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Overstock Overstocks .edu Links and Google Schools Them



Google has handed out another penalty to a high profile retail site after it discovered that the site’s techniques to get to the top of the SERP’s was not above board. This is the second high profile public flogging by Google of a rogue site in the past few weeks. Couple this with the strong ‘war on spam’ rhetoric and one might think that Google is starting to pay much closer attention to who gets where in their results and how they get there.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Google Inc. is penalizing Overstock.com Inc. in its search results after the retailer ran afoul of Google policies that prohibit companies from artificially boosting their ranking in the Internet giant’s search engine.

Overstock’s pages had recently ranked near the top of results for dozens of common searches, including “vacuum cleaners” and “laptop computers.” But links to Overstock on Tuesday dropped to the fifth or sixth pages of Google results for many of those categories, greatly reducing the chances that a user would click on its links.

The incident, according to Overstock, stemmed in part from its practice of encouraging websites of colleges and universities to post links to Overstock pages so that students and faculty could receive discounts on the shopping site. Overstock said it discontinued the program on Feb. 10, before hearing from Google, but said some university webmasters have been slow to remove the links.

In Overstock’s hunt for the supposed almighty .edu link they committed the ultimate search engine optimization sin of getting too greedy. In search you apparently CAN have too much of a good thing, especially of that good thing are links with a .edu extension.

Although we may never know exactly who did it, the downfall of Overstock came from the dreaded ‘narc out’ to Google. The WSJ article says

The change followed a complaint by a competitor last week to Google about Overstock’s actions.

Overstock, which is based in Salt Lake City, was founded in 1999 and is known for discount merchandise. It had 10 million unique visitors last month, according to comScore.

Will this open the floodgates of sites looking to report each other for indiscretions? Are the days of SEO’s practicing an ‘honor amongst thieves’ code over? When it comes to making money, making friends often is not part of the equation and we all know that big rankings can mean big money. Is this one of those cases or is this simply a competitor doing the damage to Overstock and not a sideways SEO?

What is most interesting about the WSJ article is its treatment of SEO for its readers. It acts as if it is some kind of sacred ritual that is reserved for obscure religions that use animals and the like to work their magic. It describes SEO in general like this

Many companies use a variety of techniques to try to enhance their positions in search results, a practice called search engine optimization, or SEO. Appearing higher on pages containing search results tends to attract greater attention among the many customers who hunt for goods or services through Google and other search engines. Some companies hire SEO services to help elevate their rankings.

After 15 plus years of this practice going on in varying degrees of complexity its pretty amusing to see the WSJ telling its readers the great secret of the Internet in kindergarten level language. Oh, and some companies even HIRE someone to do this SEO thing for them. How 007 of them!

So in light of the JC Penney SEO incident and now the Overstock penalty are you nervous for your rankings? Is there a disgruntled employee lurking about with your deep dark SEO secrets that may want to put a dent in your efforts? The more that Google acts on these calls to their SEO ‘tip line’ (and it happens in public) will there be a rush to bring down the top search dogs? It would make sense wouldn’t it?

So what’s your take on this increasingly hostile environment in the world of SEO?

  • http://bluesearchmarketing.com Jon Ingebrigtson

    After reading this article, my services now include researching the SEO techniques of my clients competiton and reporting anything questionable that I see to Google.

  • http://www.davidaskvig.com David Askvig

    I don’t see what is so wrong about Overstock.com’s strategy. I personally think it was a genius idea. What a great way to get high quality links. It isn’t spammy and they are offering an incentive to .edu sites to put a link up. It’s a win-win situation. Help me out someone, why is this a bad thing?

    It seems like Google is on a PR rampage to tell the world it doesn’t put up with spam. Let’s penalize a few high profile sites and send a message to everyone. This doesn’t give me any more confidence in Google. In fact, these seemingly manual changes, or manual penalties, make me more unsure of Google’s search prowess.

    • http://ecommer.tumblr.com Henry

      Where Overstock went wrong is that they stuffed their text with optimised keywords.
      The article here reports that ‘they committed the ultimate search engine optimization sin of getting too greedy’. One keyword would have done the job but stuffing it with optimised term is blatant and looks spammy.
      Had they put just one link in the text, no one would have even noticed anything. Genius idea indeed but they got too greedy and fell on their sword.

      • Emily

        Henry,

        Not buying that…at all. Keyword stuffing has been a well-known no-no for quite some time.

        and – to 10th degree – how do you know what their anchor text was, that it was not relevant? or that there was anchor text at all?

        my strong inclination is GOOG punishes THEIR competition.

        They slapped YHOO’s AC…but not Demand. ??

        • Emily

          couple things -

          no they were not ratted out.

          goog does not like competition…

          or high-ranking sites that a) do not buy paid ads or 2) are not plastered with Adsense.

          Almighty dollar…

  • http://www.abacoajupiterhomesforsale.com/ Thomas Abacoa

    So there are 3 big sites compared to how many getting away with it. Seems like Google turns a blind eye until there is a public outcry. Why are reporters and forums members doing a better job at identifying these tactics than Google? Well Google is probably getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in PPC ad money from these guys. I’m Just saying!

  • http://www.angiewheeler.com Angie Wheeler

    Being a narc can’t be good for a person’s karma.
    If nothing else this little drama is a reminder to stay out of the fray and focus on engagement and customer experience.

  • Jb

    Google is showing you how to outrank your competition. Step 1 Purchase edu and gov links for your competition. Step 2 Tell Google.

  • http://www.10thdegree.com/services.html Jackie at 10th Degree

    I think Overstock might have flown under the radar if the anchor text from the Edu sites were related to school related products such as text books, school supplies, backpacks, things like Laptops or Ipods would have probably been fine. I don’t really think what they did was necessarily Blackhat, more like Greyhat. It certainly was very creative.

  • Emily

    Did you see that
    1) there was irrelevant anchor text?
    2) there was *any* anchor text?

    this is not Overstock’s first rodeo…doubt they would risk prime ranking ..,

    and this is not GOOG’s excuse

    personally I am not sold.

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