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February 19, 2011

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Black Hat SEO, J.C. Penney, and the New York Times

This Article Was Written By Christian Exoo

Scoroncocolo, Scoroncocolo Tech Pages, black hat seoLink-buying is a Black Hat, i.e. unethical, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy becoming increasingly popular with big businesses.


Christian Is An SEO Expert In The Gaming Industry

On Saturday, February 12, 2011, the New York Times published an article detailing the recent exposure of J.C. Penney's foray into the “sprawling, subterranean world of 'black hat' optimization, the dark art of raising the profile of a Web site with methods Google considers tantamount to cheating.”

To be fair (and rather more quotidian), this is what actually happened-- a big part of Google's organic search ranking algorithm is links from other sites. Generally, the more links a site has, the higher it will rank. Of course, the quality of the specific link also factors heavily and is determined by a number of factors-- the site on which the link is placed (non-commercial sites are favored more heavily, .GOVs and .EDUs more so than .COMs and .ORGs), relevancy of link (does the anchor text match the general word frequency of the page-- a link to a porn site would be considered beyond the tenor of a typical mom blog), age of link (when was the link first put up-- older links are generally more trusted than newer ones), placement of link on page (links within text are typically more trusted than sidebar or footer links, which are known to be mostly ads-- and if the site is running frames and the link is isolated into a particular frame, then just forget about it), number of outgoing links on the page (fewer outgoing links means more trust placed in the links that are there-- if the number of links on a page exceeds 100 or so, then there isn't really any trust placed in any of them), et al ad insania. And even within these general guidelines, there are specific exceptions.

However, it is very difficult for companies to control their link profile-- who links to them and with what anchor text. Especially in the case of specific, “long-tail” phrases (specific phrases that involve a number of a qualifiers, e.g. “charcoal tweed Samsonite luggage,” etc., which are becoming more and more frequent in search queries), the odds are almost astronomically inclined against appearing organically. So J.C. Penney chose to buy links.

This may seem more like product placement or a paid endorsement-- paying a blogger to link to the company's homepage or (more likely) a specific subpage with a specific phrase. Indeed, many bloggers who engage in this activity simply believe that their readers will click the link and that traffic will justify their fee. But “click-thru rates” are almost non-existent (for many reasons the online advertising industry is still trying to explain, other than that advertising just doesn't really work on the comically superliminal plane of being shown a product and immediately buying it). And if companies really wanted to work that way, Google has helpfully provided a “No Follow” HTML tag, which exempts the link from organic search ranking data. The real reason companies buy links is to influence organic search engine result placements, called SERPs in the SEO industry.

Black Hat SEO - Link Buying

black hat seo link buying

Black Hat SEO - Link Buying

So why does this matter? Succinctly, in the election of search engine placements, each link is a vote (though one that may have greater or lesser weight). To exploit the general democracy of ranking algorithms by buying links is akin to digital election fraud. As such, each paid link impacts the integrity of the SERPs and as one might imagine, is strongly discouraged by Google in its Webmaster Guidelines, a kind of Kosher law for webmasters and their SEOs. In 2006, BMW was caught not buying links, but presenting different content to Google's spiders than to users via a JavaScript redirect. BMW was “spiked,” in this case, removed from the search results altogether, and forced to submit a formal reinclusion request before it would reappear in search results. In this case, J.C. penney has denied all knowledge of link buying and fired its SEO firm, SearchDex, stating that it is actively working to remove all such bought links.

So why would multi-national companies with such a huge profile violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines, knowing that the consequences are so dire and publicly embarrassing? Simply put, they can't afford not to. The New York Times links to a Chitika Insights study showing that the number one search result garners 34.35% of all the traffic in the sample, almost as much ranks two through five, the four competitors directly beneath it.

Link buying is endemic within the SEO industry, obviously, because it is enormously profitable. Interestingly, a Google search for “link buying” features Google Ads blatantly offering links for sale, showing that not even Google itself is immune to profiting from gaming its own organic search algorithm. However, link buying itself is more “Gray Hat” than “Black Hat,” no matter what the New York Times claims. An example of a Gray Hat act would be buying links, which violates Google's Webmaster Guidelines, as it is by definition, an example of a “link scheme,” but is by no means illegal. An actual Black Hat act would be to buy enough links to cause a spike in expected link generation (ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand depending on the industry) on clearly spammy sites (footer links on pages that have 100+ links, no content relevancy and are probably barely written in english, etc.), point them to a competitor's site and then watch as Google notices the outlier in that site's link profile and proceeds to spike them for buying links, thus moving up the Black Hat client's site automatically. Another Black Hat trick would be to examine a competitor's link profile, to determine which links are paid links (they probably contain long-tail phrases or are specifically placed on high-ranking subpages), then determine which SEO firm handles those particular links. This is fairly easy-- SEOs are typically confident and natural braggarts. Some even list which companies hire them on their Facebook or LinkedIn pages. The Black Hat would then contact the site owner of a strong link, using a fake email address and pretending to be from that SEO firm, to let them know that there's been an error and the link should be changed immediately. The competitor has lost a link while the Black Hat's client has gained a link, which could cost hundreds of dollars, for free. While this is technically theft, to report it would be to admit to link buying, thus ruining an SEO firm's reputation, which would be worth more than any particular link. But enough (extremely!) hypothetical and salacious stories for now.

Black Hat SEO - Link Buying

black hat seo link buying

Black Hat SEO Is Not Funny - It's Unethical

The main question remains-- if everybody does it, how did J.C. penney get caught? We can only infer based on the evidence provided. At the request of the New York Times, search expert Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain found 2015 pages linking to J.C. penney with some approximation of “dress” (“black dresses,” “evening dresses,” “cocktail dresses,” etc.) as the anchor text. Matt Cutts, head of Google's impressive Webspam team, which monitors search results and tracks any efforts to game Google's algorithm, confirmed to the Times that J.C. Penney's campaign had been in effect for three to four months. Examine the following chart, which I created with Google Insights to track searches for “dresses” over the last 12 months:

What is evident is that user searches for “dresses” drops in August, at the end of Summer. It is logical to assume, therefore, that links using the anchor text “dresses” will be created in proportion to the general interest in them. However, SearchDex's mistake was to build links for “dresses” (2015, to be exact), in the Winter months, when fewer people are searching for them. They flagrantly violated the established and expected pattern of organic links (more in the Summer, fewer in the Winter), which created an anomaly in the data. When data deviates from established, expected patterns, there can only be one conclusion-- that outside forces are working on it, namely, link buying. There is perhaps no evidence more obvious in statistical data than the anomaly. And it will get caught every time. If they had, instead, conducted their link buying campaign for “dresses” during the Spring and Summer months (and in a less ridiculous manner), the sudden spike in links may have gone unnoticed in the general static of the Web and they could have continued buying links, just like everybody else.

Scoroncocolo would like thank Christian Exoo for allowing us to publish an exclusive edition of his work. You may contact Christian and/or comment on this article by email at

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