If you have ever been interested in SEO, are engaged in SEO for your business or a brand or are looking for an expert to create and implement an SEO strategy for your company, you MUST read The New York Times article, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search. The article brings one of the many scandals of SEO into public view. For most of us in the SEO business, this is rather old news. The brand is different but the song remains the same.
That a brand as big as JCPenney engaged in ‘dark art’ SEO over the Christmas period is significant, that they have been caught red handed, outed by the media and dealt with by Google so publicly is really juicy. I love the scandal, the cautionary tale for all the brands and business I work with and even Google got caught with their pants unzipped (I should get a subscription to the NYT just to thank them). But since this is nothing new in the SEO world, some of the details in this story really struck me. (I should mention this is JCPenney’s in America, not Penny’s in Ireland.)
JCPenney is attributed as saying that only 7% of their online traffic comes from their organic listings. Penney’s states that they received more profit from partnerships with Yahoo and Time Warner than they did from this paid link scam. Now on first read, I thought they were just being snarky towards Google, which they may have been, but only 7% of their online traffic came from their Google number 1 organic listings? They received more revenue from Yahoo (who have a 15% share of search engine voice in the States compared to Google’s 65%)? If the answer is yes, then boy are they stupid.
JCPenney made the biggest mistake in search engine marketing there is to make. They thought that increasing their search engine rankings would automatically increase their online traffic and in turn their online revenue without addressing any of the other massive brand and Web site issues they already had.
Thinking that you will automatically increase traffic and online conversions by reaching the number 1 spot in Google’s organic search results is like James Joyce thinking that everyone who bought a copy of Ulysses actually read their copy of Ulysses.
If you were searching for ‘best financial investments’ and Google’s number 1 result was a link to Anglo Irish Bank, you wouldn’t click on that link if your life depended on it (you might never use Google again, but you wouldn’t follow that link and you certainly wouldn’t invest with AIB). For Anglo Irish Bank to engage in the dark arts of SEO to get a quick uplift in traffic would be almost as stupid as everything else they’ve done over the last 10 years. (If you’re a dark arts SEO, you may want to contact Anglo, they might still be that stupid.)
JCPenney’s did just that in American terms. For JCPenney’s to actively engage in ranking for terms like ‘designer cocktail dresses,’ is like Tesco actively engaging in ranking for ‘designer cocktail dresses.’ And if any of the women reading this blog saw that Tesco link, they would keep reading until they came to a retailer they trusted to provide ‘designer cocktail dresses.’
Even for those who aren’t brand snobs, JCPenney’s links may have actually looked dodgy because of their poor on page SEO. Their title tags are abysmal. Their number 1 link for ‘designer cocktail dresses,’ was entitled: ‘JCPenney : Women : Dresses.’ This title is used on every dress Web page for every type of dress on the Web site. There is no meta description and no HTML text on this page, so God only know what snippet of text was used beneath the link title in the results. (I can only speculate what their links included because they are currently nowhere to be found in Google’s results – even for their own domain name. It seems that Google may have implemented the BMW smack down on JCPenney since the article came out.)
Conventional wisdom, and the best statistics available, say that links ranked number 1 on Google are clicked 34% more often than links in the number 2 position. When JCPenney’s didn’t see a significant increase in their organic traffic from their first week in the number 1 position for dozens of keywords, sirens should have been rung throughout their corporate headquarters (since they hadn’t been rung any time before this moment).
The irony is, if JCPenney’s had actually engaged in some positive online PR, positioning the brand as new, hip, engaged and digitally savvy, they would have gained appropriately strong back-links that would have helped their SEO for eons to come and they would have reached thousands of online shoppers who might not have avoided clicking their links. Had they addressed their Web site issues, they might have converted those users who did actually make it to their site, and if they had really done it right, those buyers might have gone on Facebook and Twitter to advocate for their brand – especially if they had turned the brand around. Instead, they got spanked by Google, by the media and by potential shoppers.
So this all goes back to the one golden rule of SEO – anything you do solely for the sake of search engines (without any direct benefit to real people) will usually cost you more in the long run than you will ever gain in the short term and it will come at the expense of the metrics that truly matter.