The New York Times exposed the dirty side of search engine optimization this morning with a long article about how JC Penney spammed Google so it would appear at the top of search results.Somebody created thousands of fake pages with the keywords that Penney wanted to game, like “black dresses,” and a direct link to Penney’s site. This messes with Google’s PageRank algorithm, which assumes that a site is useful if it’s popular. (A Penney spokesperson denied that the company knew what was going on — it was probably a guerrilla SEO team or agency working on Penney’s behalf.)
The amazing part of the story isn’t how Penney tricked Google — this kind of “black hat” SEO has been around almost since Google began.
The amazing part is that Google let Penney get away with it for MONTHS, and did nothing to stop it until the Times presented its findings to Google.
Matt Cutts, Google’s anti-spam head, told the Times that Google had caught wind of several previous efforts by Penney, most recently in November. But Google apparently didn’t “circle back” to see if Penney was still breaking the rules.
Finally last week, Google manually demoted the gamed results.
Here’s the thing: if Google was unaware of a huge high-profile site like Penney doing this, can it possibly be aware of the tens of thousands of smaller sites that might be doing the same thing?
Google has been on the defensive about search spam since early this year, when articles began appearing in TechCrunch and other publications questioning whether Google was still useful. Google tried to change the subject to how Bing was cribbing from Google search results, but the search spam problem simply isn’t going away — a recent study by Experian Hitwise showed that 35% of Google searches offer results that are so bad that users don’t click a single one of them.
In a fitting bit of irony noted by search expert Danny Sullivan, the New York Times article actually used an SEO tactic itself. The headline of the article is “The Dirty Little Secrets Of Search.” But title of the Web page is “Search Optimization and Its Discontents.” Those two words — “search optimization” — are among the most searched-upon keywords in Google.
Let the games continue!
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