If you ever lamented the fact that Google never seemed to penalize big brands for their shady SEO practices, 2011 has been an interesting year.

Faced with increasing criticism over the quality of its search results, Google has started cracking down on some big names. Last week, for instance, it took action against J.C. Penney for what appeared to be a paid linking scheme carried out by a third party vendor.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google's crackdown ensnared another major retailer: Overstock.com. According to the Wall Street Journal, Overstock.com says that it was penalized by Google for links it had encouraged on university websites:

The incident, according to Overstock, stemmed in part from its practice of encouraging websites of colleges and universities to post links to Overstock pages so that students and faculty could receive discounts on the shopping site. Overstock said it discontinued the program on Feb. 10, before hearing from Google, but said some university webmasters have been slow to remove the links.

Such links, of course, could reasonably be considered 'paid links' given that they were created in exchange for discounts, but that said, it's interesting that Google chose to punish Overstock.com over these sorts of links. After all, they're not your typical paid links in that compensation wasn't in cash. By this sort of standard, Google could penalize sites for quite a few links. As I previously noted, for instance, J.C. Penney's 'paid' links don't appear limited to the low-quality link farm variety.

Which raises the question: is Google's tougher stance against major retailers really going to be all that fruitful?

On one hand, it's somewhat comforting to see that Google is enforcing its guidelines against major players. If Google is going to have rules, everyone should have to play by them. In the eyes of some, Google has generally turned a blind eye to the bad behavior of major players.

On the other hand, while cracking down on major retailers allows Google to send a powerful message about the risk of paid linking, it's hard not to question whether Google is focusing on big fish instead of dangerous fish. Even if retailers like Overstock.com and J.C. Penney have been using black hat and gray hat techniques to juice their rankings in the SERPs, one could easily argue that these companies probably would (and should) rank highly given their positions in the market.

More concerning than a legitimate retailer looking to cheat are the fly-by-night operators and fraudsters who use some of the same techniques. These shady characters have the potential to cause real headaches for consumers who discover them through Google. From this perspective, one has to wonder if Google is focusing a little bit too much on making a statement, and too little on actually making a meaningful effort to remove from its SERPs results which are unlikely to be of any value to consumers.

Whatever the case, however, the message is clear: paid links and other link schemes carry risk, and no matter who you are and how big you are, Google is currently willing to issue a smackdown. For larger players, the risk of Google penalty may very well outweight any of the benefits from a little extra black hat juice.

Photo credit: DVIDSHUB via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 February, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (9)

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Conrad Morris

Conrad Morris, Director at Match Me Now Limited

I wonder if Google are taking a look at .edu links in general. There does seem to be quite a market in them on the likes of fiverr.

over 7 years ago



hmmm tough time for all big companies who do all these kinds of issue..... even for the SEO team as well who works for them.... have to be careful during the link exchange , advertising with in there sites or the other.....

over 7 years ago

Scott Hunt

Scott Hunt, eMarketing Executive at eSterling ltd

Ok, so my new SEO strategy should be to buy lots of links for my competitors rather than doing any link building for myself.. they will get into trouble and then my site will get the top spot? Great!
SEO just got easier?

over 7 years ago

Niranjan Sridharan

Niranjan Sridharan, Digital Auditor at ABC

@Clare.. Lol :)

over 7 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

I don't get this at all. Google could have targetted any number of other major retailers with links like JC Penney. Yet they've picked Overstock for a tactic that can quite easily be defended. So supporting education institutes with discounts gets you penalised, now does it?

So if my site offers a discount to students and the universities link to me to tell their visitors about this great deal, I'm "manipulating" Google's results, am I?

I was going to get my clients to donate 10% of their profits to a charity but now that looks risky if the grateful charity links back to them.

Something doesn't add up here.

over 7 years ago


Rob Simons

I'm wondering to what extend Google is actually capable of chasing after those fly-by-night operators and fraudsters. Could it be that big G is just flexing its muscles a bit to scare the SEOs that are leaning towards the black hat practices? Silencing potential critics in the process?

over 7 years ago


Dan Lawrence

Why, with all the enthusiastic link spammers out there, has Google penalised a company/web site who have created a back-link building programme delivering genuine value to the consumer ?

Is it because they cant identify them algorithmically nor justify allocation of resource to identify them manually on a day to day basis ?

Surely they should (to avoid the 'do no evil' maxim applying to them) be focusing on identifying & prejudicing against blatant paid link programmes (both the buyer & seller) first, long before prejudicing creatively commendable link strategies delivering value to both consumer & publisher.

over 7 years ago


Ryan Clark

A few of you guys are missing the point. They did it targeting a certain anchor to game it...that is the aspect where the big bad G has a problem.

almost 7 years ago



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almost 6 years ago

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