SEO Spam Penalty: It Could Happen to You

Last week’s outing by the New York Times of JC Penney’s “dirty little SEO secret” has certainly sparked a buzz. If you haven’t read the story, check it out here.

In JC Penney’s defense, there’s a good chance the retail giant was unaware of the tactics its SEO firm was using to achieve high rankings for a number of competitive terms like “skinny jeans” and “furniture” – namely using undisclosed paid links and link farms. Both are violations of Google’s anti-spam policy.

Could this happen to your online store?

Unfortunately, many other online retailers may be involved with firms that dabble in “black hat” activities – such as doorway pages, cloaking, keyword spamming, comment spamming, hidden text in all its forms, and even competitor sabotage known as “Google bowling” (buying spammy links for a competitor and then reporting them).

Because SEO firms are compensated for high rankings, often without disclosure of how results were achieved, there’s a big temptation for SEO firms to cheat a little – or a lot – as the “ends justify the means.”

How can you protect yourself?

1. Brush up on ethical SEO practices.

Knowing what constitutes web spam helps you spot it when it’s happening on your own site, and arms you with the right questions to ask your consultant. Google provides these resources in its Quality Guidelines and Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

2. Require vendor disclosure of tactics.

Your SEO vendor should be able to provide you with a breakdown of what activities were performed each invoice period. If your vendor is reluctant or unwilling to provide this information, that should be a red flag.

3. Know who is performing the work.

It’s not uncommon for SEO firms to outsource activities like link building to countries where labor is cheaper. Offshore SEO’s often promise X amount of links for $X, which may come from link farms or comment spam. Your SEO firm should be well informed about the techniques used by third party help, and should always be up front about which activities are sub-contracted.

4. Investigate yourself.

Spam can happen both on your site and off.

Take a look under the hood of your site and make sure no extra text that is not visible to customers is hiding in HTML. This includes light text on a light background (or dark on dark), or Javascript “noscript” tags, image “alt” attributes and Flash “div” tags that have been keyword stuffed.

Off-site, check which sites link to you, along with link anchor text and the presence of the nofollow tag on or Open Site Explorer. (Those flagged with “nofollow” means they are not counted by Google.)

Just because some questionable sites link to you, doesn’t mean your SEO team is responsible. But if the majority of your links do come from spammy looking sites (especially those with .info, .us or .org extensions, like this example linking to JC Penney and others from the sidebar, you might be at risk for Google to investigate, or for a competitor to report you. (Many black hatters will register or hack .org and .edu sites and turn them into spam pages because those domain extensions are believed to carry more link value).

It’s a good idea to ask your SEO provider for a report of all links acquired each month so you can do a personal audit.

5. Don’t fall for the old tricks.

How did you find your SEO firm? Did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you? If you were “spammed” with an unsolicited offer, there’s a good chance the firm has a culture of spam. Don’t be fooled by promises for links at $4 a piece, or guaranteed top rankings on Google.

6. Don’t put all your eggs in the SEO basket.

JC Penney claims that 7% of its traffic comes from organic search, with the bulk coming from partnerships with Yahoo and Time Warner, mobile applications and in-store kiosks. While I find that hard to believe, it brings up a good point that a business should not be dependent on any one channel to drive traffic. You have influence over, but not control of organic search results. One simple algorithm change could squash your top rankings, or an incident involving spam could get you de-indexed in a flash.

Affiliate programs, comparison shopping engines, paid search, word-of-mouth campaigns and loyalty/referral programs should all be considered as part of a holistic online marketing strategy.

JC Penney was extremely lucky it was not de-indexed by the Big G, but only suffered a dip in rankings for certain terms while the search giant investigates further. You may not be so lucky, so do your due diligence on your SEO program today!

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16 Responses to “SEO Spam Penalty: It Could Happen to You”

  1. I don’t know why everyone is writing about the JC Penny incident since this penalty is nothing new and it’s something Google’s spam team deals with every day.

    Anyway, I agree with everything you wrote. I’d just add that in case you notice that your competitors are building lots of spammy links towards your website, go to Google Webmaster Tools and report it to the Google. Explain you have nothing to do with these backlinks and that you believe someone is trying to intentionally hurt your rankings. In this case, Google will most likely simply ignore the pagerank and anchor text value these spammy backlinks send to your website and your organic search results should be preserved.

  2. pavlicko says:

    Great tips to follow if you’re a small to mid size site. The big sites have been doing shady things and getting away with it for quite some time now. Google may pop some of their content off the front page, but there’s no way they’ll de-index a huge retail site like JC Penney.

    Personally, I’m getting bored with NYT complaining about search engine results. First, they complain about the ‘scammy’ eyeglass site ranking, now they’re investigating backlinks for retail companies? Here’s an idea NYT: how about actually investigating the NEWS. Maybe if you did that again, more people would visit your site and you could stop being petty.

  3. Those are some great tips to stay out of trouble when it comes to SEO.

    I have a little trick to stay out of trouble with your SEO efforts. Before every link you build, ask yourself if what you are doing is somewhat providing value to the internet.

    If the answer is yes, you are doing all right.

    If it’s no, you should probably step back and think about what you are doing.


  4. Kevin says:

    Hiring the wrong person to help with PPC would just cost me $$; hiring the wrong SEO firm could kill my biz if Google gave us the death penalty, you know?

    I know enough now not to respond to SEO firm spam, but any recommendations on how to find a good SEO firm/person that’s trustworthy? I don’t know anyone that could share their recommendation,& going through a paid inclusion list at seems a crapshoot.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Check out the SEOmoz community, a lot of honest, independent SEOs there, troll around and see what they are contributing, you can get a good idea of what a person is like by their community contributions.

      Another tip is to check out search engine conference speakers lists – they don’t let just anyone speak, that’s a good indication of quality and authority. They may be a bit pricier than others, they may not.

      Also, try to choose an SEO firm that has a good blog. They’re typically more accountable to the community, therefore their ethics are higher – their public rep is on the line. They’re also more aggressive in keeping up with trends, as they’re reading others’ blogs too.

      Hope that helps,


  5. Kevin says:

    Those are really good suggestions. I’ll check ‘em out. Thanks!

  6. I hope the whole scandal opens peoples’ eyes to the importance of staying ethical with SEO.

  7. I think that the one thing we can count on in the SEO world is that spam tactics will continue to be devalued. I wonder if Google would ever implement a retro-active spam penalty based on your website’s past instead of present SEO tactics…

    • I hope not, Jeff – as sometimes a site gets caught up with one rogue SEO firm or employee that pushes the boundary, corrective action should bring a site back into good standing again. Even banned sites can file a reinclusion request (with repentance) and find grace in the site of Google. Also, many tactics start off as legal and then become “illegal” – like paid links. So they’d have to be really selective. I think known spammers with a LOT of bad tricks should get lifetime bans, but that’s just me :)

  8. Vekta says:

    Good quality SEO requires planning and a considerable amount of hard work and some black hat techniques may work now, but they will always come back to haunt you. I had a client that I achieved fantastic results for but 6 months after his Nephew took over the managment of the site, it disappeared from the search engines due to a very similar situation. You wouldn’t use non ethical methods to advertise your business in the real world, so why would you let someone do this online?

    • Vort says:

      “You wouldn’t use non ethical methods to advertise your business in the real world, so why would you let someone do this online?”

      Hahaha, nice one.

  9. Birgit Odomes says:

    All valid points, however some of them outdated for a LONG time…..

    • Hi Birgit, what specifically is outdated? Some SEO firms still peddle to the uninformed various methods of link building that ARE outdated, and it’s important to investigate their methods to ensure they are not doing such things. That’s the gist of this article, as many outdated methods are now considered spam and very easy for Google’s spambot to flag for investigation, or for competitors to report.

  10. Steve johnson says:

    Google will only punish those comments which bring no value to the site, for example advertising a car site on a site which talks about disability’s will most likely flag your site or it will just ignore the weight.. Google is not so much punishing sites, its correcting by only rewarding relevant linking.


    Web site webmasters ought to look at steps of preventing spammy post by being less of a target, instead as compared to battling the spam spiders when they are tapping at your website

    The particular issue with free engines for example wordpress,phpbb,joomla etc is bot users checking for at risk websites for spamming comments or security risks to input malware they’re able to do this since every single one of opensources automatically leave an electronic digital footprint on top search engines like Bing and google, I’ve published an article in regards to this on my little internet site you should check it out, its certainly prefect for stopping spammy posts and malware, stop being detected as a target!

  11. II had one of my sites blacklisted by Google for basically the same thing as J C Penny I never even received a message in my Google webmaster stating what was wrong, The was site was just gone one day, I have notice though J C penny’s site is still up and running still at the top of the page, guess if you a big corporation and spend a lot of money on ppc and other advertisement the Google penalties do not apply.

    Bye the way your article is awesome I gotten more valuable info from your smaller article then I have from SEOMOZ forum or

    Thank you

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