February

Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Natural Search Strategist

There are several hats you wear as a Web site owner.  You’re familiar with all of them; the hats have a variety of names that explain your duties.  They have names like “designer,” “programmer,” “CFO” and a host of others depending on what you have to do today. 

Let’s talk about two important hats on your rack.  On the Web, these hats are a signal of your company's attitude to your customers and the Web community at large.  These hats are called “black Hat” and “white Hat” and they represent the actions you're willing to take to make money on the Web.

The semantic division of black hat and white hat was originally a product of the movie industry.  In the old westerns, the hero always wore the white hat and the villain the black.  Associating characters with bright and dark unequivocal colors made stories a lot easier to understand.  The white hat/black hat nomenclature has survived into the 21st century, but now it describes your company's character.

When you wear the black hat, anything goes; you are willing to lie, cheat and steal, or worse, spam, in hopes of increasing the amount of money at your disposal.  The black hat means the money you own is more important than your company's product quality, your service, your customers and the good name of your brand. 

It's an old story: people always tell themselves they have good reasons to wear the black hat.  Maybe they think they're protecting themselves by keeping up with the competition, or maybe they believe that bad deeds don't count on the Internet.  The truth is, the black hat symbolizes weakness and vulnerability.  And just like in all old stories, the good guys always win.

Recently in the news, it was reported that thousands upon thousands of Web sites had links on their pages that pointed to pages on JC Penney’s site.  Most of the pages linking to JCPenney had nothing at all to do with what the company sold.  For example, why would a site about “USC Letter Men” link to JCPenney’s semi-formal dresses?  Why would a site about property in Bulgaria have a link to JCPenney’s cocktail dresses? These are a few examples, but one study found about 2,000 different pages that contained incongruous links to very specific pages on JCPenney’s site; moreover, these links had anchor text that matched high-volume search terms. 

We can safely say that it takes a great deal of work to set up thousands of tightly-focused, descriptive anchor text links centered around specific high-volume keywords.  When thousands of these links appear on a wide range of sites that appear to have nothing to do with the product focus of JCPenney, there’s a high possibility of a deliberate intention on someone’s part to artificially increase the ranks of certain JCPenney pages on Google.  Nothing’s for free, after all.

For the record, JCPenney has denied everything.  Darcie Brossart, Vice-President of Corporate Communications at JCPenney, wrote the following in an email:

JCPenney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the [New York Times] article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted. To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google's guidelines . . .

Darcie Brossart went on to say that the unauthorized links had no effect on JCPenney's holiday sales, and added that “[the links] are coming down.”  JCPenney also fired their natural search firm SearchDex “because it was ultimately responsible for policing J.C. Penney’s natural search activity.” 

Dave Chaplin, CEO of SearchDex, also posted a note on SearchDex regarding the New York Times article to which Darcie Brossart referred.  Without mentioning JCPenney at all, Mr. Chaplin stated “SearchDex has not participated in, nor endorsed the linking schemes mentioned in the New York Times article.” 

According to this note, SearchDex is “conducting a formal investigation in order to attempt to determine the source and motivation of the links cited in the article.”

Seriously, it really takes a lot of effort to build up a network of thousands of links with descriptive anchor text.  You’d need an excess of money, time, resources, technical expertise, strategic direction, etc.   JCPenney said it didn’t do it. SearchDex said it didn’t do it. 

The thing is, this type of stuff isn’t against the law… yet.  No one’s going to court.  No one got kicked out of the Google index.  Ruffled feathers and a sudden drop in JCPenney ranks on Google are the only  immediate consequences. 

Going into the 21st century, many facets of the Internet remain outside the realm of international jurisprudence.  You could almost say it’s a little like those old movies about the wild west with the cowboys in the white and black hats. 

Who do you think your customers are going to root for?

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