In the Sunday edition of the New York Times’ business section this week was an investigatory piece on JCPenney’s SEO campaign by David Segal. The article, entitled “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search,” inquires into JCPenney’s success in organic search, and specifically scrutinizes their corrupt linking practices. What’s fascinating about the article, however, isn’t so much its account of another Black Hat SEO stint, but rather its presence in the NYTimes’ Sunday edition. It would seem through this article, and recent others, that the jargon and characters we understand as specific to online marketing have suddenly become mainstream.
A few months back, JCPenney’s site was scoring inexplicably well on Google’s organic search results. For several competitive broad keyword phrases, e.g. dresses, area rugs, bedding, JCPenney was beating everyone, ranking in the top position for every term. What the article uncovers is that JCPenney’s organic campaign is built on a landscape of 2,015 links to unrelated websites. Terms like “evening dresses,” “casual dresses,” and “cocktail dresses” are linked to online gambling, banking and, most comically, U.S. clergymen sites.
Of course any tenured search marketer knows these ‘black hat’ practices are generally frowned upon. Google warns against link schemes and is notorious for penalizing marketers who implement them. And it’s surprising that a linking scheme of this scale went unnoticed or at least un-reacted upon by Google for so long.
Google sent none other than the legendary Matt Cutts, who runs Google’s Webspam team, to address the JCPenney situation with the NYTimes. Cutts, who Segal portrays as a search marketing celebrity, “a man whose every speech, blog post and Twitter update is parsed like papal encyclicals by players in the search engine world,” stated that JCPenney’s practices “violate our guidelines.” He continues on to state that Google will and has taken action against JCPenney and has penalized their actions by demoting their organic listings.
While Segal’s article is a fun read for anyone working in the online marketing industry, it seems a bit insipid for the average Sunday NYTimes’ reader. What’s more, it comes on the heels of a set of recent articles that dive deep into the intricacies of search marketing, its vernacular and personalities.
Take for example the article Claire Cain Miller wrote last week in the technology section of the New York Times, which probes at AOL’s recent acquisition of the news site Huffington Post, asking if it isn’t a ploy to drive traffic with low quality journalism. Miller argues that HuffPo leverages SEO tactics to boost its worth to increase readership and display ad revenue. Or what about the “Google: Bing is copying our results” scandal at the beginning of the month? Who outside of search marketers had ever heard of Danny Sullivan before his scandalous article blew up across the blogosphere and even made it into The Colbert Report?
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that several, popular articles related to search marketing have popped up over the last month. I wonder, however, if it’s not indicative of a larger trend. When I first started working in search marketing a year and half ago none of my friends knew much about SEO or SEM, didn’t know about the role of linking in organic rankings, and had certainly never heard of Matt Cutts or Danny Sullivan. Yet, since the article was published on Sunday, I have had several friends forward me the article with comments of genuine interest, outrage and confusion.
It’s made me wonder, why? In part, it’s thanks to the on-going conversation about Internet privacy, which has brought Google, Facebook and others into a political conversation. But it also seems to be that the more everyone learns about Facebook and Google, through NYTimes articles or pop culture (The Social Network), the more they ask questions about how these systems work, how these companies make money, and how they factor into that process.