Joel Klettke is a Search Engine Optimization specialist at Vovia. Joel's also an experienced writer and local marketing expert.

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SEO Lessons – JC Penny and Forbes Caught Gaming Google

gamingYou may have read about JC Penny being busted for their paid linking schemes, or Forbes Magazine being nailed for selling links on their site. In my last post, I wrote about how not all links are created equal – and that’s at the root of these two incidences. So, why are buying and selling links a bad practice?  Are these actions always frowned upon by Google and other search engines, or are there legitimate uses? To get some answers, let’s look at what went wrong.

The Buyer – JC Penny

JC Penny was dominating search results by buying links from high-ranking, trusted websites. These sites were completely unrelated to what JC Penny sells. Subtlety wasn’t their SEO company’s forte – they bought these links in such high quantities and with such disregard for relevance that it was easy for their competition to spot, who promptly took it to the NY Times. That’s when things got ugly. Google responded by devaluing all of the links, effectively tanking JC Penny’s formerly stellar rankings.

The Seller – Forbes Magazine

Forbes was raking in profit selling link space on their website to anyone who wanted to buy. Unlike advertising, these links were purchased with the intention of leeching on to Forbes’ incredible link value, which would then be passed through the links and on to the payee’s website. Once again, it wasn’t hard for their competition – or Google – to figure out what was going on and take action.

What’s the big deal?

The problem is that links are at the core of Google’s ranking algorithm. Generally, strong links will equate to strong rankings. Ideally, links should be generated by the creation of quality content – people should want to link to your site because they find it valuable. Ultimately, Google wants to show the most relevant results, not the results of those who have paid the most to get them. Google’s algorithm works to sniff out paid linking schemes, but as evidenced, that can be hard to do. And for those times when Google doesn’t find abuses on their own, they also provide a mechanism for people to report abuses, which Google will then investigate.

Is Buying and Selling Links Always Wrong?

Google has stated that buying and selling links for the specific purpose of gaming search engine rankings will be penalized. But the fact is, buying and selling links isn’t black and white – there are a lot of gray areas.

1. When the links use a “no-follow” attribute.

Adding a “no-follow” attribute stops any value from being passed through the link, neutralizing their SEO value. “No-follow” links equate to advertising. Paying for advertising is acceptable when rankings results are not in play.

2. When the payment is for legitimate processing fees.

You can pay for inclusion into the Yahoo Directory, or’s business directory. What you’re paying for is a processing fee. Google doesn’t penalize these links. What makes this different from Forbes? Relevance. Directories like Yahoo carefully sort and file websites into a format people can actually use, unlike placing a link to a pet store on the home page of a helicopter website.

There are other situations where links might be considered “paid” – paying a prevalent industry blogger to blog about your product, receiving a link from a supplier’s website, sponsoring an event, exhibiting at an industry conference and so on. In all these situations, questions you need to ask are, “Is the linking source related to my website? If I was a user, would I find the link valuable or useful?”

What Can We Learn?

Here are a few quick takeaways from the JC Penny and Forbes incidences:

1. Know what your SEO company is doing. Find out how they are acquiring your links and make sure that it’s being done ethically.

2. Be analytical about linking opportunities. Ask, “Is this link coming from a relevant website? If I was a user and found a link on this site, would I be pleased – or confused?”

3. If you sell, sell ethically. If you plan to sell advertising space on your website, be sure that all links use the “no-follow” attribute.

4. Have a link building strategy! While buying links from legitimate providers might be a part of your SEO strategy, it should never be the entire strategy. There are many creative ways to get links such as creating content which your target market finds interesting.