Posted by Jonah A. Berger, Senior Specialist (SEO) & Jason Walker, SEO Specialist The first quarter of 2011 provided some of the most dramatic news in recent search engine marketing memory. Major retailers and publishers were punished, particularly by Google, for a variety of link building and content-related guideline violations. However, the visibility of recent violations exposed by publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, not to mention heightened industry chatter within C-suites, proves link building practices are top of mind for many of today’s leading brands. J.C. Penney was the first to be scrutinized, then Forbes (albeit to a lesser extent), and then Overstock – all for questionable linking tactics and all within the course of a month or two. In early March, Performics issued a POV focused on several popular content farms that also made headlines for violating Google’s content guidelines that, while previously enforced, were not under the glowing media spotlight. The message Google is sending is clear: No matter your longevity in the industry or how great your brand reputation, the search engine is cracking down on questionable SEO tactics. In light of this fact, the Performics SEO team decided to ask the million dollar question: Who’s next? OUR LINK BUILDING SNIFF TEST Performics took a close look at the link building practices of the top thirty retailers in the Internet Retailer 500. The retailers – as part of a list that includes mega names like Amazon, Staples, Dell, Apple, Office Depot, Walmart, OfficeMax, CDW and the aforementioned J.C. Penney and Overstock – are ranked by the e-commerce magazine based on full-year online sales and related data. If major SEO performers like J.C. Penney and Overstock were called out and punished by Google and other search engines, what other big brands are in jeopardy due to high-risk link building practices? Using Performics’ SEO best practices as a guide, we audited the top thirty retailers with the following five red flags in mind:
- Manipulated anchor text in inbound links: easily identified by vast repetition of precise language within the text of inbound links across thousands of sites and many site types.
- Links from irrelevant sites: garnering links from sites that have little or nothing to do with your site content.
- Links from unrelated foreign sites: obtaining links from sites based in countries where the company does not do business, such as .ru (Russia) and .cn (China).
- Link spam: being listed on pages that link in a suspicious manner to a variety of unrelated sites.
- Links from bad neighborhoods: links from sites with low PageRank scores and/or questionable incoming link portfolios.
As expected, the Penneys and Overstocks of the world are not the only sites that partake in questionable link building practices. The following table reveals the results of our audit and indicates that search engine compliant SEO is still an issue that must be addressed among many retailers: Amazingly, while eleven came out squeaky clean, six (twenty percent) of them generated red flags on five of five measurements, and a whopping nine of them (thirty percent) had at least four red flags. Given the growing investment in SEO among top retailers, executives may be shocked to learn their brand is at risk. To be clear, the presence of our red flags does not prove guilt or malpractice; truthfully, most retailers probably do not intend to break Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or engage in black hat SEO tactics. Due to a historic lack of understanding and interest in SEO, most may not even know these are real issues that should be addressed. We believe these red flags indicate an elevated risk; after all, if we can spot these issues, so can Google. THE ROAD TO NOW As meteorically as they rise, the mighty often fall – and fall hard. J.C. Penney and Overstock dominated the search engine results for a variety of related and (sometimes) unrelated terms, which left industry insiders and outsiders wondering: How did they do it? First, let us be clear that published Google Webmaster Guidelines speak to effective link building tactics and inappropriate “link schemes.” It is safe to assume that J.C. Penney’s enhanced visibility and ranking achievements were reached thanks to a link popularity bump from the obtaining of links from irrelevant sites. As The New York Times now famously reported, “evening dress” links were discovered on gambling sites, as were “cocktail dresses” links on Bulgarian real estate sites. Overstock, among other violations, offered product discounts to .edu pages if they added specific, highly manipulated links to certain Overstock pages. While this incentive-based linking practice doesn’t seem as outlandish as others, both brands violated Google Webmaster Guidelines, which state that brands are not allowed to use paid links to manipulate PageRank. HOW TO PROTECT YOUR BRAND Companies of a certain size are virtually guaranteed to have some spammy or questionable links. Perfection is not the goal, but to remain in good standing, you should initially do the following:
- Seek out patterns that may indicate intentional manipulation of links and possible violations of search engines’ guidelines.
- If working with an SEO provider, examine or establish brand guidelines and linking best practices – and hold the provider to those standards.
- Compare the practices employed on their behalf to their own guidelines.
- Ensure the brand’s own risk tolerance level directs the nature of the SEO provider’s efforts.
Site owners should sit down with their SEO team or external partner and educate themselves on how their brand obtains links, and what standards are in place for paid or otherwise-incentivized links. Some key steps to take:
- Walk through the search engines’ guidelines and ensure your partner’s practices are legitimate.
- Directly ask if links are purchased. Google has made it clear that buying or selling links that pass PageRank is a violation so, if discovered, they should halt the practice immediately.
- Protect your investment in SEO vendors or in-house teams by engaging a knowledgeable third party to audit and help you better understand your own efforts at least annually. Part of any comprehensive SEO audit will specifically examine a brand’s link portfolio.
Audit, Audit, Audit As a company’s inbound link portfolio grows, so too does the opportunity to obtain links from questionable sites. While these links provide value needed to increase visibility and ranking, in today’s highly scrutinized market, the violations may just as quickly get brands in trouble. Minimally, any link portfolio audit should:
- Measure the brand’s link building practices for compliance with Google and Bing Webmaster Guidelines.
- Produce a detailed snapshot of the brand’s link portfolio by employing such tools as Google Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO.
- Include a competitive analysis that evaluates such factors as the quantity of backlinks and unique domains, authority level of incoming links and anchor text relevance.
- Identify suspicious sources of backlinks, including spammy sites, link exchange sites, sites with low PageRank scores and/or sites with poor link portfolios.
Sites that discover their SEO partner is involved in suspicious link building practices after the fact should choose a new partner – fast. This is especially true if the partner continues to make promises and/or deliver results that are too good to be true. As indicated by our audit, many of the Internet Retailer top thirty may have engaged in risky practices, so no uninformed retailer should feel safe in this new environment of heightened scrutiny. If it is already broken, fix it Some sites may notice a dramatic decrease in search visibility, and this could signal they have already been penalized for breaking the rules. Since the search engines rarely explain which guidelines have come into play, sites should take it upon themselves to determine what went wrong with a link portfolio audit. Beyond link portfolios, site owners should also ensure content is:
Once a punished site fixes its link portfolio and optimizes its link building practices, it can use the “Request reconsideration” feature within Google Webmaster Tools to plead its case for reconsideration. The submission requests detailed information about what happened, what corrective actions have been taken and more. It can take several weeks for Google to re-evaluate a site, so site owners should provide as much information as possible after all potentially problematic areas have been addressed. DON’T WAIT FOR SECOND CHANCES In the past, search engines have given sites second chances – especially after they’ve gotten their act together and made the necessary changes to adhere to established guidelines. Regardless of a brand’s red flag status, quality and consistency should always govern SEO efforts. The allure of higher rankings and increased visibility is real for every brand. However, the most effective SEO results are not seen overnight. In time, armed with the right combination of content and links, sites will achieve the sustainable, positive and – most importantly – legitimate results that are sure to pay the largest dividends in the end.