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Enterprise Search Manipulation
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By: Bob Sakayama
2011-02-19 19:12:08
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

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 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?

Blog_id: 27 | Posted: 2011-02-19 19:12:08 | Views (7,421) | Comments (4)  
Comment By: Troy
re: Enterprise Search Manipulation
(posted 2011-02-20 07:28:57)

Fantastic, courageous post! Wish there were more voices like this out there pulling back the wool over our eyes. I have a completely different view of black hat SEOs now - they may be no more evil than Google, and it's obvious that they're everywhere.

Comment By: tonyc
re: Enterprise Search Manipulation
(posted 2011-02-20 17:41:08)

Fascinating article SEOBob - I did read the NYTimes article and was under the impression that J.C. Penney were receiving a very severe penalty and that they would lose substantial revenue as a result. I would be fascinated to learn the increase in their sales for 2009 vs. 2010. AN interesting side story to this saga is the fact that some very heavyweight hedge fund investors have recently bought large stakes in J.C. Penney. Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital, regarded by many as one of the saviest of Wall Street investors has taken a sizable stake in the company in the past several weeks. One has to wonder if he paid attention to this fact or was concerned with the results of a Google penalty.
In any event, I agree with your main point that if Google resorted to a manual intervention to "slap them on the wrist", it obviously send two very compelling messages:
1. It is financially worthwhile to pursue this "illegal" course of action to grow your sales dramatically as the punishment does not come close to fitting the reward; and
2. SInce the intervention was manual, Google are not well positioned to catch this and it is obviously happening all the time and worth while for other companies to pursue. Rather than serve as a warning bell, the NYTimes article could well encourage other big companies to use the same strategies.

Response By Bob Sakayama
in response to thread started by
(posted 2011-02-20 21:06:43)

You might consider the fact that all those page 1 ranks were 'manually' removed to be a severe penalty, but that's just getting rid of ill gotten gains. A penalty would mean additional punishment - usually a domain level one where your business can't be found even by those searching for it directly. That's what I would expect to see. Didn't happen.

I would be very interested to know whether or not the large sums of investment money coming into JCPenney stock had any influence on the way this company was treated by Google.

Also, nothing "illegal" or even unethical was done to obtain these lucrative results. They just bought a huge amount of links. Google does not like that, but there are no laws against it, and there is absolutely no risk that anyone will be prosecuted for crimes here.

Comment By: dirtsgood
re: Enterprise Search Manipulation
(posted 2011-03-01 20:56:56)

One reason Google might be reluctant to penalize a big player like JCPenney is that by doing so they harm their search results. JCP is big enough, holds enough genuinely relevant ranks for consumer product terms that a domain level penalty might make the search results obviously thin. This does not excuse the absence of a consequence, especially if that consequence is withheld because JCP is too big to fail. We really want to see justice for all here, not examples of special cases for special interests.

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