A dangerous game?

A dangerous game?

12th May 2011

There was an interesting debate taking place recently between a number of high profile people within the organic search space regarding the recent spate of outings taking place over on influential online publications such as the New York Times. During recent months, the New York Times has been responsible for the reporting of a couple of major organisations for activity which goes against the guidelines outlined by Google regarding how people should be optimising their websites.

In particular, the following link schemes were of particular interest:
1) Links intended to manipulate Pagerank.
2) Buying or selling links that pass page rank

One of the organisations in question, was that of JC Penney who had undertaken a significant campaign of acquiring a large volume of network based linkage. Following the article, the site was penalised within the Google search engines, and similar activity has also occurred for other organisations since. Only this week we have seen the latest article , outlining a number of campaigns in the leadup to Mothers Day in the States. The research undertaken by Digital Due Diligence over in the states outlined a number of paid linkage campaigns designed to influence the organic search rankings in the leadup to Mothers Day.

This treatment of such sites sets a very dangerous precedent. As SEO’s many of us are aware of the potential threat of ‘Negative SEO’ and the issues that can have on organic search campaigns, however this recent activity sets a dangerous marker in terms of untoward activity. With the nature of the activity as it is, it is not that unfeasible that company A could acquire a number of ‘questionable’ links for company B, and subsequently report company A for acquiring those links. Whether or not company A were ultimately penalised by Google aside, the damage from coverage such as that from the New York Times could potentially cause as much of a headache if not more than the actual penalty itself. Could this be the dawn of a potential new threat to organisations engaging in organic search?

Many commenters have continued to evaluate the spector of this potential new threat. Certainly on Aaron Walls’ post regarding Digital Due Diligence, a number of people have expressed concerns about where much of this outing and supposed ‘due diligence’ is getting us. Certainly one has to question whether or not many of these organisations actually were aware of the tactics being used to acquire inbound linkage to the site. One would certainly hope that these organisations were keeping their clients aware of the tactics they were employing rather than integrating some of these tactics without previous consent and/or signoff from the client.

Furthermore recent days have seen a number of people voice their opinions on paid links. Many such as Rand Fishkin have stated that Google need to urgently deal with the link spam something which on the basis of it, I think nobody would disagree with. I find it strange however that there is still so much surprise and ‘naivity’ regarding paid linkage. Paid links, link wheels and link networks have been round for years, and I would actually argue the problem with link networks persay (tenancy style) is actually less of a problem than it has been previously, and ultimately has probably been replaced with an army of content networks – ironic given the furore persay over paid links themselves.

That said there is no doubting something needs to be done, however my argument is as to whether pieces such as the NYT are doing the industry any favours. Yes one may argue that the organisations in question may suffer from some fallout , however I would argue that the impact of such pieces is significantly magnified within our industry rather than in the wider public. One can’t help feeling that this is a problem Google have created and to a certain extent this is a problem only they can deal with.

On a personal note, I am not one for this public flaming of organisations, not because I don’t think organisations which go against guidelines should not be dealt with more because I can’t help thinking this does nothing but add to the perception that our industry is one of snake oil and untoward activity. Many of us deal with the fallout of brand reputation on a daily basis – it just seems a shame that as an industry we aren’t very good at doing it ourselves….


Written By
Peter has been around the industry for a while now, having previously headed up both search and SEO operations at Connectpoint (now Amaze), Mediavest, Brilliant Media and now Search & Social Director for Mediacom.
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