A recent story in the New York Times told the story of how the giant retailer, JC Penney fell victim to a Google cleanup campaign. It came to light that JC Penney was using some questionable tactics to improve its ranking for many keyword search terms in the Search Engines. Now what does that mean?

First of all, it means that if such a major brand (and huge Google advertiser) has been “caught”, than you also may be caught. Second, it means that if  a major brand felt the need to do it (or its SEO firm felt the need), then many, many other companies are following suit. In fact, a TechCrunch article published just a few hours ago, reveals a new backlink audit service that has found 25 % of sites have illegitimate backlinks that put their ranking in danger.

So apparently JC Penney hired someone who either told them (probably not) or did not tell them (more likely) how they do SEO and how they can successfully get JC Penney to rank high for lots of important and lucrative keyword phrases. This SEO company then went out and paid lots and lots of website owners to place links back to JC Penney. What does that really mean?  As an example, I get offers on a daily basis to add links to my own web sites back to other sites that I have no relationship to. By simply adding a link such as “Vacation Resort Orlando” or “Lowest Credit Fees” or “Play Poker for Free” to a page on one of my sites, a link broker is willing to pay me a small annual or monthly fee. And no, I’ve never accepted an offer. There is nothing “illegal” in doing so. It just contributes to making the Internet a bigger junkyard than it already has become.

So now the question is why is this bad and if you can’t buy links then how do you get them? Google does not want you to buy links. And if they figure out that you are buying links (and they can’t always figure that out) or even  suspect that you are (even if you are not), you can find your site sent to the deep depths of the result pages for eternity. And there is nothing you can do about it. And truthfully, you deserve it, even if you did not know that someone was buying links for you (I’m going to write another post about that soon).

The reason they don’t want you to buy links is simple. It’s cheating.  You see, a back link is just like a vote in an election. To Google’s algorithm, it means that another unrelated site thinks that your site is an authority on a certain topic and worth a visit. Other sites are telling Google that they like your site by linking back with anchor text. Anchor text is the actual phrase or word in the link.

For example, if there is a site about Internet Addiction and other sites link to that site using the anchor text Internet Addiction, then Google knows that when someone searches for help with an “Internet Addiction”, that website may be worthwhile and relevant to the search and therefore should appear high up in search engine results. However, if I buy those links, than it’s no different than a politician buying votes. So you can understand why Google does not want anyone to purchase links – because it is a blatant attempt to cheat the system. In the case of most companies, like JC Penney, a link broker is selling these links in bulk and it is easy to detect that something fishy is going on because some of the links are coming from completely unrelated content. JC Penney had a link to their Baby Furniture category coming from a Thailand Tourist site.

The reason so many companies and even respectable companies are driven towards using tactics like buying back links is because it is the single hardest part of search engine optimization (SEO). Another reason SEO companies started using the tactic is because the industry is under so much pressure to perform. Clients want to be on the first page of Google and they don’t care how that happens.

The reality of the situation is that if you contact a webmaster of another site, he is going to ignore your request, unless you give him a really good reason not to ignore it. The sites that exist today and are willing to add links usually involve an automated submission. And as you can imagine, any site that allows anyone to auto-submit a link, is probably not so worthy.

What this all leads to is the fact that building backlinks should not be about running a “link campaign” and hiring a bunch of workers in India. Google wants it to be about you getting honest votes of confidence in your content. And honest votes of content can be had whenever you provide good content. Furthermore, Google is making valiant efforts to prove that following their webmaster guidelines is worthwhile. Those of us who have been building good sites with good content with visitors in mind are seeing big benefits in the most recent Google algorithm updates.

So what is the best way to get back links?

Content!!!!!

  • If you run a diet site and provide a calorie counter, you can bet you will get lots of links back to your calories counting tool.
  • If you sell jewelry and provide a humorous guide for men on how to know what type of jewelry their wives will like, you can bet you will get lots of links back to your guide.
  • If you sell toilets and have a “how the flush of this toilet sounds” application on your site, you can bet tons of other sites will be pointing it out with a link (I wonder if anyone has actually done this — it’s a great idea I think!).

With all my gripes about Google, I think they are pushing a good thing here. They are pushing website owners to think creatively, to provide quality and to be honest.

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