The web is big. Like more than a trillion pages big. When a searcher types a couple of words into the search box, Google has to be able to sort through all the pages on the web and show the searcher the ones that are the most relevant to the search, as well as the most useful. That’s a tough challenge. Google uses hundreds of signals to figure this out in an automated way. Historically, the link graph has factored fairly heavily into these relevance and value algorithms.
Google was launched on a foundation of PageRank: the idea that people link to things they like and find valuable, so a page with a lot of links to it is probably more useful than a page without very many links. How people link comes into play too. If a bunch of links to a page use the anchor text “watch the latest episode of Glee online”, then it’s reasonable to assume that the page being linked to has a video of the TV show Glee. (Note: Google has evolved well beyond this simplistic explanation as the web itself has evolved.)
Over time, as site owners realized how valuable it was to rank well in Google search results, some began hatching “link schemes”. Rather than just hope people find our content valuable enough to link to and raise awareness of the content through traditional marketing techniques, how about we just make a deal and agree to link to each other? We both get links with the anchor text of queries we want to rank for and everyone’s happy!
Everyone, that is, except Google. And searchers. Because these types of back room deals break the PageRank algorithm, which was based on a link equating to someone finding the content valuable. With a link exchange, the link simply equates to a deal being made. Less useful results could rise to the top, causing the search results to be of lower quality.
Hence, the Google webmaster guidelines, which at their core say this: our algorithms are meant to surface the best possible results to searchers. If you try to manipulate those algorithms, we might lower your site’s rankings or take your site out of our index entirely.
Matt Cutts manages a very large team dedicated to finding violations to the guidelines and then refining the algorithms to catch them in a wide swath as well as manually remove sites or lower their rankings.
What if you want a bunch of links to get to the top of the rankings quickly but you don’t want to link back (maybe because you think exchanging links would be too obvious to Google and you’d get caught or because you don’t want your site to lose credibility with visitors by linking to a bunch of random, irrelevant sites)? Why not just buy links? Note that buying links for PageRank purposes is very different from buying online advertising. Advertising links generally include code that cause them to be seen differently by search engines so that they’re not counted like editorial links would be. As you might imagine, Google doesn’t like links purchased for PageRank manipulation any more than they like link exchanges.
You can read more about both of these kinds of links directly from Google:
Why Do Organizations Purposely Violate the Guidelines?
If all of this artificial linking is against the Google webmaster guidelines and could get a site removed from the index, wouldn’t sites that rely on unpaid search traffic be very careful that they adhere to the guidelines? You would think. And most do.
But some companies think they can outsmart Google. They think they won’t get caught. They see that it works for competitors. They try it and it works for them too. So they say think well, the guidelines say not to do it, but it works! I’m getting more traffic and sales than ever! Why would I stop?
In other cases (as seems to be the case with J.C. Penney), a company hires the wrong search engine optimization firm — one that that engage in tactics that violate the guidelines (and guidelines involving linking are only a small part). Firms that implement these types of tactics want to show the client results quickly. Most of them think they won’t get caught. A few of the more unscrupulous ones don’t care. They figure they’ll collect their money and move on. If the site in question gets burned later, that won’t impact the SEO firm.
High search rankings for targeted queries can be very valuable to companies. We at Search Engine Land talked to the New York Times reporter who wrote this story while he was researching just how valuable a number one ranking really is. It’s impossible to pin that down exactly, but it’s certainly the case that most of us use search engines for product research and many of us make those purchases online. A recent PEW Internet study found that 88% of online Americans who make over $75,000 a year conduct online product research and 81% purchase products and services online. Google released some data just before the holidaysthat indicated that nearly 90% of consumers research online. Many of them then buy online, whereas others then buy at a store.
Undoubtedly, J.C. Penney found that ranking well for so many queries over the holiday season helped them with both online and offline sales. A spokesperson downplayed this, saying that just seven percent of traffic to the site comes from unpaid search results. But between online sales and online research that drove buyers into the stores, it’s likely all of this visibility was indeed valuable.
The trouble is that generally, these tactics don’t work forever. And if you’re basing your business on them, you’re building on a shaky foundation that could cause things to come crashing down at any moment.