Black hat, white hat, manufactured housing

Article by David Segal in the New York TimesIf you didn’t see it this past Monday, David Segal of the New York Times wrote an article entitled The Dirty Little Secrets of Search. It was a story about how companies use what are known as “Black Hat” Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques* to try and trick Google into giving them a higher search ranking.

“Black Hat” techniques are often very successful at attaining high rankings, but the rankings are often short-lived.

In the article, Mr. Segal notes the case of J.C. Penney and their unusual placement at the very top of the rankings for hundreds of keywords through this past Christmas season.

Penney’s was using a technique where contextual links** were placed from dozens of websites around the world to specific pages on the J.C. Penney website. Many of these were paid links places on sites that had little or nothing to do with the subject matter of the link.

A spokesperson for Penney’s insists that the company had no knowledge of the links and did not contract them. I wonder who had the time and money to donate to making J.C. Penney #1 in so many search results.

At first blush, these techniques simply look like a smart marketing maneuver, and they are certainly not illegal. But Google (and all the other Search Engines) considers them an attempt to “game” the system and takes action against those using them.

The reason Google looks down on any practice that it sees as an attempt to manipulate search engines results is simple. Google’s search engine gets most of its revenue from advertising – AdWords – those paid search results you see in the right column (and sometimes at the top) of a Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

For Google to maximize the return on the placement of AdWords ads, they need to return the best quality results for any given search. And manipulation of the results threatens that system.

In the case of J.C. Penney, retaliation came in the form of vastly demoted ratings, sometimes dropping from #1 to places MUCH lower. So now they are left with the time- and money-consuming effort of rebuilding their Google ranking. It won’t be easy.

‘At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”

‘Two hours later, it was at No. 71.’

Over the years, we’ve seen many attempts to “game” the Google results, but they all end the same. Google catches wind of the scam, changes their algorithm to compensate and the “Black Hat” marketer is left to start over.

If you aren’t a heavy-weight paid advertiser on Google, like J.C. Penney, the penalty could be complete removal from the Google search results.

I have been involved in marketing on the Internet since 1991. In all that time, I’ve used nothing but “White Hat” techniques for myself and my clients. “Black Hat” techniques sometimes offer quick results, but “White Hat” techniques provide results that last.


* “black hat” optimization, the dark art of raising the profile of a Web site with methods that Google considers tantamount to cheating.

** A contextual link is one where a keyword-rich phrase is linked to a website, such as in the case of J.C. Penney where hundreds of websites around the world linked the term “grommet top curtains” to the page at J.C. Penney on grommet top curtains.

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