Is Your Search Firm's Hat White, Black or a Shade of Gray?

What the JCPenney Debacle Means -- and Doesn't Mean -- for Search

By Published on .

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
Earlier this week, the New York Times shamed Google into action over a "dirty little secret" in the world of search. I put that in quotes because to those of us in the search business it's not really a secret: sometimes people cheat.

But the real "secret" is the JCPenney scenario is now the second most-famous example, behind, perhaps the last target of the Times' reportage, DecorMyEyes.com. But they're are not the only company doing it, and its surely not the biggest or boldest, it's simply the most recent. Right now, CMOs all over the world are second-guessing their marketing relationships. Most won't know the first question to ask or what the ramifications might be.

Google and other search sites publish best practices for site builders and the rules of the game are pretty clear. That is to say, Google is pretty clear on what not to do -- the best way for your company to proceed in search is entirely up to you and has become so complicated it's hard to know whom to trust.

Was JCPenney's apparent defiance of Google an evil "black hat" scenario? Isn't it good business to get the most out of your online marketing initiatives? Isn't the heart of capitalism serving your shareholders by taking every advantage without breaking laws? The search engine marketing world has known about illicit practices in garnering search positions since marketing with search listings first became a legitimate trade -- long before Google became a household name.

Those engaged in the practice of search engine optimization, or SEO, fall into three main categories: white hats that obey all the rules, black hats that break the rules and gray hats that play somewhere in the middle.

The best defense is a really good defense. Since early days of search marketing, companies have tried to game the system with tactics like building doorway pages, masking content and "stuffing" white-on-white keywords onto pages for the sole benefit of automated programs called "bots" crawling the web looking for content to match to queries.

Some of these bad tactics were formerly known as best practices and were quite common. That is, until search sites woke up to these bad behaviors. As search ranking technologies evolved, a new way of ranking websites appeared. One such system, called PageRank (named after Google's founder), used the popularity of inbound links to evaluate site relevance and importance to queries.

It's hard to believe that everyone at JCPenney was unaware of the tactics being deployed. Penney has successfully avoided being completely banned while exposing the heart of a prime defense: deny, deny, deny. "We didn't know it was happening, we're really sorry and gee whiz we'll totally stop doing it right away!"

That would be more believable if JCPenney hadn't been dinged by Google several times, including once last November. According to the Times piece, Google isn't banning JCPenney, just correcting the link errors -- a soft penalty for such an offense of hyped-up biblical proportions.

SearchDex is the latest firm to be on the receiving end of accusations of impropriety. SearchDex has allegedly been fired by JCPenney. As of Feb. 15, the top "news" story on SearchDex's website marked the fourth year of JCPenney's relationship with the firm, dated March 15, 2007 -- the most recent entry in the company news section.

So you are telling me that no one knew that an eight-year relationship with a vendor was leading them down the path of destruction? Isn't it more likely that a search firm was making a calculated risk?

Link building is only one aspect of a search engine optimization initiative. Many years ago, one of my clients -- in an effort to build a more effective mobile site experience -- accidentally set off a Google ban. Simply put, Google's "bot" interpreted the action as the site attempting to game the system but it was just a technology error.

The "oops factor" highlights another critical aspect of maintaining awareness of how search marketing will impact your business. An uncomfortable distance between technology for building sites and search has existed since search became a consideration in the connected digital experience; that is to say, your technology or IT department better be in constant contact with a search marketing firm.

The problem was quickly corrected and the ban was lifted. In other words, we adhered to Google's demands and were once again allowed to generate revenue from being found.

I found the Times story and its implied melodrama comical. Most search marketers are highly intelligent, ethical people, not idolaters scurrying around looking for scraps of knowledge from their virtual parent figure. Then there was the Times' hero worship of Google's spam czar, Matt Cutts, described as having a "zen-like calm" as he approached the JCPenney link scam. Well, it's easy to remain composed when you hold all the power and it's not your job or millions of dollars at risk.

Google has pretty consistently maintained the separation between advertiser relationships and the editorial integrity of its natural search. Although JCPenney is spending a pretty penny on search ads, I'm sure they are not getting any preferential treatment. Not like many other sites that were banned with no notification or editorial fanfare.

Ads and editorial listings are truly separate if you don't consider the amount of Google stock said employees receive as part of their compensation. Since Google's primary source of revenue is advertising, surely the smartest mathematicians in the world can connect the dots between their personal wealth, advertising revenue and the stock price.

Another conflict I've noticed lies in required disclosures for bloggers. If you pay for a blog mention with a gift, that counts as a paid link. Yet, at last year's Google Zeitgeist event, attendees (some popular "journalists") got coupons for free Google TVs. I've yet to see any meaningful disclosures there. Similar scenarios exist with bloggers getting free Droid phones. Maybe this behavior is good public relations, but it merely serves as an example of Google not adhering to its own guidelines.

For now, the rules are what Google says they are -- end of story. Until we have the good sense to oversee Google's absolute power, we'll see more of this activity. The only thing that is significant about the latest scenario is Google's acknowledgment that it can't possibly enforce its own rules. Not only do we have a company that insists on a lack of oversight it appears accountability is not necessary either.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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