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SEO: Victim, not villain in Penney controversy

JM Marino | Digitaria
By JM Marino , GM, Search Solutions
Mar 1, 2011

Search Engine Optimization, referred to as SEO by just about everyone nowadays, recently made big news for a very big brand -- J.C. Penney.

A long and elaborate Sunday New York Times investigative feature found thousands of disparate and irrelevant websites that linked to Penney’s site. Most of these searched sites only contained links, and most of those links had text that suggested someone was gaming the system to get better rankings from Google. When the story broke, Penney said they were unaware of what was going on and fired SearchDex, their SEO firm.

After the story broke, there was a ton of follow up coverage, much of it using the sexy and evocative term “Black Hat SEO.” Black Hat SEO is making news because, like other deceptive marketing and communications practices, it’s harmful for consumers and can do long-term damage to a brand.

Black Hat SEO techniques – or spamdexing -- as defined on Wikipedia, include methods such as link farms, keyword stuffing and article spinning. These methods degrade the relevance of search results and harm the experience of using search engines to find the content you want on the Internet. Although the most sophisticated search engines seek out sites using Black Hat SEO practices and remove them from their indexes, the Internet is a complex place, and search engines don’t catch everything. Which brings us back to big brands using Black Hat SEO.

The implications of the Penney news for SEO agencies, and the search field in general, are that not much has really changed here. Connecting consumers with the products and services that they want and need has always been a core principle in marketing. All this exposure for SEO means that practitioners will have to build trust, take a long-term view of success, and ultimately put the consumer first. In short, those of us wearing the white hats will keep doing what we have been doing all along.

For big brands, like a big clothing store conglomerate, the future is unclear. There seems to be a corrective action taking place, but whether or not such repercussions will deter others from doing the same remains to be seen. The agency in question was fired, but as long as the motive remains, there is someone out there willing to do the dirty work. Big brands will have to decide for themselves. Ethical SEO is crucial to maximizing digital return on investment. When they do the math, we just hope they consider all the variables.

The variable we are most concerned with, of course, is the consumer. People who used search engines to find “dresses” and “area rugs” over the holiday season did so because they trusted that the information presented to them would be relevant and accurate. If that trust is regularly trampled on by well-known brands, this segment of the business we call digital marketing will take a sharp turn down a dark path.

SEO shouldn’t be viewed poorly as a result of one misuse. Marketing decision makers should not discard SEO from their budget allocations. As with every marketing channel, there are ethical ways to operate. White hat SEO is hard work, but the results are its best advertisement. The hard work of authentic SEO could even be called “blue collar” SEO.

Thus, here’s a quick Digitaria list of what we would consider five of the top “blue collar” SEO practices, remembering that, at all times, Content is King:

  1. Put your brand first.  You never want to make any decisions that could even potentially affect your brand or its perception negatively.
  2. Keyword Research: Perform sound keyword research that identifies the areas of opportunity and the relevancy of searches to your products, services or content. 
  3. Copy: Use natural language for content creation, including targeted keywords whenever relevant and appropriate for the content and audience.
  4. Digital Assets:  They are your assets whether they are images, videos, etc.  Make sure you are using a sound naming convention that contains relevant keywords in the name of the file. Write effective relevant alt text.  This helps not only accessibly but your rankings as well.
  5. Good marketing is hard work. If a firm seems to be achieving unnatural dominance, and you don’t see anyone sweating and toiling away to get there, odds are that Black Hat tactics are in play.

The bad boy can be sexy.  Black Hat Search makes a decidedly unglamorous in-the-trenches marketing discipline sound dangerous and cool.  But in the long run, like any kind of deceptive advertising, by using it your brand will likely suffer.