JC Penny wise and a pound of hyperlinks foolish

“When you read the enormous list of sites with Penney links, the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.”

[From: The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, by David Segal, New York Times.]

“Don’t do anything you’d be embarrassed to read about on the front page of the newspaper,” is one of those truisms I picked up early and used a lot back two decades ago when I used to run a PR firm and needed to have such quips in my back pocket.

As the work my colleagues and I at Hammock provide our clients (custom media, content strategy and management) has evolved over the past 20 years, a growing percentage of our work must be created in the context of how people use the Internet. As Google has become the front door to the Internet for a large portion of the audience our clients want to reach, our company has devoted more-and-more resources to understanding and responding to how Google works, a practice popularly termed Search Engine Optimization.

While I’m firmly in the “good content is the best search engine strategy” school of theory and practice, I nonetheless hang onto every word uttered by such people as Matt Cutts (Google’s Ambassador of Good SEO-ness) and Danny Sullivan, the all-knowing editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land. From them, and through years of study and practice, I know that it is not just good content that Google likes. It’s good content organized and structured and tagged and linked to that Google likes.

I know all about good (white hat) SEO practices and bad (black hat) SEO practices — and I know there are things some people want to call gray hat practices. And I know that, despite claims to the contrary, the forces of darkness (at least, gray and black) are constantly undermining and devaluing the entire currency on which the Internet is supposed to rest: the hyperlink.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, a great place to start is the article in today’s New York Times that I quoted above.

When you read it, think about that “Don’t do anything…” truism because I’ve found myself using it more and more in response to SEO-related questions like, “Is it okay to participate in a link-exchange program.” (My answer is, “Probably not, but show me precisely what you are talking about…and Don’t do anything…”)

Read the article and ask yourself, “If JC Penny is spending $30 million a year in Google paid advertising, how much is it costing them to practice a black-hat “paid links” strategy that is probably generating more revenue for the company? (Penny’s executives try to devalue organic search in the article, but conventional wisdom and supporting research suggests “conversion rates” are higher for organic search results than paid search results).

SEO — or, more precisely in this context, where a link to the seller of a product ends up on the first Google “Search Engine Results Page” (SERP) when a potential buyer uses Google to find the product — is the foundation of a large part of the online economy.

If JC Pennys can so obviously game Google — or, for that matter, Huffington Post or Demand Media or that DecorMyEyes.com guy— then it’s time for Google to fix it.

Until good content actually is good search, we’re all lost.

Later: Perhaps I should have mentioned that in the article, J.C. Penny denies knowledge of the paid-link strategy (plausible deniability or bold-face lying, take your pick) and fired their SEO agency.

Bonus link: On Search Engine Land, former Googler Vanessa Fox breaks down the New York Times article and explains what J.C. Penny’s now-fired SEO consultants were doing.

Another bonus link: This is a link to a page on Search Engine Land that is called, How to use google to search. I’m adding the link to help demonstrate how linking to a post can help push up the results of even the most obvious type of question. It will be a part of a future article written by Danny Sullivan regarding the way Content Farms work.