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Feb 16, 2011 | 4 minute read

SEO Spam Penalty: It Could Happen to You

written by Linda Bustos

Last week’s outing by the New York Times of JC Penney’s “dirty little SEO secret” has certainly sparked a buzz. If you haven’t read the story, check it out here.

In JC Penney’s defense, there’s a good chance the retail giant was unaware of the tactics its SEO firm was using to achieve high rankings for a number of competitive terms like “skinny jeans” and “furniture” – namely using undisclosed paid links and link farms. Both are violations of Google’s anti-spam policy.

Could this happen to your online store?

Unfortunately, many other online retailers may be involved with firms that dabble in “black hat” activities - such as doorway pages, cloaking, keyword spamming, comment spamming, hidden text in all its forms, and even competitor sabotage known as “Google bowling” (buying spammy links for a competitor and then reporting them).

Because SEO firms are compensated for high rankings, often without disclosure of how results were achieved, there’s a big temptation for SEO firms to cheat a little – or a lot - as the “ends justify the means.”

How can you protect yourself?

1. Brush up on ethical SEO practices.

Knowing what constitutes web spam helps you spot it when it’s happening on your own site, and arms you with the right questions to ask your consultant. Google provides these resources in its Quality Guidelines and Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

2. Require vendor disclosure of tactics.

Your SEO vendor should be able to provide you with a breakdown of what activities were performed each invoice period. If your vendor is reluctant or unwilling to provide this information, that should be a red flag.

3. Know who is performing the work.

It’s not uncommon for SEO firms to outsource activities like link building to countries where labor is cheaper. Offshore SEO’s often promise X amount of links for $X, which may come from link farms or comment spam. Your SEO firm should be well informed about the techniques used by third party help, and should always be up front about which activities are sub-contracted.

4. Investigate yourself.

Spam can happen both on your site and off.

Take a look under the hood of your site and make sure no extra text that is not visible to customers is hiding in HTML. This includes light text on a light background (or dark on dark), or Javascript “noscript” tags, image “alt” attributes and Flash “div” tags that have been keyword stuffed.

Off-site, check which sites link to you, along with link anchor text and the presence of the nofollow tag on or Open Site Explorer. (Those flagged with “nofollow” means they are not counted by Google.)

Just because some questionable sites link to you, doesn’t mean your SEO team is responsible. But if the majority of your links do come from spammy looking sites (especially those with .info, .us or .org extensions, like this example linking to JC Penney and others from the sidebar, you might be at risk for Google to investigate, or for a competitor to report you. (Many black hatters will register or hack .org and .edu sites and turn them into spam pages because those domain extensions are believed to carry more link value).

It’s a good idea to ask your SEO provider for a report of all links acquired each month so you can do a personal audit.

5. Don’t fall for the old tricks.

How did you find your SEO firm? Did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you? If you were “spammed” with an unsolicited offer, there’s a good chance the firm has a culture of spam. Don’t be fooled by promises for links at $4 a piece, or guaranteed top rankings on Google.

6. Don’t put all your eggs in the SEO basket.

JC Penney claims that 7% of its traffic comes from organic search, with the bulk coming from partnerships with Yahoo and Time Warner, mobile applications and in-store kiosks. While I find that hard to believe, it brings up a good point that a business should not be dependent on any one channel to drive traffic. You have influence over, but not control of organic search results. One simple algorithm change could squash your top rankings, or an incident involving spam could get you de-indexed in a flash.

Affiliate programs, comparison shopping engines, paid search, word-of-mouth campaigns and loyalty/referral programs should all be considered as part of a holistic online marketing strategy.

JC Penney was extremely lucky it was not de-indexed by the Big G, but only suffered a dip in rankings for certain terms while the search giant investigates further. You may not be so lucky, so do your due diligence on your SEO program today!