JC Penney may have been behind one of the biggest SEO snafus of the Internet, but it's certainly not alone in making search engine optimization errors.
As I wrote in late 2012 (See: Gaming SEO – & Failing), JC Penney gamed search terms like "skinny jeans," "home decor," "comforter sets," and "furniture" during the holiday season. Its contractor, SearchDex, also placed thousands of links across the web, often on sites unrelated to the search terms. Google responded, sending JC Penney's search results plummeting instead of ranking close to the top.
Google, after all, shows no mercy. Not even to itself. In early 2012, Google penalized the page rank for Chrome. No, that's not a typo: Google actually penalized itself. A paid link policy infringement was to blame, according to TechCrunch, which pointed out that Google sought the help of a company called Unruly Media "to drive views of a promo video for Chrome." You can tell this isn't going to end well.
As TechCrunch explained: "One blogger linked directly [to] the Chrome download page without using a nofollow attribute or intermediary to prevent giving link juice to the page. This violates Google's paid link policy." So what happened? Get ready for this. Google used to rank Chrome second when someone from TechCrunch searched for the keyword "browser." After the penalty, it dropped to No. 50, which put it on the third page of results.
"Google was trying to buy video ads about Chrome, and these sponsored posts were an inadvertent result of that. Google did not authorize this campaign," said Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google, in a post on Google+.
Reaction to Chrome's demotion varied. Some in the tech world sided with Google and lashed out at Unruly, while others mocked Google for penalizing its own product.
Google is not afraid to attack when it feels threatened. It's like the opposite of Switzerland. Google penalized another Fortune 500 company for inappropriate SEO practices when it went after Forbes in February 2011. The publishing company received an email, later posted on Search Engine Roundtable's website, which singled out "possibly artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate page rank."
Forbes didn't think it was guilty and posted what appeared to be a rather confused message on a forum asking if anyone knew what Google was talking about.
In response, TechCrunch reviewed Forbes' site and found one page that featured a laundry list of SEO keywords and descriptions. One example: "Create a website -- SquareSpace is the easiest way to create a website," which had the first three words hyperlinked to SquareSpace. Forbes removed the links in question.
What's ironic here is that four years earlier, Forbes published "Google Purges the Payola," which reported that the websites of the Washington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, and Forbes had all been docked page rank. The reason? "The popular sites whose page rank dropped likely all sold links to earn extra revenue."
In essence, Forbes seems to have been punished for the same infraction multiple times. Perhaps history does repeat itself.
What can we learn from these case studies? Google will never actually be able to root out paid links, although content has become increasingly more important from an SEO perspective, Danny Sullivan, a search industry expert and blogger for Search Engine Land told Forbes. The sheer scale will prevent Google from filtering all paid links from search engine results, he said.
We've seen several instances where marketing companies have committed major violations, proof that keeping tabs on a digital campaign is extremely important. After all, it's your brand that's ultimately affected if a marketing agency or publisher steers you in the wrong direction. So be mindful of their actions and communicate with them often.
Seeking High Return on Investment
Brands want to place high in search results but must heed the rules that govern SEO behavior.
— Dan Cypra is an Internet gambling industry expert and writes for several of the leading poker news sites on the Web.