February 24, 2011, 3:15 PM

Google schools Overstock.com

Google slaps down Overstock’s attempts to boost its search rankings.

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Here is today’s search engine optimization tip for online retailers: Don’t pay college students—or, really, anyone else—to do the grunt work of building links back to e-commerce sites. That’s what Overstock.com Inc. did, and now Google is penalizing the web merchant with lower natural search rankings.

Overstock, No. 28 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, had encouraged web sites affiliated with colleges and universities—that is, sites with .edu addresses—to embed links that would lead back to the Overstock e-commerce site. For instance, a blog from a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas offered advice to new students and mentioned such items as gift baskets, computer desks and laptop computers. Those terms were highlighted, and embedded with links that led back to the Overstock site. Web publishers, such as bloggers, who embedded those links in content on their sites could receive discounts from the retailer.

Overstock says it has discontinued the link-building program.

“We enabled university webmasters to provide discount links to faculty and students. Google has now made clear it believes these links should not factor into their search algorithm,” says an Overstock spokesman.  “We understand Google's position and have made the appropriate changes to remain within Google's guidelines.  In fact, we had already discontinued this program two weeks ago when we notified university webmasters.” He adds that some university administrators have been slow in pulling down the links.

Overstock provided no further details. Google did not comment beyond a general statement that it sees frequent attempts to game natural search rankings.

Links leading to a site generally can boost that site’s ranking in search results for Google and Bing, with the idea being that inbound links provide evidence of a site’s worth and value. Search experts say that .edu addresses can carry special weight for retailers because Google treats .edu addresses as more authoritative than some other types of web addresses, especially when leading to an e-commerce site.  

“Virtually every retailer pursuing an SEO strategy would welcome .edu links because of their reputation for boosting rankings,” says Rich Stokes, founder and CEO of AdGooroo, which tracks online advertising. “Not all retailers succeed at this, however, because academics in general do not like to post links to commercial sites.”

How Google caught Overstock was unclear, though press reports say an Overstock competitor tipped off Google. Byrne Hobart, marketing strategy director for Blue Fountain Media, an online marketing firm, says Overstock did a poor job of concealing the link-building effort. “Anyone looking at those links would be able to see that they were artificial,” he says. “And since these were links from high-value sites, they're quite visible.”

The main problem, search experts say, was the use of product discounts to encourage links from university-affiliated sites. “Specifically targeting .edu links in exchange for discounts is a form of payment and Google is against paying for links,” says Mark Hawks, founder of SEOSavvy, a web marketing firm. He says Google usually penalizes sites automatically, such as via an algorithm update that attempts to fix a specific loophole, rather than by hand, either through outright banning a site or manually lowering its rankings.  Overstock did not detail how much its rankings dropped in the wake of the incident.

The Overstock incident is the latest one to highlight how Google is trying to fight back against what it considers out-of-bounds attempts to game its search rankings.

Just before Christmas, for instance, the search engine giant said it would take steps to lower rankings of sites that try to use consumer complaints to boost search rankings. The move came after the owner of eyewear retail site DecorMyEyes.com bragged that he increased its rankings because of the volume of consumer complaints about it that were posted online, some of which contained authoritative links back to the site.

And earlier this month, multichannel retailer J.C. Penney Co. Inc., No. 16 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, said it would cut ties with its SEO marketing vendor after an article in the New York Times accused the retailer of using paid inbound links to boost rankings for a variety of products sold by the merchant. The retailer says it is working to make sure the links are taken down.

Such incidents underscore the importance of search rankings, search experts say. “In recent years, retailers have become more aggressive and thus less compliant in their link-building tactics,” says Eric Papczun, vice president of SEO and feeds for Performics, another online marketing agency. “We believe this is due to the increased competitive pressures to grow this channel due to its high return on investment and opportunity to add customers.”

But the recent issues involving Overstock and Penney also signal another shift in how Google handles search rankings, he adds.

“Some retailers have a false sense of security as they have believed that Google will not target corrective action on their large brands due to their size and importance of appearing in search results—almost a ‘too big to fail’ concept,” he says.  “If this was true, it is no longer the case.”

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