Is SEO about to be an industry of RATS (JC Pennys / Overstock Google Penalty)

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The JC Penny search story in the New York has been a hot topic over the past couple of weeks, no doubt it was a great bit of publicity for Doug Pierce who covered their SEO black hat party in some detail. The implications of their (or SearchDexs) actions is going to last for a long time.

The Great Google Penalty

JC Penny were hit with a manual penalty, usually Google will just devalue paid links, from their own guidelines

“Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such excessive link exchanges and purchased links that pass PageRank”

but JC Penny were also using doorway pages to divert traffic around their coupons back to their own site. From Doug Pierces article:

“Furthermore, every link on points you to go shop on, thus a doorway page. ranks in Google for “JCPenney coupons” with the sole purpose of getting you to shop on”

Now there does seem a fine line between what is deemed a doorway page and a microsite used to promote specific products from a site. The difference may be in the amount of content on that site. Traditionally doorway pages are redirected to the core site (something BMW got de-indexed for back in the day).

The Epic Sting

It was reported in Vanessa Foxes article on Search Engine Land, the New York Times were aghast (never used that word in a post before) at JC Penny’s organic ranking so brought in Doug Pierce to take a look. Now, I am sure the New York Times have an internal SEO team even if they don’t seem to be doing a great job, so I fail to understand why they needed outside help to explain what JC Penny where doing. Buying links in a terrible network and building doorway pages is something you learn in month 1 of “How to be an Awesome Blackhat”. It wasn’t even a clever link network, there was no attempting to hide it. There are a lots of different flavors of link networks and some of them are quite smart. You can bet (and I know) that a lot of your favorite agencies have some type of network. But JC Penny’s network was the lowest of the low, it was the bum on the street:

A site getting links from over 2000 s**t domains isn’t hard to spot. I could train a newbie in 1 hour to spot these sites using simple tools.

Should we Clean Ourselves

The story has generated a lot of interest from media outlets and provided a lot of SEOers with a lot of links. When something like that happens, you can bet people instantly mark it down as a link bait hook “The Rat Hook” (I am copyrighting that). I expect to see a lot more outings on SEO blogs detailing sites that are spamming the web. It brings up an interesting question – Can the SEO industry self regulate ?

Google does take notice when a story get’s a lot of press. Jill Whalen had discussed how well spam performs in Google & Bing and now has a site where you can rat out your competitors (which is just a nice piece of link bait as you can fill out the form on Google yourself).

To rat out a competitor in a visible way takes balls. Yes, it will get you a lot of interest and links, but you need to be whiter than white or else you will have counter posts. For anyone who has worked in a lot of competitive industries, being ultra white is difficult, you usually end up a little muddied 🙂

UPDATE: Thanks to for pointing me to the latest penalty on Overstock. They were providing discounts for schools / universities in return for links to their site. This is a very murky area. I have seen offering student discounts as a means to get links presented at SMX Advanced as a great link strategy. The line between right or wrong may continue to blur.

About Kieran Flanagan

Online Marketer who implements both inbound and paid strategies to help companies grow internationally. Lover of content marketing, SEO, analytics, CRO and strategy. A highly motivated marketing geek high on data crack.

  • Michael

    Hi Kieran,

    There's a difference between offering student's discounts and offering student's discounts in exchange for links. Google not surprisingly deems the later unacceptable.

  • searchbrat

    Agreed on the above, but the problem is consistency, hundreds of other sites run similar strategies and get away with it. Although, as I say, I heard there was more going on at Overstock than just this.

  • Gab

    I think that JC Penney pursued an intelligent strategy in ranking for their coupon terms, to combat affiliate channel cannibalization. It's plain stupidity to condemn that.

  • searchbrat

    Hey Gab,

    Cheers for the comment. When I first saw their strategy, I thought it was pretty smart, in fact, I had suggested something along those lines for a travel client (although they didn't implement it due to branding reasons). I also saw this at an SMX session on advanced link building, so that's why I think the lack of consistency from Google is what drives people a bit mad.

    Thanks again,

  • I think that the SEO industry has the ability to self regulate, but it opens up a huge can of worms. Morality, just like ethical link building, is something that varies from person to person. It’s easy to point the finger at a competitor when your own campaign is not getting the results you want. Like you’ve pointed out, it’s almost impossible to be ultra white hat and rank competitively for certain terms, so anybody sounding the whistle had better think out the consequences.

  • Hi Guillermo

    Thanks for the comment. I agree, for me, if your strategy is built around outing your competitors then you are bound to fail. Every market is different in terms of requirements to rank highly and it would be great to think you can rank for ultra competitive keywords with just great content, but you can’t. There are also industries where people are not going to link naturally to, no matter how much creative link bait you come up with it.