Retailers and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) made headlines this year for disputes regarding retailers’ search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. On one hand, Google penalized JCPenney and Overstock.com for their search tactics. On the other hand, corporations continue to hire SEO consultants, and startups are encouraged to employ SEO strategies. So where is the line drawn?
It may have to do with the type of SEO practice used. A number of techniques can increase prominence in search results. They generally fall into the following categories:
- Link Management – The quantity and quality of links pointing to a Website play key roles in its search result rank. Cross-linking and URL normalization of Webpages accessible via multiple URLs improve the link popularity score.
- Metadata Organization – Search engines use a Webpage’s metadata, such as the title and description metatags that summarize what appears there, to assist in indexing.
- Content Planning – Adding frequently searched keywords and keyword phrases to the Webpage’s content tends to increase traffic.
SEO techniques also can be divided into white hat and black hat. White hat SEO optimizes a Website for search engine indexing. Researching what keywords clients may use to find a Website, and using these keywords effectively and honestly throughout the Website, would be a white hat technique. Using content stylesheets (CSS) to separate design elements from the actual content also makes it easier for search engines to determine the content available on a Website.
Black hat SEO attempts to improve a Website’s rankings by exploiting flaws in the search engine algorithm. Notorious examples of these techniques include hiding content and keywords in the metadata or text positioned off screen; “gateway pages” that are highly optimized for certain keywords but redirect the user automatically to another page; “cloaking” the page by providing different pages to human visitors and search engines; and “link farming,” which uses pages that serve no purpose other than listing links to unrelated Websites.
SEO is such an important aspect of marketing that violators include major international corporations. In February 2006, Google removed both BMW Germany and Ricoh Germany from its search listings for using gateway pages. More recently, The New York Times reported that JCPenney performed link farming by paying clients to create irrelevant links to the company’s Website, making it the top search result for a wide variety of keywords, including “dresses,” “skinny jeans,” “home décor,” and “furniture.”
Similarly, Google penalized Overstock.com in February 2011 for “encouraging Websites of colleges and universities to post links to Overstock pages so that students and faculty could receive discounts.” Educational sites that end with “.edu” are considered more authoritative than commercial sites, so links from colleges and universities can boost a Website’s rankings dramatically.
Adhering to Google’s Webmaster quality guidelines seems easy enough, but retailers often hire search agencies to perform SEO and are oblivious to their tactics until their search rankings are penalized.
There are also “grey area” tactics. For example, a company can pay Internet ad companies to display text links across a network of sites and bet search engine crawlers will misinterpret these ad links as signs of popularity.
With ever-changing SEO techniques and no clear guidelines, executives must exercise caution in hiring SEO consultants, and they must understand the tactics these consultants use.
— Alfred Wong is a software engineer by trade and received his MASc from the University of Waterloo in Canada and his MBA from Arizona State University.