Time and again, experienced webmasters will warn newbies away from black hat techniques. They don’t work, they cause problems, Google will catch you sooner or later. It’s all true. Black hat techniques are dangerous because they work, for a while. Then, like the companies that follow, Google finds out. The examples below were all large enough to continue their business, but they’re high profile exceptions to the very common rule.
JC Penny, back in 2011, was the subject of one of the largest SEO-related scandals to date. It all started when a curious journalist wondered why the company seemed to rank among the top for virtually every product they sold, even above the manufacturers of those products or other stores selling them. That journalist took the question to various SEO professionals and asked; why is JCP doing so well?
The answer, as it turned out, was black hat link building. Any page on JCP’s website that ranked exceptionally high was found to have a number of links incoming. How often do people link to product pages for products on a page like JCP? How often do those links come from blogs that are otherwise unrelated to the product, niche or company? In JCP’s case, all too often.
The New York Times published an article about this phenomenon, and contacted Google. Google, in response, investigated the issue. Matt Cutts tweeted about the issue, saying the algorithm had started to work on JCP’s site. Within days, JCP was all but removed from the search results, fallout from their widespread campaign of paid links.
The New York Times attempted to contact JCP about their unnatural link building, and the company in turn said they had no idea what was going on with their links. They knew nothing about it. They also immediately turned around and fired their SEO company.
This is lesson number one with black hat link schemes. Sooner or later, you will be caught. Either it’s Google doing the catching, or a different entity catches you and reports you to Google. When that happens, it’s to the doghouse with you.
JC Penny recovered within three months, on the power of better managed SEO and the fact that it’s a national company with a huge presence. Even so, 90 days of lost search traffic can be an immense amount of lost profits.
Rap Genius is not quite the household name that JC Penny is, or even that other high profile SEO criminals are. Their crime, in this case, is not as bad as those of other perpetrators.
First off, what is Rap Genius? The site is a complex lyrics database, though it offers a range of additional functionality, including some interesting analytics involving lyrics. Their biggest claim to fame is their annotations, allowing users to add anything from details behind the work to meanings included in the lyrics or translations of foreign language content.
So how did this lyrics site fall afoul of Google? Primarily, the issue at hand was a reciprocal link scheme. Rap Genius put out a public call to all bloggers involved in the music industry to link to Rap Genius lyrics. When a blogger did so, Rap Genius in turn would work a link to that blogger on Twitter.
As a lyrics site, Rap Genius lives and dies by organic search. Lyrics aren’t exactly something you can put a personal spin on; they’re the same from site to site, assuming they’re correct. Rap Genius did add the annotations to make their site stand out, but they still suffer dramatically if they aren’t highly ranked. This reciprocal link scheme was one of their ways of getting ahead in a very tight industry.
Christmas day, 2013, Rap Genius hit the roadblock that is Google. Immediately, the site was punted down the search rankings. Lyric searches rarely found the site, and they didn’t even rank for their own name.
Google lifted the penalty after a mere 10 days, after a public apology and work to correct the problem. The reason Rap Genius is on the list is that public apology. They almost flaunt the letter of the law while violating the spirit. The links they provided weren’t on their domain, so why should they be punished? Even that apology is annotated. Not only do they go line by line about how they don’t do what is listed as a violation, they then call out their competitors, perhaps wishing that the Google hammer would hit them as well.
Many may remember Overstock from their commercials, where they desperately tried to get in on the online shopping industry after the success of Amazon. The site’s entire business model relies on cheap manufacturing and cheap shipping to make a profit. With word of mouth and low-cost TV commercials as its primary advertising, the site needed to put SEO into action, and fast.
In 2011, Google discovered the myriad ways in which Overstock had crossed the line. First, the site created a large number of fake, valueless websites specifically to link back to Overstock’s domain. Similar to how JC Penny was caught out, Overstock suffered the backlash. They were, in fact, reported by an anonymous competitor.
Second, Overstock paid for links as well. Just like JC Penny, Overstock was found to have overly optimized link anchor text pointing towards their product pages. Some links like that are okay, but not in the volume Overstock was using.
Third, and most uniquely, Overstock was found offering discounts in exchange for links. Overstock, you see, realized the power of the .gov and .edu domains. Therefore, they offered deals to educational and governmental facilities and organizations, in exchange for links to their products. Government and education sites aren’t inherently better, but they have a higher chance of being authoritative, hence the drive to get links through them.
In the end, Overstock’s penalty was severe, removing it from results for many of its products. It very likely was no longer ranking for its own name, similar to Rap Genius. The penalty dragged on for two full months before being lifted, partially in response to the slow mobility on the part of those same gov and edu sites, which took a long time to remove the links.
There are other high profile cases of link schemes, of course. Even the BBC, Mozilla and the Washington Post have suffered. It’s by no means isolated, but it serves to further illustrate the point. Sooner or later, you will be caught. Even the biggest sites online aren’t protected from a Google penalty.