Overstock.com Gets Spanked by Google for Gaming Its Rankings

computer user - overstockYet another retailer has been caught trying to game Google's search system. Seems Overstock.com was compensating some sites to link to the retailer's site on certain keywords, thus causing its rankings to rise in Google searches.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Overstock.com actually offered a 10% discount to university and college-affiliated sites for linking to the shopping site. Websites with a .edu rather than .com are more highly valued by Google's analytics. Academic institutions rarely link to commercial sites, so when it happens, that site's rankings soar relative to the keywords containing the links.For example, if a college or university's housing requirements tell students to provide their own bedding, curtains or a desk lamp, and link to Overstock on the words "bedding," "curtains" or "desk lamp," Overstock becomes one the first sites you're directed to when performing a Google search for those items. You can see actual examples of what Overstock was asking for at Search Engine Round table.

Trying to raise search rankings is big business and consultants on what's called "search engine optimization" are everywhere in all industries. But another trend toward "black hat" optimization is increasingly helping companies to game the system.

Just last week, an investigative report by the New York Times caught JCPenney in a similar scheme. Both JCPenney and Overstock.com have been punished by Google by having their sites returned much lower in the rankings, in some cases several pages down from their former top spots.

JCPenney says it had no part in the scheme that had fake sites writing about consumer products and linking out to the retailer's site. Overstock says it complied immediately with Google's requests to take down its links from .edu's.So how prevalent are these types of scams? Walletpop asked Blue Fountain Media, the very company that aided the New York Times in investigating JCPenney, and according to Alhan Keser, its chief marketing officer, it happens all the time, but only recently has been noticed by the mainstream media.

"The JCPenney story didn't come as a shock, but it was a shock that it was on such a large scale," said Keser. Thanks to Google's popularity, approximately 70% of all internet searches are conducted on Google, there's a great demand for training in how to get to the top of the results page, he said.

Trouble is, Overstock and JCPenney violated Google's terms of business and increased their presence in results inorganically, said Keser.

Still, he believes Google search results are trustworthy. In the case of Overstock, "It was right for Google to assume that a link from a university is a legitimate link. This is not a fly-by-night organization," he said. "Google's business model is that their results need to be relevant to a search query, people need to find things that are helpful to them. Any manipulation that goes against their business model deteriorates their results, and Google will do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn't happen."

Including burying the violator so far down in the search results, it could take ages to recover. Lesson here, perhaps? Don't annoy Google.
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