Whatever your view of seo, one thing is true - "search engine optimization" is simply a more acceptable term for "search manipulation." Advancing the search performance of a website regardless of the technique is essentially manipulating the ranks higher.
I think it's important to remove any distinction because many seos mistakenly believe they serve a higher cause connected to an ethical responsibility to abide by search engine rules - and that when they comply, they are more 'optimizing' than they are 'manipulating.' Clearly there is always an ethical responsibility to others, including one's clients, to act only in their interests and do no harm. But be careful not to let search engines form the basis of your ethical standards, because they are already failing in that regard.
Consider the ethical appropriateness of:
- imposing harsh punishments based on secret laws
- an unwillingness to even acknowledge when a site is penalized
- being the sole arbiter of justice with a stake in the decision
- permitting no recourse
- creating victims through Google's own frailty
- penalizing sites in Google for the actions of 3rd parties
- rules that change during the game
- the absence of an effective warning mechanism
It's pretty clear that Google is not setting the ethical standard we can believe in.
Of course, Google's ethical problems don't excuse unethical behavior, but there are times when acting in your best interests (or the best interest's of a client) may conflict with the imposed guidelines of a search engine. Consider this recent NYTimes story involving JCPenny's very high ranks on consumer terms just before Christmas 2010, obtained by some very robust link buying strategies. Here's an excerpt:
The company bested millions of sites - and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for "skinny jeans," "home decor," "comforter sets," "furniture" and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic ("tablecloths") to the strangely specific ("grommet top curtains").
This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in "Samsonite carry on luggage," for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite.com.
With more than 1,100 stores and $17.8 billion in total revenue in 2010, Penney is certainly a major player in American retailing. But Google's stated goal is to sift through every corner of the Internet and find the most important, relevant Web sites.
Does the collective wisdom of the Web really say that Penney has the most essential site when it comes to dresses? And bedding? And area rugs? And dozens of other words and phrases?
By running a SEMRush report showing the lagging results in the top 20, you can still see how huge this manipulation was. #1 for category level targets like dresses, lingerie, home decor, bedding, swimsuits, dress, slipcovers, bedspreads, lamps, comforters, sofas, quilts, cribs, skirts, womens clothing - download to view all 97,000 ranks in the top 20 here.
As a result of the reporting of the NYTimes exposing an outrageous breach of Google's guidelines, all these incredible ranks disappeared, but only after a "manual action" by Google. JCPenney denies responsibility:
"J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies," Ms. Brossart wrote in an e-mail. She added, "We are working to have the links taken down."
The traditional seo community is buzzing with this story, and whether they're pointing fingers at JCPenney, Google, or the seos involved, one thing is very clear: This was an amazing success - a truly impressive feat that will be emulated over and over again. Because there is no doubt that this was also a huge financial success - absolutely worth bearing the very minor consequences of the "manual action." The lesson for seos is that when your client is big enough, the risk/reward analysis for black hat tilts toward the reward.
Further, while most professional seos may be seeing this as proof of the dark side, there's an even darker side that's being ignored. If this massive search manipulation went undetected until exposed by the NYTimes, isn't it obvious to everyone that there are sites right now, holding lots of very valuable ranks for similar reasons - using strategies outside of Google's guidelines, and remaining undetected? And succeeding at the expense of the search compliant players.
And what about this 'manual action' that Google claims to have implemented as punishment? MANUAL action? Isn't this proof of failure? Here's a company with massive resources aimed at automated rank detection and guideline enforcement. But if even they can't catch the biggest guys breaking their rules, doesn't that harm those who play by them? As JCPenney's seos manipulated all their targets onto page 1, that pushed the same number of other sites off page 1. Another example of harm done to sites playing by the rules. We see this as Google's responsibility, but when it happens, and it happens frequently, Google usually punishes the perpetrator.
I ran the forensics on JCPenney.com to see if there was any evidence of a domain level penalty, and found no obvious suppression. All trademark and related searches show #1 - so the "manual action" was merely a slap on the wrist. Kind of reminds me of the big banks getting away with fraud with the help of our government refusing to prosecute. Of course, there's no proof (is anyone even looking?) that JCPenney was involved, and they're denying responsibility for it. For all we know, it very well could have been a third party trying to get them penalized by pointing a boatload of links at them, right? Except for how rewarding it was, and the absence of any penalties, some might even believe that. But that's basically what they're claiming.
This leads right into my final concern about this story as it relates to the size of JCPenney. I see a lot of penalties, and there is definitely a correlation between the offense and the punishment. If you successfully scam Google's system, you will be harmed upon discovery, so the wrist slap here to JCPenney just doesn't cut it. If one of my clients were to be nailed for this strategy (as they have been) the consequences would almost certainly be much more severe, much more long lasting, much more painful. But like the too big to fail banks, JCPenney gets a pass. Anybody surprised by that?