednesday JC Penney went from No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage” to No. 71 and No. 68 in searches for “”living room furniture”. Companies that provide black-hate SEO services, if caught, are also completely eliminated from Google’s search results. Google tries to take such actions against companies and people participating in black hat SEO techniques because it goes against its stated goal, which is to sift through every corner of the internet and find the most important relevant web sites went performing a search.
Today, however, on Forbes website there was a article called “One CEO’s Experience: Yes, You Can Accidentally Hire a Black Hat SEO“. The article is about the fact that many companies try to hire search engine consulting firms that they think use white hat SEO techniques (techniques approved by search engines and that they believe doesn’t harm or skew relevant search results). Yet there is no way of knowing that these search engine consulting firms are not using black hat SEO techniques mixed in white hat techniques, especially when these firms try not to discuss their strategy when. Therefore it makes it difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. JC Penney, for example, fired their search engine consulting firm, SearchDex, after they were accused and punished by Google. And in all honesty perhaps JC Penney did not know that they were participating in black hat SEO techniques that were being implemented by SearchDex. What then can a company do? The Forbes article gives several techniques that could help you find a legitimate SEO company, like doing a Google search on a SEO company (since Google tends to be dilegent to eliminate what they think are black hat SEO companies), getting customer references, or even talking to Google and asking them for recommendations. Yet what if all of these precautions fail should Google, or any other search engine, still punish Companies that were truly unaware of their SEO consulting firms techniques? I believe so. This almost strict liability approach is, I believe, a necessary cost or burden that should be shifted towards companies or people that have websites. Why? Because the end goal of the internet should be not only be the ability to access information through the web, and in my opinion universal access, but also the ability to access relevant information, because although the intention of the internet might be to provide information faster to people if the people are hindered from accessing this information what good would having the information on the internet be. With the internet becoming a greater and more important means of communication and daily life for people, those blocking access to relevant information to the general public becoming a more serious injustice or disservice to society. Therefore, if there are people or companies that are either intentionally or unintentionally helping to skew search results on the internet then they should pay the price. Why should it apply to even those that are helping unintentionally by hiring these firms? Because these companies or people could then take more precautions in hiring a SEO firm and they still pay for the harm that they caused the public. Some say that many black hat SEO techniques are done for commercial searches rather than informational searches and so less important in the dissemination of information. Yet even websites that are made with the dissemination of information in mind still want their website to show up as one of the first in search engine results and are therefore also susceptible to black hat SEO techniques. Why? Because web sites creators in general want people to visit their site. There can even be a financial component as some informational sites become so popular, like Wikipedia, that other companies might want to pay them to advertise on their website. Which brings me to my final and most disturbing point about the NYT article.
The NYT, although they did not accuse, brought up the idea that Google perhaps knew about what JC Penney or its SEO firm was doing and choose not to do anything about it. The NYT found it suspicious that Google had not noticed how popular JC Penney had become during the last few months, especially when they were accused three other times of other practices Google had considered bad. NYT also brought up the fact that JC Penney was one of its largest advertisers. If this idea has any substance than it can also be dangerous and perhaps more dangerous than black hat SEO techniques. Why? Because the company that is suppose to be a watch dog and promote the relevance of searches is itself corrupt. If search engines like Google are corrupt then who will correct them? In these instances, however, the solution might actually be legal actions. The European Union, for example, is investigating antitrust abuses by Google and asking advertisers questions like “Please explain whether and, if yes, to what extent your advertising spending with Google has ever had an influence on your ranking in Google’s natural search.” And: “Has Google ever mentioned to you that increasing your advertising spending could improve your ranking in Google’s natural search?” But is the government a sufficient watch dog and are the laws now sufficient to deter or even stop such abuses? Such a question should probably be answered in another blog.