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Gaming Google: Fagin’s Flowers, JC’s Penneys and the Sacred Cows of SEO

Gez Hebburn

Sacred cow and no parking sign
Moooove me at your peril!

The internet flowers ‘scandal’ provoked moral outrage back in March, when it emerged that certain well-known US flower companies had paid for black hat SEO techniques (gasp!) to increase their revenue in the lead up to Mother’s day, and stood accused of (schlock horror!!) buying links to increase their share of the multi-billion dollar Mother’s day flowers market.

Despite the accusations of foul play by the US flower sellers, Teleflora, FTD and Proflowers, backed up by a list of 6000 suspect links sourced by the New York Times, Google declined to penalise the sites. The companies remained in the top four spots for all their head terms, and Google spokesman Jake Hubert even issued an official statement declaring that the floral subterfuge had not succeeded:

Nonespeech marks of the links shared by The New York Times had a significant impact on our rankings; due to automated systems we have in place to assess the relevance of links. As always, we investigate spam reports and take corrective action where appropriate.”

Compare this judgement with the Google fortunes of JC Penney, another major US firm accused of link-buying. In a very public and obvious example of taking their link-buying strategy too far, Penney’s were ranking way too high for lots of terms and the world took note. The New York Times – obviously becoming ‘the people’s champion’ in regards to e-commerce and fair play – hired SEO expert Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain media to investigate.

Needless to say, the NY Times' fearless deputy of department-store decency caught the demons of depravity red-handed; literally dripping with the blood of slaughtered sacred cows and wallowing in a morass of ethical internet destruction. Take a deep breath - It was, apparently;

speech marksThe most ambitious attempt to game Google’s results I have ever seen."



Wow, just imagine the carnage...

In this instance, Google seemed to agree that Penney’s had gone too far. The company was penalised, and dropped to page 5 for many of its terms. Now the penalty has been lifted, looking at the search figures and JC Penney’s post-penalty profit margins shows that the strategy still paid off.

Of course, the NY Times made the most of Pierce’s damning judgement, as everyone loves a good scandal. Like me, having fun with over the top metaphors a minute ago, Columnist David Segal got to use lots of juicy emotive words like cheating, intrigue, subterranean, dark art, cowboy, and outlaw in his piece The Dirty Little Secrest of Search.

Surely success is to be applauded in a capitalist society, founded on the principles of vigorous competition? Well, not if you have paid for black-hat SEO.

This is a weird anomaly in the modern context of typically ruthless multi-channel marketing. In the SEO industry, we all know everyone has paid for links indirectly or directly, and that it’s only a few years since this was a universally essential SEO strategy throughout the private sector. I could even go so far as to say it’s still an essential part of almost everyone’s SEO strategy.

A black hat.
The hat not to be seen in this season!

What is new is that the public are being made aware of these concepts, and have a developing opinion that is being guided by the media. Are Google’s -PR and mysterious ‘sandboxing’ punishments starting to smell a bit like vigilantism? Will we soon hand these responsibilities over to the courts, and make ‘gaming Google’ a publicly prosecutable offence, a crime against society? And anyway, purely conceptually, how does paying for links differ to paying for any other kind of advertising space or marketing campaign, in a capital-centric world where those with the biggest financial backing are meant to win?

The mainstream press, online and off, seems to be portraying Google’s search results as a kind of sacred cow, untouchable by anyone respectable or... devout. Well, when traffic is stuck behind a stubborn cow on Indian roads (it happens a lot), Hindu drivers rely on helpful non-Hindus or the profanity-immune 'untouchables' to persuade the offending bovine to get out of the way. Here it looks like ‘unscrupulous’ SEO firms are being put in the same position.

Will Interflora’s or JC Penney's search engine optimisers do anything different next year? Of course not, they’ll just put on fake glasses, a raincoat and a white hat before they slap that same sacred cow’s butt repeatedly - with an electrified cane.

In terms of public opinion, what’s going on? An essential trick of formulaic (read successful) journalism is the victim/bad guy equation, and in this story we are all victims. We have a vicious and secretive cabal of flower-selling bad guys and their cronies conspiring against us, and there’s poor old good guy Google just trying to tell the truth. I bet that filthy old black-hat Fagin the flower seller has something to do with it...

comic strip featuring Fagin the black hat flower seller
Gezheb via

As ludicrous as the whole situation is, it might help illuminate our developing cultural understanding of search. People are willing to have their moral outrage buttons pressed at the thought that SEO companies and commercial entities can collude to manipulate search results; and the public's buying habits. Now there’s a headline.

“ADSHOCK: Companies Spend Money to Influence Buying Decisions!”

This is all getting mildly surreal, but could provide some useful insights.

Does it suggest that many people still see the internet as a kind of sacred space, an innocent land of openness, free information and equality, where we should all stand equal and empowered to better ourselves? That many people are completely blind as to how businesses dominate their market - including the search results - by applying superior investment to any tactic that is above the law or well- concealed?

That this confused moral position is likely to be played on again and again by the story-hungry press? Google’s slogan is clear - they are ready for this, will ‘protect’ the consumer from the Google gamers, and will not be painted as the bad guys. Does this suggest that the media will eventually force search engines to crack down on visibly artificial aspects of the SEO industry, beginning with less dependency on metrics such as incoming links - which can be bought? It’s easy to argue that good, in-depth, on-topic content can also be bought, just like brand awareness and recognition.... but let’s brush that under the carpet for now.

Does it all mean that negative changes to the importance of easily manipulated metrics will push information rich, natural, non-commercial content higher in the search results? Will this lead to an increased separation between commercially monetised and information/educational content? If they are losing orgnic positions due to the commercial nature of their content, will online retailers and global brands be forced to stop pretending they are key-term authorities and turn ever more firmly towards paid listings, featured advertising, social media ad placement and PPC?

Does all this tell the SEO industry that clients need deep, extensive content that people want to read, coupled with beautiful information structures and great web design? That they will need to compete on content quality if they hope to keep, or gain, favourable organic search positions?

Or like JC Penney's, do people just need to spend more money to win?




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