Why JC Penney Got Burned Buying Links

The SEO (search engine optimization) community has been abuzz this week over an article entitled “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” that appeared in the New York Times about how J.C. Penney had been found to be purchasing links to their website for competitive search terms. J.C. Penney hired a search marketing firm that ran a link building campaign for them targeting keyword phrases such as “little black dress.” The large number of paid links to J.C. Penney’s website pages gave them artificial importance in the eyes of search engine spiders. They were at the top of the organic (non-paid) search results for many popular retail-related keyword phrases all through the crucial holiday shopping season.

The ethics of buying links

J.C. Penney also spends a huge amount of money on paid search results. Did this help improve their organic results? It’s hard to tell. The way I see it, buying links is a widespread practice and J.C. Penney’s main problem was that they were caught doing it. But it shouldn’t be this way. Buying links isn’t ethical and promotes the growth of  lousy sites that are nothing but unrelated links or possibly normal sites with links that don’t seem to belong and make you doubt the credibility of the site.

Google is clear on what they think about paid links. Here’s what they have to say: “[Some] webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.” And they mean it – the NY Times article outlines the impact of Google’s wrath against unethical SEO.

Link building is the most painful part of search engine optimization. The best way to build links is to provide great content that people will link to spontaneously. This can be a very slow process and some sites lend themselves better to this than others. However, we improve link building by making sure that your site is widely published in directories, some free and a few paid. We can also use other honest ways to build links, like requesting them from reputable sites or leaving links in blog comments. We also try to offer valuable content online in the form of press releases or articles for others to use with relevant links back to your site. Link building is an ongoing process that takes work and doesn’t usually offer instant results, but the way we do it lets us sleep at night.

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