Pitch Perfect Marketing

Honey, Does This Black Hat Make Me Look Evil?
Famous SEO Scandals


My friend and I were in a neighborhood store as kids one Saturday afternoon. We were looking around and had a little money. After few minutes, we walked out without buying anything. Suddenly a wrinkled hand came from behind us and yanked my friend backwards by his collar. The stern man reached into my friend's front jeans pocket and pulled out a small ceramic horse. He lifted it from the store while I wasn't looking. I was stunned (mainly that he liked small ceramic horses but also the stealing part). He got in some serious trouble that day. Fast forward to 2011. In the world of search engine optimization (SEO) where websites are constantly jockeying for higher rankings, are there people who would also try to skirt the law, taking the easy road to higher visibility and profits? You know the answer. The underhanded tactics used to trick the search engines into ranking websites higher than they deserve is known as Black Hat SEO. Tactics like link farming, cloaking, keyword stuffing, and doorway pages are just some of the tools in their black box. In the past decade, there have been some high profile incidents of this online mischief that have not only illuminated the dark alleys of SEO, but have left many in the public thinking the whole arena is chock full of miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. Here's a few of the biggest scandals over the past decade.

Now You See It, Now You Don't: BMW

When you are an elite car manufacturer with annual revenues in the $80 billion range, you might think your online marketing plan would be a tad conservative. Oh contraire! (or whatever the Bavarian word is for "your wrong!"). In 2006, scandal hit the automaker's German site, BMW.de. Using a little JavaScript trick, their website would show a keyword-optimized, text-heavy page to the search engine crawlers (like Googlebot), but when a human viewed the site through a browser, the script would kick in and direct the user to an image-heavy BWM page sporting the fancy cars with heated ashtrays. This little maneuver is called cloaking and is a big no-no to the search engines (since you are presenting different content to users and search engines). Google found out and pulled the entire site from their index. One day they were ranking well for a slew of phrases, the next day, POOF! BMW claimed they were unaware of what their SEO firm was up to. When the company admitted the wrongdoing, within days the site was ranking again, but the point was made: Mess around with the rules and you're going to get blacklisted.

Buddy, Can Ya Spare a Link: JC Penney

Late in 2010, if you did a web search on such non-specific items as "home décor," "dresses," or "furniture," JC Penney would be the top search engine listing you'd see. Pretty strange for such generic words. And it smelled plenty fishy to one New York Times reporter who in February of this year blew the black hat right off the story. JC Penney (or its SEO contractor, depending on whom you believe) was using two nefarious SEO tactics: blog spam (adding keyword-laden links within blogs of dubious value) and paid links (i.e. here's some cash, please link to me). When Google was tipped off to the subterfuge, they quickly made adjustments to their rankings algorithm. The result? One day the store was ranking #1 for the phrase "Samsonite Luggage", the day after, it was #71. Hundreds of other phrases were equally penalized. But one question lingered; with JC Penney spending roughly a million bucks a month on AdWords, why did it take Google so long to notice this fairly widespread abuse. The retailer feigned ignorance to the whole affair and promptly fired their SEO consulting firm, SearchDex. I mean, really, you would have to be some sort on super sleuth to notice the cause of such a dramatic increase in profits!

But Professor, Paying for Popularity just SEEMS Right: Overstock.com

Just weeks after JC Penney had their black hat knocked off, Google came a calling on Overstock.com. Again the issue was suspect hyperlinks causing inflated rankings. Overstock.com's plan? Offer a 10% discount to students and faculty if they displayed links to the retailer's products on their university websites (Google gives more ranking weight to links on .edu sites; they are considered "trusted"). A keen-eyed competitor saw the links and blew the whistle. Again, this is paid linking, the practice of offering something, in this case a discount, for a link (and the more inbound links a site has, the higher its rankings tend to be). But in the eyes of search engines, links should be genuine. You like what a website offers, you link to it. This helps the engines create genuinely useful rankings that are based on the quality of content provided not how deep a company's pockets are. Overstock's excuse to the whole thing? "We're sorry. We just thought it was just good publicity."

So why would such big names try to game the search engines? One guess. cash. There's huge money at stake with outranking your competition. And since fake links (as in the last two examples) are hard for the search engines to spot, there's a chance such tactics will pay off. In the long run however, such underhanded efforts risk being discovered, and then it's off to the rankings basement. Luckily when you did a bad thing as a kid, like steal a ceramic horse, you didn't get locked in a cellar, but try the sneaky stuff with Google, and you may just find your website in the cold, dark underworld of rankings.

Paul Kaufman
Pitch Perfect Marketing

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