The unseen and often unseemly world of search engine manipulation came into full public view recently when the New York Times ran a brilliant piece of enterprise reporting after noticing that J.C. Penney’s kept coming up at the number one result in dozens of Google searches for common household, clothing, and consumer items– even if Penney’s would not be the first store you would think of for those items. Enter “bedding,” and Penney’s, not Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, would come up first. Try “area rugs,” and again it would be Penney’s, not, say, Crate & Barrel. Put in “Samsonite Luggage,” and yes, Penney’s would be number one– above the more obvious Samsonite.com.
After enlisting computer scientists who specialize in search engine techniques, the Times discovered that Penney’s had achieved these page rankings through a massive placement of links on hundreds if not thousands of web sites often created for exactly that purpose– to fool the search engines (read the Times article if you really want to know how they did it). Penney’s, of course, has denied any knowledge of this trickery and has fired its social media firm.
Those of us in the online reputation management (ORM) business have been well-aware of how to game the search engines, and are only amused when these things backfire by becoming public. Google and other search engines pride themselves on using sophisticated algorithms that return search results based on the number and importance of the links back to that page, and a couple dozen other factors that they won’t divulge. But there’s always a way to game the system, and as the Penney’s case demonstrates, if you get away with it, it can pay off.
“Link farms,” as we in the trade call them, actually aren’t very sophisticated– they just take a lot of manpower. Political campaigns often employ computer scientists who can write sophisticated algorithms placed in the meta-data of positive content to drive it up towards the top– and driving the negative stories down far enough that no one will see them. When dealing with ORM, the goal is often to push down negative content any way you can. But there’s a significant risk if you get caught.
Google will blacklist you for a long time. Once Google was alerted to the issue and it corrected for it, Penney’s page rankings dropped down so far that no one wold ever really come across them during a search.
The challenge, of course, is using techniques that fall within the bounds of sound ethics and good business practices rather than succumbing to the dark side. From a practical standpoint, getting caught and outed is too high a price to pay. Public embarrassment of the kind that Penney’s faced following the Times expose simply isn’t worth it. In addition, Google’s punishment is severe and long-lived. Getting good search engines results the old-fashioned way– by earning it– is still worth the time and effort.