On Saturday, the world of Search Engine Optimization was dragged out from beneath its often ignored rock and placed squarely in front of millions of people in the already infamous Dirty Little Secrets of Search New York Times article. The article outlined the aggressive black hat style of link building that J.C. Penney utilized to push it to the top of Google for hundreds of different phrases, from “skinny jeans” to “Samsonite carry on luggage.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the search world, what J.C. Penney did is so outrageously obvious (see screenshots of their inbound links below), it is akin to them walking up to Matt Cutts (head of Google’s spam fighting team), kicking him square in the junk and expecting him to congratulate them.
Now, before getting into the details, it’s important to take a step back and draw the distinction between legitimate link building practices and, well, what J.C. Penney did.
1. Link building is not inherently black hat.
Link building techniques that are fine with Google can range from completely legitimate–such as making just a super website so that people hurl links at you–to slightly gray hat, such as tapping into blogging networks or press release syndication. The point is that any link building strategy needs to be diversified. This way, any algorithm changes on Google’s end won’t completely wipe out rankings.
2. White hat link building techniques take time
It’s difficult to say exactly what type of link building J.C. Penney was doing, but it was probably automated text buying. This type of link building is obviously incredibly powerful, but it sends a giant red flag to Google. Bottom line: don’t think you can outsmart Google by buying truckloads of links!
3. If you’re creating original content on websites, you’re more white hat than not
Google can’t fully combat link building–it’s the backbone of their algorithm. What they can do though is penalize link builders who add nothing to the internet landscape. If original, relevant content is being created, whether it’s for link building or not, it’s good for the internet.
JCPenney.com’s Horribly Unnatural Inbound Link Graph
An inbound link graph looking like this doesn’t take a whole lot of logic to figure out something fishy is going on. In October/November 2009 did a whole bunch of people suddenly get together and think, “Gee whiz! What a great website JCPenney.com is! I should shower them with inbound links with highly targeted anchor text.” No. No they did not.
The Bottom Line
Keep an eye on your rankings over the next few weeks to see if Google is retooling their algorithm to proactively combat link building. Currently it takes anywhere from 6-9 months for new inbound links to pass their full value onto the receiving website, but I expect this timeline to get even longer.