When it comes to the web I love the fact that the internet can act as the great equalizer. Because it provides a level playing field it can allow those with less money and more energy to outgun heavy-weight rivals and succeed even when the odds are against them.

Disclaimer: I am really passionate about this aspect of the web. I believe it is instrumental in breaking down barriers of class and ethnicity and I believe that it can change the world. Success and opportunity, in every form, help to break down barriers and create more energy which leads to more opportunity. This is what really drives me on in much of what I write and many of the things I do.


Luckily for all of us, Google, which holds the keys to search on the web also believes that fairness is also the key to success for the company and all the users of its services. So far so good, we are all in step in a brand new century where the bad ol’ days when WallMart would set up business in your block and undercut you  until they closed you down, which would then mean they could simply raise prices again, are a thing of the past. Something belonging to the thinking and traditions of the last century. Maybe.

We live in a tough economy however. Customers are more discerning. Operating costs are rising. Profit margins get squeezed. When this happens the old tricks of the past soon get dusted up and served, powered, just like before by bottom-line pressure and the ability of big operators to seemingly rise above the law thanks to their deep pockets.

January proved to be a month when Google played the role of internet sheriff and slapped down two heavy-weights who had began to throw their weight around. Google has not done anything of this scale, so publicly, since 2007 when it took all of now defunct SEO company’s, Traffic Power, listings off its index and made BMW.de disappear practically overnight.

Google Plays Sheriff in Two High-Profile Shootouts and Wins

Let’s get a few things straight. Google is the keymaster of the web. Its dominance in search and its drive to index all of the world’s information gives the company an enormous amount of power. Power which it goes to extreme pains to be seen to exercise fairly in practically everything it does.

Google spends a lot of money in developing its search algorithm to work organically to produce the fairest, most relevant results possible. The company also publishes a comprehensive list of guidelines which detail what is ‘allowed’ and what isn’t in SEO practices, all so that webmasters optimizing their websites will stay on the right side of SEO practices and do not risk a Google penalty.

Yet, two large operators did just the opposite. JCPenney is a multi-billion dollar business whose Google AdWords bill alone for 2010 ran into $2.6 million. Yet the company which has a presence on magazine and TV advertising risked everything by allowing a massive link building campaign to occur, using paid-for links and linkfarms (both banned Google practices).

How it was caught and exactly what it did is detailed in the New York Times story which is titled ‘The Dirty Little Secrets of Search’ – I strongly recommend checking the link out and reading the story. It is an eye-opener in itself. It also shows that the penalty JCPenney paid – going from the first spot on the first page of Google to well past the fifth page of the organic search results for many of its listings is a heavy one.

Many detractors of the company and quite a few proponents of the SEO community have come out saying that the penalty is not as heavy as it should be. They have cited JCPenney’s  AdWords budget as evidence that Google may perhaps be going soft around one of its biggest customers. I am going to say two things here: First, even if JCPenney spent $5 million in AdWords for Google, whose Quarterly earnings run in the billions of dollars, it is a drop in the ocean. A drop, which is simply not worth jeopardising the integrity of its organic search, which drives its massive earnings, over.

Second, with research which shows that almost three quarters of organic search users fail to get past the third page of the organic search results, a sixth page listing for a company like JCPenney is akin to banishment in Google hell.

So, yes, the penalty is a hefty one and its cost in terms of lost revenue and a tarnished reputation is vast.

The second large operator to be caught using Black Hat SEO techniques was Overstock.com. The Wall Street Journal carries a story of what they were doing and how they were caught (and in their case it very much a case of being big-mouthed about their success).

Essentially Overstock engaged in the following practices:

1.    They created PDF's that they sent to universities.
2.    Each PDF was customized for each university e.g. it had the university logo, and the text was customized.
3.    The PDF said that students at the university could get a 10% discount at Overstock.com.
4.    It also provided specific text for each university webmaster to post on their website. e.g. Ladies jackets, comforter sets, mens wear all 10% off at overstock. The important phrases linked to those specific sections on Overstock.
5.    An important point here is that the link text and links in each PDF were different for each university.
6.    Many university webmasters posted the text verbatim on their websites.
7.    Some webmasters simply put the PDF on their sites. Links from PDF documents also pass pagerank and give you a boost in the search results. Few people know this and the posting of these PDFs to university websites was the real genius of this campaign.
8.    The result was that Overstock.com ended up with a large number of dot-edu links to different sections on their website. 
9.    Google gives links from .edu domains a much greater pagerank score than regular links, and the result was page one for every product section on Overstock.com.
Google took corrective action in their case also, manually adjusting the Google Index and bringing the company from its first page position on Google for its keywords to anywhere between the fifth and seventh pages, just like it did for JCPenney.

Organic SEO Lasts Longer and Produces Better Results

Google’s algorithm takes action against hundreds if not thousands of sites each year. The majority of which perhaps slip down just a few positions. The number of times Google has had to take corrective or punitive action against heavy weights can now be counted on the fingers of ET’s right hand.

The moral of the story (and there definitely is one) is that the web is still a place where equality counts (at least in search) and where fair play practices will produce longer lasting, better results.  I know that there is always pressure to SEO your website and start seeing results on day one. Unfortunately this is not possible in an organic, White Hat SEO way.

What is possible, however, and what should always happen is that when you do have a website you should integrate SEO activities in your everyday routine and never take shortcuts, otherwise you will share the fate of JCPenney and Overstock who, right now, will have to pay a lot more for AdWords, a lot more of White Hat SEO and are already losing millions in sales which they were getting from their first page position.

Learn More About David