Paid Links - Benefits, Risk, And Thoughts On Paid Links by J C Penny & Forbes
7 years, 9 months ago Posted in: Paid Links, Special 1
Benefits, Risk, And Thoughts On Paid Links by J C Penny & Forbes

The Risks and Thoughts Around Paid Links

If you work in the search marketing industry you will likely have heard about The New York Times outing J. C. Penney for their apparent paid links strategy. There have been a number of detailed articles about this very public story but the following are some of my key thoughts that have come about from what has been reported and discussed.

J.C. Penney, SearchDex, TNX, and The NY Times

The company J. C. Penney are a massive brand in America who over the festive season (a popular time for online shopping) had some good ranking results. However, with great rankings comes more notice from competitors or anybody monitoring the results.

This time it was surprisingly The New York Times who asked Doug Pierce to analyse just what was going on. An analysis is exactly what he did, uncovering a number of ‘spammy black-hat paid link techniques’ and detailed his findings to the NY Times for it to be reported.

With it suddenly being in public view, Google immediately stepped in to take manual action (on top of algorithm action reported by Matt Cutts) against the website, which soon saw its rankings drop.

A much more detailed analysis can be found on Search Engine Land.

Paid Link Building Strategy and Techniques Used

A number of link building factors have clearly been identified during this saga which aren’t new so I will briefly detail them below:

Paid Links Do Work

This is obvious. They clearly do work, the issue is more about risk management. In this scenario we see the SEO campaign go from good rankings to bad rankings very quickly.

The Focus on Anchor Text Links

A major benefit in buying links is controlling the anchor text. Here we saw links built with targeted focused anchor text to specific pages.

JC Penney Anchor Text Links

Links Matter First, Relevance Second

From the above picture, it is clear that the links were spread across a network of websites which weren’t relevant – “car modification” – luxury bedding?

A Rush of New Links Can Help Boost Rankings In The Short Term

It is a well utilised strategy – boost your rankings for seasonal trends (or contract renewals ;-) ) through concentrated link building. How hard you go in (quantity) and whether you reduce them after the seasonal trend period finishes is part of the risk management.

New Link Spikes for J C Penney using Majestic SEO Tool

The Link Spikes Debate

As a number of links were built across a range of domains it created link spikes in the link profile of the website. Did Google pick up on this and realise these were paid links? It seems not, or at least they didn’t at first.

Link Spikes are obvious when paid link building instead of doing it naturally, unless of course something goes viral – why link spikes alone can’t be used to identify paid links.

What About The Google Search Algorithm

Basically, it hasn’t figured out how to identify and punish websites automatically as of yet. I’m not surprised as many webmasters with link networks will always be looking to make their websites appear natural. It is a hard fight but something that Google say they are actively tackling with a paid links algorithm being created (reported by Matt Cutts a few months ago).

Google Still Need To Apply Penalties Manually

Their web spam team are able to change Google’s listings and apply manual restrictions across keyword rankings to combat paid links. It appears they are reliant on people to tell them of such cases instead of being able to use only algorithms. They don’t always tell you either but most people notice when checking their latest rankings and traffic.

Forbes Penalised For Selling Links That Pass PageRank

In another high profile case, it came to attention that Forbes have been penalised for selling links on their website. Denis Pinsky, the Digital Marketing Manager at, posted at Google Webmaster Help with the details of the notification warning that is sent by Google.

A number of people responded, including the likes of John Mu and Matt Cutts themselves highlighting a few examples of where they were selling links.

Forbes Selling Links

Paid Links = Risk Management

  • If you are selling them then they are quite a good money earner easily covering the costs of running a website in terms of hosting and maintenance.
  • However, if you are caught by interested newspapers or competitors then you may be reported to Google or these days written about online on a blog somewhere. With such publicity, you can bet that Google will act accordingly.
  • When buying them, you can expect to choose which page and what anchor text is used, giving you a boost to your rankings, and therefore leading to generating revenue.
  • If you are caught expect your rankings to drop and traffic to decrease for at least a good few months – that’s if you clean up the links you may have bought and submit a reconsideration request.

The Fallout of Recent Paid Links

J. C. Penney responded by saying they had no idea about these links. Further details and statements can be found on Search Marketing Wisdom.

Search Dex were sacked as the SEO company after around 4 years of being with them. There reputation also taking a huge hit for buying these links for clients – which they have strongly refused they had any participation with.

Google simply chose to manually change their rankings – people point to a competitor building these links but it appears that wasn’t the case.

The SEO community simply blogged about it, offering their own views, and discussing it on Twitter. It is amazing how one event can trigger so many blog posts! It is often a tactic used to obtain links as well by being the authority covering the story in detail (Search Engine Land) or using it as link bait like Tech Crunch tried with a title of “Search Still Sucks”.

So Who is to blame?

  • Black Hat Competitor?
  • Google for its easy to game algorithm?
  • Search Dex?
  • J. C. Penney?
  • Newspaper providing news by stirring in an industry?

An SEO company should be making the risks involved very clear and communicating this with their client. After four years with J. C. Penny it is hard to see why this would suddenly come up, or has this been their strategy all along?

So what do I think………

Firstly, what was the motive of writing the article? This was an SEO from a competitor firm of Search Dex and The New York Times targeting one particular big brand company.

 There are lots of companies that employ the tactics mentioned above so why pick them? They may have stood out as The NY Times were aiming this article at Google? What about those links on the Forbes website? Have those buying links on Forbes been penalised for their actions like J. C. Penny have? 

Where is the line drawn in terms of paid links? Many SEO’s will tell a client to sponsor a company or event, inevitably getting a link via initial payment. Bloggers write reviews in exchange for products or money. These techniques seem to be accepted but in essence are the same thing as using paid link networks, which aren’t accepted.

It is a high risk strategy especially for well known brands with eager competitors, as some have recently found. Should you do it if you can get away with it? Maybe but search engine optimisation is a long game and there are plenty of things to explore before getting lazy and buying paid links.

One Response

  1. Paid for links have always been a no go for me when it comes to running an seo campaign! They more often than not jeopardise the performance of the campaign and can damage the search engine presence of the website.

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