You may have seen JCPenney’s name in recent news, and not because of their selection of comforters or array of women’s shoes. But if you haven’t, they’ve recently been… shall we say… smacked down by Google for gaming the system and gaining an artificially high rank in search results for a plethora of generic and highly competitive keywords. If you did any online shopping during this past holiday season, you might have noticed the JCPenney website pop up in top spots for things like “black dresses” and “living room furniture”.
Well, even if you didn’t notice, the New York Times did, and one intrepid investigator not only delved into the perplexing phenomena but subsequently reported it to Google who responded with, “Wow” and “That’s unacceptable” and “We’re totally on it” (to paraphrase). Next thing anyone knows, the JCPenney website is nowhere to be found in any search result, for pretty much any search term.
So? Why does this matter even a little to you and your small business, except for the fact that Google has freed up a spot that maybe your site could occupy any day now? The answer has nothing to do with JCPenney and everything to do with you and your SEO campaign. Here are five important lessons about SEO that every business should learn.
SEO Is Hard
A big company has a lot more weight – and by weight I mean money – to throw behind its SEO efforts. That makes buying up ad space and, in JCPenney’s case, paying for links (however spammy or against Google’s Webmaster policies the practice may be) a whole lot easier. It was those thousands of links pasted onto thousands of irrelevant sites that boosted the retailer’s “popularity” and hence relevance as determined by Google’s algorithm. And why do you think someone resorted to buying up thousands of spammy links? Because SEO is hard. Because getting to the top of search results for “cocktail dresses” is many a retailer’s dream and there are only ten spots on that first page of results.
Your site may be optimized and you may be doing everything right, but that doesn’t guarantee your website will show up where you want it to be. Especially in a competitive industry, for competitive keywords, it can take a long and varied effort to get your site in front of your audience. Lots of small business owners pay to have their sites optimized, then sit back and wonder why they’re not showing up at the top of Google. Why? Because, say it with me… SEO is hard.
SEO is part art, part science and a lot of patience and perseverance. Many businesses throw a few dollars a month at the problem, and get increasingly frustrated as the days pass and their websites still aren’t showing up at the top of search results. That’s when some businesses start to get desperate and resort to potentially harmful practices to get the traffic they need. Buying links starts to seem like a good idea. After all, how many sites can Google really monitor to be sure they’re following its guidelines? Which leads to the next lesson, which is that…
“Black Hat” SEO Works
It’s like watching a Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins instead of getting thrown off a cliff to be dashed on the rocks below. Companies that try to cheat the system should be penalized and companies that follow the rules should show up at the top of every Google search with a big gold star next to them. Unfortunately, it’s obvious that Black Hat SEO works, not only from the fact that a link-buying scheme got at least one retailer to the top of results for the duration of the 2010 holiday season, but also in the fact that you can see irrelevant spammy search results for yourself. Chances are you’ve been annoyed at least once in your own experience by poor results and wondered where the good sites went and why yours isn’t at the top where it belongs.
So yes, the system can be beaten and Google is not God. Bad results slip through and bad practices win. If you’ve got the money and can find someone willing to take the risk, you may be able to beat the rules, too. But that leads to the next lesson…
Black Hat SEO Backfires
Ok, not 100% of the time. And not always quickly. Algorithms aren’t perfect. There are billions of sites out there (haven’t you heard, the internet is “full”? Google THAT one!) so even if you did cheat and get into a top spot the un-Google way, are you really willing to risk having your site dropped like a boulder to the bottom of the ranking list when Google catches up with you? Try a search for “cocktail dresses” today and you won’t find JCPenney in the top ten pages, let alone the top ten results. All I know is I wouldn’t want to be the consultant at the other end of an SEO campaign that lost my client its search exposure.
When black hat backfires it backfires big, as in Google will “remedy” the situation and probably not let you play in their sandbox for a very long time to come. So before you get frustrated enough with your SEO efforts to buy even one questionable link or try some other random questionable strategy, remember this lesson, then remember lesson #1, then quickly learn this next one.
Don’t Put All Your Marketing Eggs In One Basket
If you’re relying on a position in Google to drive traffic and sales, you’re doing it wrong. It would be great to win the search battle but it’s not the only game in town especially when you consider recent trends, like the one where Facebook has outstripped Google for the title of most visited site. If your audience is on Facebook, go there! Stop whining over a lost number one spot and start infiltrating the wall feeds of those millions of potential customers. Get on Twitter and start looking for customers there. Put together an email campaign. Buy an ad. Send out a promotion. SEO is one drop in a huge marketing bucket. It’s important, but not all-important. So make sure you have a diversified, robust marketing campaign and you won’t lose so much sleep about where your site is or isn’t in search results.
And yes, a company with a lot of money can beat you to the top of search results even if their practices are totally aboveboard, because the fact is that money buys the time of professionals. And with a dedicated team of professionals whose very existence depends on getting your site to the top of search engines, you’ve got a better shot at it than someone who only has enough in the budget to add a title tag or two.
So while you’re being smart and promoting your site everywhichway you can and taking advantage of the myriad opportunities available, take some time to memorize this one last lesson. It’ll serve you well not only in SEO but whenever you put your business in the hands of a professional.
Know What Your Consultant Is Doing
Did JCPenney execs and marketers know that they were buying links? Did they know the practice went against Google’s policy? They stated that they weren’t aware of it, and as far as I’m concerned, that was mistake #1. Always know what your SEO consultant is doing. Sure, you’re busy, you can’t know what everyone is doing at all times. That’s why you hire consultants and professionals in the first place. But you should darn well know what they are doing in the name of your business. After all, it ultimately affects your business. Your business. Not the SEO’s. Not Google’s. For the most part, not even customers, who are more than capable of filtering out junk and getting to what they’re looking for in search results.
So if you value your credibility, you should know what’s being done to promote your business. You wouldn’t hire a salesperson to go out and sell your products with free reign to say or do anything in the name of the sale any more than you should hire an SEO professional that just sort of takes your money and goes away as long as your site floats to the top. Too many businesses hire “professionals” and pay recurring fees for some nebulous SEO work that nobody can quite explain. That could be a waste of money. Or it could be a complete disaster. A reputable search marketer will be as aboveboard with you as they are with their practices.
So be smart, and learn from someone else’s mistake. And remember the final bonus lesson in all of this: there are no SEO miracles. Just good marketing, good products, and good customer service.
Have you ever found yourself frustrated by search marketing or the inability of a hired professional to make the process clear?