Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Are “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” Really That Dirty?

Whenever anything interesting is buzzing in the SEO community, I’m sure to find out about it right away by way of the SEO Twitter community (I follow a lot of nerds, follow me to join the discussion: dayofjen), my SEO FaceBook connections or the numerous SEO blogs I follow. Recently Twitter was all abuzz with “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search”, a New York Times piece in Business Day, just published on Feb. 12th, 2011… and it created quite a stir, at least in my small corner of the world.

Now, I do a LOT of reading, so although the Twitter banter on the article topic caught my eye and encouraged me to click to read more, when I landed on the site and saw it as a 5 page piece, I seriously reconsidered reading the entire thing. I mean, who has the time? But as the buzz increased and my intrigue grew, I decided to read it, in its 5 page entirety… and this is what I think:

First, I kinda have to say I’m feelin a little sorry for JC Penny right now. I mean, jeez, there they are, organically ranking for all these target keywords “Bedding”, “Dresses”, “Area Rugs”… and BOOM – this little “study” comes along and KILLS their organics.

So what happened anyways? So what if JC Penny’s ranks for “Bedding”, “Dresses”, “Area Rugs” and such, I mean, they do offer these products on their website, so why can’t they rank for them all? Well, apparently high rankings for such a large amount of really hard to rank for, competitive phrases (such as bedding) strewn across such a vast amount of products and terms raised some suspicions over there at The NY Times and caused them to seek out an expert in Search Engine Marketing. So, they bring in Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media. Never heard of him, but I wasn’t surprised at what he said. Did I agree with it? Not really.

According to Doug Pierce, the JC Penny link portfolio contained dozens of links using the same keywords and often the links were found on sites deemed irrelevant by the “expert”… specifically saying “There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.”


So far I have heard:

If multiple sites link to you using the same keyword, it’s bad?

If random sites link to you and they aren’t related to your direct topic of relevancy, it’s also bad?

If these two statements were true and if they also were deemed “black hat” and actually caused a penalization in Google’s algorithm, couldn’t we all just go out and buy a bunch of spammy, black hat links using the same keyword phrase(s) over and over to our competition and cause them to receive a penalization? I mean come on, think about it. In fact, if the above were true, they wouldn’t even have to find real black hat websites, they could simply buy links on sites that are about jewelry or something else legitimate – as long as it was deemed “irrelevant”. TOO EASY. The spammers would have us all banned in a heartbeat.

Instead, consider this. Google CAN NOT build a penalization into the algorithm and say a site (especially a large site with 1000’s of content pages, 100’s of products and household branded name like JC Penny’s) should automatically lose organic rankings for keyword terms relevant to their content and products because certain pages linking to them appear to be off topic. I personally own 100’s of sites and manage dozens of social media profiles and micro blogs. I could chose to link to JC Penny or anyone else I so chose at any given time for any reason from any of my sites, relevant or not. Who is Google or anyone else to say the audience of the site/blog I posted that link on might not also be interested in the subject I am linking to? It’s not relevant because I talked about prom dresses or bedding on my jewelry site? Why? Who decides this? It just doesn’t scientifically make sense. I mean sure, Google can say if a link doesn’t appear to be a strong match by certain criteria then perhaps the link doesn’t pass as much value as a stronger match, but to say you’ll get penalized is quite a stretch.

So why did JC Penny lose their rankings?

The truth is, Google is a walking, talking contradiction. Links are a necessary and vital part of the algorithm. Without them, Google would have to rely on things like content and clean code – not really a sure fire way to serve up the best, most reliable websites and information, right? So, links are the perfect solution to that algorithm problem. By building in links, Google allows the public to vote for the best sites – it’s the perfect solution… kinda.

Years ago, after Google updated their algo to include the in-coming links as votes for organic placement, they had no idea how the SEO community would evolve, how technology would change and how vital a role links actually play. But, with these changes, these evolutions, Google found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Once the SEO’s caught on to the effects of linking, it was only a matter of time before the spammers, and basically the whole world knew the secret. So why not just devalue links?

Devalued links = devalued search results = unhappy users = less engine usage = ruined ad opportunities.

Not a smart move when you make your money from your ads.

So the answer? Just tell everyone paid links are bad. Write it into the Terms, have Matt Cutts talk about it on his blog… spread the word – LINKS are good! PAID links are bad. Scare the public. And when a high profile company gets called out, penalize them – use them as a martyr. But, for the most part, let people do what they want, as long as they play by the rules.

But wait a minute. How does Google even know the difference? And why do they care? 

Now I can go on and on (and on and on) about links, the difference between black hat, grey hat, white hat… the multiple variables in which to gauge the quality of any given link location and whether your site will actually increase organically from having a link there. I can talk about 1000’s of case studies and years of experience with link building and the trends I’ve seen within the major search engine algorithms, but why? Isn’t this just the same old fear and propaganda?

Is the real problem here the links, or the fact that JC Penny didn’t play the game correctly?

If JC Penny didn’t get called out so very publically, and by the SEO community at that, and then pretty much fess up to the fact they “bought links”, they could have been ranking for their target terms forever. I didn’t evaluate their entire link portfolio and I certainly don’t have information on the exact links they were purchasing, however, I can say this:

Links are a necessary part of any successful organic SEO campaign. Google knows everyone is buying links. Come on, it is THAT obvious. You think JC Penny is the only company out there actively building links? Of course not. Take a look at the top 10 for just about anything – they are buying links. Google knows, but they turn their cheek. Why? Because your paid links help them serve up relevant information. That information keeps the Google users happy. Happy users are happy to come back, happy to click on paid links, and even happy to host ads on their own sites…

What do you think Google is really concerned about here?

Convinced you still need links… But now what?

Buy links from a trusted provider who understands the risks and can put together a strategic approach to link building that is SEO friendly and can fly under the radar a bit more. If you are worried about risk, there are creative link strategies out there that can still get the job done, while still remaining virtually undetectable.

Need to know more? Well, you’ll have to ask me: jenny@eminentseo.com
A few tips:

  • KEYWORD RESEARCH: Every great organic link campaign starts with expert keyword research. If you are guessing, or simply going after the “top” keywords in your vertical, you are not only missing a great opportunity to target low hanging fruit – but you are seriously telling Google the links coming in are potentially artificial – remember, people who chose to link to you naturally will pick a term that makes sense to them, which is not necessarily the top keyword for your website. Know your top keywords and work on supporting them with similar secondary phrases for a more organic looking campaign.
  • ON-PAGE SEO and CONTENT: Links certainly play a big role in your organic SERP, but your links better be pointing to optimized pages with unique and relevant copy. Great content should justify a lot of in-coming links. If you are out there buying links and pointing them to a crappy site, it may raise a red flag with Google. Why would people link to a terrible site with outdated content? Not a good strategy.
  • LINK DIVERSITY: So, you know your target keywords, you have an optimized site and you are adding fresh content, now what? Go get those links! But, be advised, Google is looking for a link trend they can trust. Trust comes in many forms and levels, but what you NEED to know:
• Links should be from unique sources across the web – avoid networks where the sites are all hosted on the same Class C IP’s. If you think you are getting a deal by buying links in bulk from a network, you better ask them if their IPs are unique, if not, you might as well tell Google you just bought into a network – and the credibility the individual sites could pass if they were on unique IPs is completely diminished.

• Links should be natural looking, instead of buying hundreds of the “perfect” links, consider that only higher PR, higher quality inbound links actually looks more suspicious then a diverse array of sites. Why would everyone who chooses to link to you naturally all have an authority site? Instead, some people will socially bookmark your site, some will share on their blog, some will write an article and link back to you as a reference, etc. etc.

• Avoid ACTUAL black hat practice. Without getting too technical, there is a fine line between black and grey. Black hat techniques WILL get you banned and aren’t worth the risk. Practices such as Gateway/Doorway pages white text on a white background – no bueno! And although it can’t hurt you (remember – Google cant penalize you just because a site links to you! That is out of your control) BUT bad neighborhood links do not help, so don’t bother – if you aren’t an adult site yourself, don’t buy links on one (stay away from gambling and pharmaceutical too).

• Relevancy is important, but not imperative. Yeah, I said it. Links can come from any family friendly website and still pass value. It’s less about topic relevancy and more about site audience relevancy. Name one site that doesn’t represent multiple categories of relevancy anyways. If you are worried about relevancy, buy links that come with content unique to you. Get creative. There are ways to make a link relevant almost anywhere.

The Nutshell:

Links are GOOD, when done correctly. Don’t get too caught up in the propaganda. If you know you need links, make sure you have a quality site to justify those links and then find an expert to help you.


Chris said...

Great one!
I think that the argument that it would be ridiculous if spammers or competitors could go out and buy bad links in attempt to get legitimate sites banned is the most convincing argument for buying links.

Also a great point that if Google was so quick to ban sites based on the "idea" (with no proof) that links were bought, then many of the top sites would surely be missing from their index, obviously creating a less desirable user experience. Imagine if users started noticing that a PC computer related search did not display results of the biggest computer manufacturers like Dell or HP - they would start using other search engines!

Jenny Stradling said...

@Chris - thanks for the comments. Even if Google COULD prove links were paid (which again, how can they - what if a competitor is buying them bad links) they would literally have to hire a million people to manually review the web to penalize sites b/c there is no freaking way any algorithm can currently prove site A bought a link on site B and knowingly violated Google's terms. Not gonna happen.

Jim Peake said...

Great insights in the article Jen, so riddle me this. If I'm a product company. I want SEO. I want to rank for my products. I can either hire staff (in house) and pay benefits to them to do link building for me or I could hire it out. If I "buy" them by hiring it out is that not the same thing as hiring staff and "growing my business?" So is Google then going to tell us who we can hire and not hire? There seems to be a double edged sword here.

Jenny Stradling said...

@Jim - Totally agree. Google has said from DAY ONE you NEED links.... then they tell you to go get them. So, the website owner is tasked with "getting" links... Obviously most website owners couldn't make much progress doing manual link acquisition even if they did it FULL TIME... Why? Because it is HARD AS HELL! So, you are right, they hire someone to do it. Either way, its a paid link. Why not hire a company who KNOWS how to do it and get it done right already, rather then one guy who knows "SEO" but probably isn't going to get them the amount of links they really need to rank.