Senator Jay Rockefeller IV (D-WV), grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, is currently conducting an investigation of companies that misrepresent their products and services. As part of the investigative efforts, the committee notified Google’s Matt Cutts, Shashi Seth of Yahoo and others about, “[A] number of troubling practices that certain companies use to confuse and mislead consumers” on the web. The letter goes on to discuss to how several moving brokers employ spam link campaigns to outrank legitimate moving companies and misrepresent their actual service offerings:

Based on evidence obtained through the investigation, it appears that some of these companies may be “gaming the system” in order to boost their search rankings. These companies appear to be using paid links to inflate their popularity. For example, one company had tens of thousands of external links to its website and, upon closer review, these links proved to be largely irrelevant. They included abandoned blogs, link directories for unrelated topics, and college student groups and organizations, such as the Cornell Gymnastics Club.

The letter from Senator Rockefeller to Cutts has been published in its entirety by the website Tech Crunch.

If it Smells Like Link Spam

If all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it looks, sounds, and smells just like the infamous J.C. Penney link spam scam of 2011, which allowed jcpenney.com to enjoy top rankings for everything from skinny jeans to area rugs for several months. The NY Times uncovered the scam and notified Google, and Matt Cutts and crew reacted swiftly, de-ranking the site for almost three months while the retailer worked to have the spammy links removed from questionable sites all over the world.

 

The part that SHOULD be scary to all of us: the companies referenced by Senator Rockefeller have engaged in practices that were widely considered smart (if not commonplace) in the SEO industry just a few years ago. Prior to Google’s Panda (2011) and Penguin (2012) search algorithm adjustments, SEO strategies grounded in aggressive inbound linking practices (like those discussed above) almost always netted positive results, as Google and the other search engines readily honored most if not all links from directories, blogs, forums, and article indexes, giving them fair amounts of weight in the page rank equation. And as for links from college student group sites? I’ve been attending SES NYC every other year since 2008, and there are always a handful of track speakers who endorse getting links from .edu sites because they are considered authoritative by the search engines. Indeed, the Senator from West Virginia has it right: companies, even the unsophisticated ones, have figured out how to game the search engines.

Updated Search Engine Market Share – Oct. 2012

Why Quality Content Matters

Unfortunately (or maybe it’s a good thing) for companies who engage and specialize in these practices, Google (which continues to enjoy the vast majority of search traffic world wide) is changing the game with regard to how websites rank highly. Slim to gone are the opportunities black and grey hat SEOs once leveraged to “get your site to page one,” and website decision-makers should be extremely skeptical of agencies that are still selling a “secret sauce.”

These days Google is increasingly more focused on and efficient at delivering website content that is intended to help answer a question, solve a problem or provide useful information. In fact, as Matt Cutts and others frequently assert, page content should be “made for users, not search engines.”

The message is clear: shortcuts aren’t the way to the top, but balanced, high-quality user-focused content is.

Joey Hall – VP Content Marketing

 

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