The phrase ‘black hat SEO’ probably conjures up images of shady,
fly-by-night operators doing anything they can to game Google. It
probably doesn’t conjure up images of large, established companies and
respected retailers.

But common wisdom about black hat SEO isn’t necessarily accurate. Case
in point: J.C. Penney, a major retailer that has been in business for
more than 100 years, was just busted for what appears to be a paid
link scheme concocted by a third party SEO vendor.

The scheme became public in one of the most visible ways possible: a New York Times story. The consequences were felt quickly: a reportedly harsh penalty issued by Google. While it’s unclear how long the penalty will last (J.C Penney says it’s seeking to have the bad links removed and will certainly submit a reconsideration request to Google), it’s pretty clear that the retailer didn’t receive any preferential treatment from Google simply because it’s a well-known brand.

In J.C. Penney’s story, there’s a really important lesson for everyone: when it comes to something as important as SEO, “outsource it and forget about it” is not an option. SEO is simply far too important to treat as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind undertaking.

While it’s easy to wonder how Google missed J.C. Penney’s paid backlinks (and continues to miss the paid links of other online retailers), the bigger question is how J.C. Penney apparently missed them too.

Assuming that the company was truly unaware of its vendor’s alleged scheme, one can only conclude that J.C. Penney wasn’t paying attention to what its vendor was up to. Had it been monitoring its search traffic, rankings and backlinks, it almost certainly would have noticed that something was amiss. After all, it was apparently ranking higher for some names of companies whose products it sells than those companies themselves!

Given the scope of the apparent scheme, J.C. Penney should pin the blame for its black eye primarily on itself. But J.C. Penney is hardly the only company that this could happen to. A lot of businesses, from mom-and-pop operations to multinational corporations, rely on outside vendors to manage the bulk of their SEO. And for good reason: most of these businesses aren’t search engine marketing experts, and even if they have internal resources with knowledge or expertise, it’s fairly uncommon to encounter a company with its own internal army of SEOs. Outsourcing to some extent is still by and large the rule.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — provided the risks of outsourcing are mitigated. Simple things, such as requiring vendors to formally document and report what they’re doing, can go a long way. A “trust but verify” approach goes even further, ensuring that what a vendor tells you it’s doing is really what it is doing.

Simply put, there’s absolutely no reason why SEO vendors should be allowed to operate in an opaque or completely autonomous manner. No techniques, strategies or ‘tricks‘ should be considered too ‘secret‘ for a vendor to share with clients.

Of course, what this means is that companies will, at the very least, need marketing employees who know a decent amount about SEO to be playing an active role in their SEO efforts, from the selection of third party vendors to the management of the relationship.

In the case of J.C. Penney, free and low-cost tools like Open Site Explorer, which the New York Times used to uncover the paid links pointing to jcpenney.com, could have been used to perform audits which would have probably revealed early on that something was amiss.

At the end of the day, J.C. Penney’s SEO blow-up serves as a reminder that there’s no such thing as cruise control when it comes to marketing a business. That is especially true when it comes to SEO, where a third party vendor looking for a shortcut can cause a bloody mess.

Photo credit: Hitchster via Flickr.