SEO Gone Bad. New York Times Nails Black Hat SEO

David Segal just wrote an extensive SEO online marketing piece about the slimy part of search engine optimization (SEO) called Black Hat.

He called out J. C. Penney for apparently using unscrupulous techniques to game the search engine results, particularly on Google.

Of course, the key players like J. C. Penney executives had little to say about their direct involvement. The piece goes on to say that the company got rid of its consultant. You think?

The story starts out with the odd performance of web site. Despite fierce competition, it beat out many notable players for everything from “skinny jeans,” “tablecloths.” – plus very specific, offbeat phrases.

As you’ll discover, Google got involved and J. C. Penney was knocked from the top.

The heart of the strategy seems to have involved junk links from thousands of no-name web sites that weren’t relevant in any way.

To the general public, the story may sound fresh. As an online marketing specialist, I enjoyed it a great deal, reading every word. But it’s not new.

This sort of thing happens all of the time – and it works. It takes time, money, greed and risk.

For my clients, I have a tough time justifying getting links from places that have nothing in common with the clients. Does it have to be a direct link? No.

Links can influence organic keyword rankings, so we need to get them. But you don’t need to trick a competitor into linking to a client (that would be crazy). How about a link from an industry newsletter or online magazine? How about a directory – even one that covers an array of topics (including the type of business your client owns)?

Part of me wants to chase down links from all sorts of places. I’m kind of turned off by all of the SEO-friendly directories you’ll find out there. But I’m also attracted to them. If I get 1,000 links from fairly useless places (that 99.999% of people will never visit), my client will rank higher.

But Google strikes just enough fear to make me avoid this tactic. Who wants to watch a client fall off the face of the earth (i.e. first page of Google)? I don’t want to be on the other end of the call when a client tells me how he’s feeling at the moment.

As much as I admire Google (really, I do), I wish it had more power beyond its pronouncements. If you’re going to crack down on Black Hat stuff – like stupid links from equally lame web sites – then do something about it.

If you don’t like so-called online marketers, then stop them.

Is it really that hard to see that a web site has 2,000 links from irrelevant web sites?

My guess is that Google doesn’t trust its ability to sort the good from the bad. In other words, it doesn’t want to block a decent web site from users who may value that information.

And so it goes. I see web sites all of the time that enjoy the fruits of high rankings supported by weak links as part of a deliberate manipulation scheme.

In the meantime, we’ll all continue to do what we can to rank to the top. Sometimes it’s just about adding extra pages of content – the effort really aimed at search engines (it works). Or, we’ll fatten up a page with extra words (again, it works).

Search engines would argue that you’re also doing it for the users – helping them find what matches their interests.

From what I encounter and monitor first-hand, it appears that all of the thought and energy is really for search engines. You can “trick” the search engines by simply writing words with the right combination and balance of keyword density. All you really need is a brain.

If you want to do things the right way, just stand out from the pack. Create a web site with compelling content that everyone will talk about and pass along – Word of Mouth works great digitally and among human beings who actually talk with one another.

Invest in that interactive feature, that white paper, that study, that toolset, etc. At a minimum, write something people care about, something that will engage them. Don’t just say, “We have this product or this service – and we think it’s terrific.”

How far will that get you?