April 29, 2011, 12:41 PM

SEO Red Flags

To stay out of Google's doghouse, retailers should scrutinize inbound links from other sites.

Links from other web sites can help a retailer move up in natural search rankings. But if the search engines conclude that a retailer is stockpiling links solely to move up in search results, the retailer may be penalized and see its site virtually disappear from search engine pages.

Google made that clear in recent months when it punished J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Overstock.com Inc. for violating a variety of link-building and content-related guidelines. It appears those major retailers may not be the only ones at risk.

In light of Google's actions, we audited the link-building practices of the top 30 brands in the Internet Retailer 500, checking each one for five risky search engine optimization practices. Although 11 came out squeaky clean, six of them generated red flags on five of five measurements. Nine generated at least four red flags. Given how much retailers rely on traffic from natural search results, it's surprising how many major retailers are leaving themselves open to being penalized.

The J.C. Penney and Overstock incidents illustrate some ways retailers can run afoul of Google.

While Google never publicly explained its actions, published reports suggested J.C. Penney was penalized for having large numbers of links from web sites with no logical relation to the content on JCP.com. For example, the keyword phrase "evening dress" was linked from casino sites, and the phrase "cocktail dresses" was linked from Bulgarian real estate sites.

The links had evidently been purchased solely to enhance search engine rankings, in violation of Google's rule against buying links in order to manipulate search results. J.C. Penney said it was unaware of the link-buying program and that it would cut ties with the SEO marketing vendor that carried it out.

Google cited Overstock for breaking the rules by offering discounts to .edu pages maintained by students and professors if they linked specific keywords to certain Overstock pages. Google typically gives more credit to links from educational sites with .edu domains because they are deemed to be more objective than commercial sites.

Overstock said it thought offering promotional links to universities was acceptable and set about to remove the tainted links. The e-retailer paid a significant price for its mistake. It reported that its drop in natural search rankings as a result of Google's penalty resulted in a 5% decline in revenue for several weeks.

Who's next?

If major retailers like J.C. Penney and Overstock can be punished by Google, other big brands could also be in jeopardy due to high-risk SEO practices. Only Google's own Webspam team knows exactly what search engine optimization tactics raise red flags, but certain SEO practices are known to be risky. Based on Performics' SEO best practices, we audited the top 30 retailers with these five red flags in mind:

1. Manipulated anchor text in inbound links

Search engines can easily identify inbound links (also known as backlinks) that contain manipulated anchor text, the highlighted word or phrase in web content that someone clicks to get more information. A classic example of this violation occurs after a retailer identifies a specific keyword phrase or group of phrases that command high search volume, and then attempts to own these phrases by purchasing many identical links that use the exact words in the targeted phrases. J.C. Penney "evening dress" links from casino sites is an example of this.

When search engines see unnatural repetition of precise keywords within the text of these links, originating from hundreds or thousands of sites, they may deem this to be an indicator of manipulated anchor text, as Google clearly did with J.C. Penney.

2. Links from irrelevant sites

Relevance is one of the most important aspects of any link portfolio. Just as search engines evaluate each retailer's site in terms of its relevance to particular search terms, so, too, do they evaluate sites linking to that retailer. If the linking sites tend to be relevant to the retailer and the products it sells, this provides a greater boost than links from irrelevant sites. To continue with the "evening dress" example, such links from casino sites are irrelevant to JCP.com, but would make sense on fashion blogs, celebrity sites, forums about style trends and a variety of other web venues.

Unfortunately, some marketers seek to simply gain the largest number of links, regardless of relevance. However, garnering many links from sites that have little or nothing to do with your site content not only provides little benefit, it can be seen by search engines as an indication of unsavory SEO practices and lead to penalties.

3. Links from unrelated foreign sites

Links from sites based in countries where a retailer does not do business can also raise a red flag. If a retailer does not sell in Russia and China, Google may look askance at links from sites using the domains .ru (Russia) and .cn (China). Though these links can occur naturally, and are not under a retailer's control, the rapid acquisition of many such links may suggest intentional link manipulation and trigger penalties.

4. Link spam

Each inbound link to a retailer's site can be evaluated for the contextual relevance of the linking source page. But if that source page also links to a number of other unrelated sites—most likely taking payment for that link spam—it can raise a red flag and get labeled by search engines as an undesirable inbound link for the retailer.

5. Links from bad neighborhoods

Similarly, each retailer's portfolio can be evaluated for links from sites with low PageRank scores and/or questionable incoming link portfolios. Google says sites should "avoid links to web spammers or 'bad neighborhoods' on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links."

To be sure, the presence of red flags does not imply retailer guilt, only that these retailers are engaging in questionable practices. These retailers probably do not intend to break Google's Webmaster Guidelines or engage in "black-hat" SEO. They likely do not even know this is happening.

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