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.