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Search Notes: Paid links don't pay off

J.C. Penney gets the pointy end of search results; slight shifts in search market share; build your own blacklist

Americans conducted 18.2 billions searches in December 210. We use search to research products, get advice about our health, find local businesses, and track down government resources. Search is a ubiquitous part of our lives, technology, and our business strategies.

With that in mind, I’ll be offering up a weekly roundup of what’s happening in the world of search. I’ll primarily focus on unpaid (organic) search, not advertising — both what’s happening with the search engines and with searcher behavior.

That said, here’s what recently caught my eye in the search space.

J.C. Penney and Forbes run afoul of Google’s guidelines

The core focus of Google’s search team is to provide the most relevant and useful results possible to searchers. This effort is complex and includes all kinds of things, such as working to store a comprehensive index of the web, understanding searcher intent from just a few words in a query, and using a variety of signals to figure out what pages web users like the most.

One such value signal has historically been the linking structure of the web. A page that a lot of sites link to might be a pretty useful page. Understandably, links in ads are excluded from this value signal.

Google has published guidelines (as has Bing) that basically say that if sites try to manipulate the signals that Google uses in ranking sites, Google might remove those sites from their index or reduce their rankings.

Some of these tactics are obvious. We’ve all come across web spam — pages with no value at all — and it makes sense that search engines would remove these pages entirely. But then there are sites that are legitimate businesses and do have value. Google takes action when they find these sites are trying to manipulate the algorithms in order to preserve the integrity of the search results.

The New York Times published a story last weekend that outlined how JCPenney.com seemed to suspiciously rank number one in Google for every possible query. On closer investigation, it was found that the site had a lot of external links that had been brokered through a paid link network. These weren’t advertising links. They were links intended to artificially increase PageRank (Google’s calculation of value from the web’s linking structure).

JC Penney search result
Screenshot of the JCPenney’s organic search results.

Google took action and JCPenney.com plummeted in the search rankings. J.C. Penney promptly fired their search engine optimization agency. In a piece on Search Engine Land, I detailed what happened, and how to avoid a similar fate.

Just as that was cooling down, Forbes outed itself for being on the other side of a link scheme. Forbes.com was selling links for PageRank (rather than advertising) at least as far back as 2007. Google took action; Forbes fixed the situation. But then last week, someone from Forbes posted in the Google webmaster discussion forum that they’d received a notification from Google (Google sometimes sends these notifications to verified owners in webmaster tools) about “artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate PageRank.” He posted because he was stumped as to what those links might be. TechCrunch soon pointed them out and Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, posted in the forum that the links identified in the TechCrunch article did indeed violate Google’s guidelines as they apparently were links coming from a paid link network (different than the one used to buy links to JCPenney.com, but a similar idea). Cutts said:

If I could recommend a single post that discusses our policies against buying/selling links that pass PageRank, I would recommend [this]. That post discusses why we think paid links that pass PageRank are a bad idea and gives a timeline with pointers to posts that we’ve done in the past about this topic.

Cutts recommended that Forbes remove those paid links and then file a reconsideration request with Google.

Forbes then posted a statement on their own site that “there was a period of time in the past when Forbes did sell links through a partner. This is no longer the case, and we began removing those links late last year.” They noted that some links still exist on the site, and that was an oversight.

The lesson? If you operate a business online and rely on search traffic as a primary acquisition method, make sure you have a good handle on everything that goes into operating a business online, including the guidelines published by the major search engines. If you hire an agency to help with this, make sure that agency is one that follows the guidelines. And be patient. Success from unpaid search may take longer when you don’t use tricks to manipulate the search algorithms. The upside is that the search traffic you acquire won’t be at risk of drying up at any moment.

Bing gains slight market share, redesign its toolbar

According to comScore, Bing went from 12% to 13.1% search market share in January (and Google dropped from 66.6% to 65.5%). All Bing-powered searches (including Yahoo), are at 24.4% share and Google-powered searches are at 69.4%. This is good news for Microsoft, who has been investing substantial resources in search.

Bing toolbar
Screenshot of the Bing toolbar

Bing also launched a new version of its toolbar that features dropdown elements that make it more like a portal than a toolbar. You can keep up with your stocks, get weather information, play games, and see Facebook activity right from the toolbar.

Bing’s reasons for investing in such a fancy toolbar are likely two-fold. If you use the toolbar a lot, you’re likely to search directly from it, and that means you’re not using Google to search. And as became clear if you watched the Colbert Report a couple of weeks ago, search engines use toolbar data to gain insight on how people search. One data point Bing uses is clickstream information, includingwhat searchers click on when using Google. The more clickstream data Bing has, the more informed their search results can be.

Chrome’s personal blocklist lets you block sites from Google search results

The community at Hacker News has been asking for a way to block sites from appearing in search results, and Google has delivered. Matt Cutts posted there that the feature was a direct result of a request from Hacker News. Just install the Chrome extension, click “block URL” under any search result, and you’ll never see that page again.

Google adds more social signals to search results

If you specify your social networks in your Google profile, your search results will now show when those you’re connected to have shared that content. For instance, pages that those you follow on Twitter have shared in tweets may get a rankings boost in your search results. This makes your search results not only more social, but also more personalized. It’s yet another way that we all see different results.

Here’s some more coverage on Google’s inclusion of social signals:

Upload your own data to Google Public Data Explorer

Google’s Public Data Explorer lets you access, analyze, and visualize large data sets. Now you can upload data sets of your own for sharing and visualization. Google is also looking for partnerships with “official providers” of public data for the directory. Anyone who is working with large datasets should check this out, as Google has made it easy to work with and it provides some great visualizations.

Got news?

News tips are always welcome, so please send them along.

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  • http://outstandingwriting.com/ Ajeet

    I think that the J C Penney example, however heartening that they got caught, is only the tip of the iceberg. Google is fighting a losing battle against increasingly powerful SEO.

  • Cynic

    Lots of people get away with it for years. If they do get caught they suffer a temporary set back which costs them little compared to the revenue from selling links. They remove the links, and get their ranking back.

    If they have multiple sites only one site suffers a set-back. A blip in revenues.

    For example Investopedia, which I think Forbes owns, has had paid links on every page, and has had paid links for years. It never affected their ranking.

  • http://www.ppiclaimsuk.co.uk Tracey Bullman

    We held the no1 spot for keyword ‘ppi claims’ in the UK for 18months up until a recent Google algorithm change. We have a fantastic SEO team with years of experience and who would never buy or exchange links. We’ve noticed competitors with 26,000 backlinks compared to our 1200, who have not been able to outrank us. Just goes to show that fewer natural links provide better value than a large number of paid links

  • http://www.holidaycottagebreconbeacons.com Mike Parker

    Ranking on the first page of Google, without decent content on your website, is morally wrong . Unfortunately the ranking algorithm seems to rely heavily on backlinks and there are many cheats out there who will do whatever it takes to get that number one spot.

  • Scott Walker

    SEO companies, e-commerce websites, and others will continue to pay for link building until Google changes their algorithm. Link building produces huge results that companies cannot ignore. Natural links definitely work better than paid links, as Tracey pointed out, but paid links still contribute significantly to SEO results. Slapping large companies on the wrist, like JC Penney, is a poor substitute for fixing the overall issue. I am sure Google has tried to address this problem, but cannot currently differentiate between paid and unpaid links. Until this innovation occurs, this problem will continue.

  • David Vincent

    @ Mike Parker: comments like that are exremely immature and ignorant… there really is no need. There is a lot more to building a website than just making it look pretty. Keyword research, onpage and offpage optimisation, conversion testing, internal and external link building etc are all important factors. Furthermore, link building and SEO is not an exact science, a formula that works well for one campaign may fail miserably when applied to another. Its true that google ranking is important and there are people out there that try their utmost to manipulate the rankings to get the ahead… just as they do in any other competitive market

  • http://www.blogcatalog.com/blogs/seop-inc-blogger.html SEOP Inc.

    It’s been like that ever since. But there are still lots of people who buy and sell links to improve their rankings. Search engines should do their best to penalize these websites.

  • http://www.jahnke-schneider.de Der Kieler

    Thanx a lot for this nice article …!