Google snares Overstock in SEO crackdown

Earlier this month, JC Penney was at the center of a minor Google-y scandal after employing an SEO firm that engaged in some underhanded tactics to boost the department store’s pages to the top of Google’s search results for a great many shopping-related search terms.

The controversy mainly stemmed from a series of questionable links to the site’s content on flimsier pages throughout the internet. The links served to create the appearance of more buzz or reference to JC Penney’s wares where they didn’t really exist, artificially pushing the site to the top of Google’s rankings. JC Penney axed the firm, SearchDex, but the company was manually demoted by Google staff, plummeting from the #1 spot they held for many commonly search-for items. Now Overstock.com has suffered public pillorying at the hands of Google, although the questionable tactics in this case seem less egregious than those of which JC Penney’s site was said to have employed.

Another violation of Google’s PageRank system, however, is suspected. Overstock also ranked unusually high for many items, and it seems their high level of trust was down to the number of links back to product pages originating from .edu addresses. Overstock says that’s due to a 10% discount for some college students and professors, but Google wasn’t really buying that, according to the Wall Street Journal:

In Overstock’s case, the retailer offered discounts of 10% on some merchandise to students and faculty. In exchange, it asked college and university websites to embed links for certain keywords like “bunk beds” or “gift baskets” to Overstock product pages… Google’s guidelines ask websites not to participate in “schemes” that are “intended to manipulate PageRank,” and it forbids sites from paying other sites to embed certain links on their pages. Many schemes intended to trick Google’s search algorithm have included .edu links, search-engine experts say.

“There is big money in .edu links because they are ‘trusted sites’ in Google’s eyes,” said David Harry, president of Reliable SEO, a SEO specialist based in Canada.

Overstock says the program was discontinued on February 10th, a change inexplicably made before Google contacted them regarding the practice. The WSJ notes, however, that education sites are often slow to update content and remove links.