The Aftermath of the JCPenney Paid Links Bust

In the wake of the New York Times busting JCPenney for running a paid link campaign, I decided that we should really take a look at what might happen next. Sure, JCPenney denied authorizing the links and then fired SearchDex. And Google punished JCPenney by dropping their rankings out of the top 50 for pretty much every possible keyword and search term. But now what? What might happen next for all the parties involved? I’m glad I asked. Because I’m going to tell you what I think. With pictures from Tommy Boy to help narrate my thoughts at the meta level!

"Savor the flavor, cause it sure as hell won't happen again." - Ray Zalinsky
“Savor the flavor, cause it sure as hell won’t happen again.” – Ray Zalinsky

1. JCPenney

JCPenney just pulled one over on Google. The word ‘epic’ gets overused on the Internet today, but I’d say this event was truly epic. With the help of a paid link campaign (put together idiotically but effectively by SearchDex), JCPenney dominated Google’s algorithm and spam team. It was complete and total domination. Matt Cutts even admitted to the New York Times that he and his team missed the entire link campaign. But now that Google has punished JCPenney, what should JCP do now for SEO? I’ll tell you: absolutely nothing.

Here’s the deal: Google has admittedly taken “strong action” against JCPenney. The only thing that JCPenney can do is take down the links and fire their SEO agency. Taking down the links will hopefully help to get the penalty lifted sooner. Firing their SEO agency was just to save face. “See Google, we got rid of that blackhat SEO agency. So we’re cool, right?”

JCPenney has no control over when/if Google will lift the penalty. And even with the punishment from Google, is still ranking in the top 100 for a ton of highly competitive keywords. That indicates that their current whitehat SEO strategies are probably decent and effective. They should get rid of any shady on-site SEO methods, and they should continue their basic SEO 101 processes that are already in place. The strong JCP brand name and the millions of quality links will help JCP regain its rankings soon enough.

My advice: Take the thousands of dollars you were paying SearchDex for their SEO consulting services and take the thousands of dollars you were paying for the paid links – use that money for something else! How about reputation management? Or PPC? Or social? Or display media? Or maybe all of the above. I wouldn’t spend one dollar on SEO until the penalty has been lifted. Time heals all wounds. Just wait it out.

"Need a little wind here." - Tommy Boy Callahan III
“Need a little wind here.” – Tommy Boy Callahan III

2. SearchDex

Man, they do need a little wind here. I must say that I’m kinda bummed out for SearchDex. I mean, seriously. They delivered results to a client who was desperate for rankings. I’d wager my favorite guitar that JCPenney was fully aware of the benefits *and* possible risks inherent with such a massive paid link campaign. And while I think they bought links on some of the spammiest, low rent, and trashiest websites, I’ve gotta acknowledge SearchDex for one thing: they were the masterminds behind a paid link campaign that delivered amazing results to a massive retailer during the holidays. (Note: If you’ve ever worked with a Fortune 1000 retailer, you know that some of them make 80%-90% of their yearly revenue in the holiday season.) SearchDex delivered results. And that’s the truth.

Additionally, I’m bummed out for SearchDex because they were ratted out by a journalist who got tipped off or had a hunch. (BTW there are a lot of people asking how that journalist got tipped off. I’d also like to know!) I don’t like seeing other SEO agencies or even other SEOs get kicked in the nuts by a national media website just looking for a way to sell a story to the masses. Just think: Once the writer found out the story involved Google, it was game over for SearchDex and JCPenney. The writer could spin the plot to include a major retailer taking advantage of Google via a “link scheme” (who even says that?!?). Jeez. It makes me want to puke. And to do it in such a way that makes Google look like the good guy. And to make searchers look like innocent victims caught in a sinister plot to rule the online world via better rankings. Barf.

SearchDex probably lost clients over this. Some of their employees are probably worried about their jobs. And it’s all because the story made them out to be the scapegoat for JCPenney. The New York Times article put the cross-hairs on, and that’s not really shedding lights on just how many major companies run paid link campaigns. While the writer interviewed a person who manages paid link campaigns, the take-home message was: most companies don’t buy links because they are afraid of getting caught, and most of them don’t have the “deep pockets” to buy links anyways. Well I’m here to let you know that if you are in a competitive industry and if you are being outranked by massive brands, it’s partly because 1) their sites have more authority than your site and 2) most of your top competitors are buying links. Believe me. It’s happening.

All SEM & SEO agencies will take the high road on paid links. After all, if you publish your client list on your website, you better have an official stance against paid link campaigns. Otherwise, you are inviting Google (and journalists, too!) to investigate your clients’ backlink portfolio. After the NYTimes article, I expect everyone to come out of the woodwork to talk shit about paid links. But really, we are living in a time where the “natural link” is pretty much non-existent (on the most popular websites and blogs). Even social networking sites have opportunities for paid links. For example, if I want to, I can purchase links via pay-per-tweet. I can also buy links on Facebook via innocent-looking status updates. It happens, and your most aggressive competitors are doing it. Trust me on that one.

"Look out. I've got cat-like speed and reflexes." - Tommy Boy Callahan III
“Look out. I’ve got cat-like speed and reflexes.” – Tommy Boy Callahan III

3. Google

The twitterverse is rife with people tweeting about how you punished JCPenney and about how the SearchDex people are a bunch of blackhat SEOs. However, in my opinion, the most glaring part of this story is how your algorithm and spam team missed this link campaign. How does any of this scare me away from buying links? I think Google knows that there are some links they simply cannot find with an algorithm. But even as Google’s detection methods get better, the mice will still find a way to get the cheese. But for now, at least Google can discount the obvious links. Or can they?

I think we can count on Google taking a deep look into the JCPenney paid link campaign, specifically the actual domains that were being used. It’s probably safe to say that those domains will not pass link juice any longer. In fact, some of those domains may get the death penalty themselves. Some of them are so spammy. It wouldn’t surprise me to see many of those domains de-listed by Google. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Google was able to detect a large portion of the massive network of spammy sites selling links – just using the JCPenney domains as a starting point. Using the SEOmoz tool, I found about 1,800 unique domains linking to the ‘dresses’ URL on I’m sure Google can find more than that. They have a few more resources than I do. Godspeed, Google. I fully support you ridding the web of crap. (Just please be lenient with this site. I’m really trying hard to make it good.)

On a conspiracy-related side note: I’m wondering if this entire story was planted by Google . Paid links are causing havoc with organic rankings. Was this whole thing one gigantic scare tactic for would-be link buyers? If it was, congrats. I’m sure there are a lot of companies that will suspend/end their paid link campaigns the moment they read the story. And honestly, maybe that will make it a lot easier for agencies in general because now pretty much every SEO agency can cite the NYTimes story as the reason not to buy links. That certainly will make life easier for some people. But then there are the people on the other side of the equation. Those SEOs will continue to buy links. Only now, they have less competition. Maybe this is a situation where everyone wins!

4. (and its link publishers)

I probably shouldn’t even mention on my site. Oh well. I guess I don’t really have anything to lose. Anyways, this is the link broker that the New York Times articles mentions by name. They have some stats on their homepage. I copied them on Sunday and then again today:

February 13, 2011:

  • Users: 149,807
  • (daily growth: +0.07%)
  • Sale speed: 10,009 Links/Hour
  • Pages in TNX database: 54,446,383
  • Text link ads sold: 15,701,150

February 14, 2011:

  • Users: 150,009
  • (daily growth: +0.08%)
  • Sale speed: 9,118 Links/Hour
  • Pages in TNX database: 39,258,838
  • Text link ads sold: 15,465,090

While the number of pages in the TNX database has dropped by 15 million, the number of links sold has increased by 300,000. I guess the NYTimes article was good for business at Maybe SearchDex and TNX can team up to provide link sabotage services. It’s pretty obvious that it could work, right? I kid. I kid. But there you have it. A big story runs in the New York Times about how buying links are against Google’s guidelines – and now has sold even more links. Gosh, I love SEOs. Always keeping it classy and playing it safe. Good times, indeed.

"I'm gonna go get directions to our next huge embarrassing failure." - Richard Hayden
“I’m gonna go get directions to our next huge embarrassing failure.” – Richard Hayden

SearchDex Removes Client Portfolio List From Website

It appears that SearchDex removed their client list from their website. Me thinks they didn’t want Google investigating any of their other clients after the JCPenney paid links drama that went down this week. As it turns out, there are ways of finding information that has been removed from sites. It really makes me think of the bad guys in “Scooby Doo” episodes: “And I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”

"And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids." - SearchDex
"And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids." - SearchDex

In this scenario, it was more like those pesky Google Cache pages. Yep. Here’s what that cached page will show you: clients! And some of them are huge brands. Let’s hope SearchDex wasn’t doing a lot of blackhattery on these sites, too. Cuz, hey, nobody wants to see a company go down. That’s just not right. They are people just like you and me.

SearchDex Client Portfolio

  • Gap
  • Banana Republic
  • Old Navy
  • Piperlime
  • Athleta
  • Cheap Caribbean
  • JCPenney
  • Williams-Sonoma
  • Blockbuster
  • Fossil Watches
  • Best Buy
  • Red Envelope
  • Orbitz
  • Nike Town
  • Diesel Watches
  • Anthropologie
  • A|X – Armani Exchange
  • Exposures
  • The Learning Company
  • west elm
  • Broderbund
  • Fila
  • Oriental Trading Company
  • Smart Bargains
  • Miles Kimball
  • Horchow
  • Illuminations
  • Sahalie
  • Solutions
  • Garrett Wade
  • Buckle
  • Touch of Class
  • Norm Thompson
  • The Home Marketplace
  • Armani Watches
  • Inside Store

JCPenney & The NYTimes: A Story About Google, Paid Links & SEO

Did you hear the news?!?!?! The NYTimes told on JCPenney for buying links. Then Matt Cutts went into the secret room at the Googleplex, unchecked a few boxes, and effectively banished to the depths of SERPs page 5 and beyond. This has got to be the biggest story since 2006, when Google gave ‘the death penalty’ to for about 3 days.

So here’s my initial reaction to this whole thing…

NYTimes, don’t you have better things to do? And JCPenney. Jeez. Where do I even start? “Uh…we didn’t buy any links.” Is that the best you could come up with? That’s like when the cops bust some dude for possession, and the guilty dude always issues this classic line: “Officer, that’s not mine.” Gimme a break. Now, we know you’re guilty. Or are you? DUN DUN DUN!

But seriously, JCPenney got ratted out for buying links, and within 24 hours, Google took “strong action.” And in order to save face, JCPenney turned around and immediately fired their SEO agency, SearchDex. I guess they had to do that, right? I mean, did JCPenney find out someone at SearchDex bought those links? If so, I wonder how that person paid for 2,000+ links. Maybe it was with a gigantic paid links budget from JCPenney. Oh yeah. I already forgot. JCPenney had no idea that someone spent money on 2,000+ links so that could rank #1 for awesome keywords during the holidays.

Is this good press for Google?

I’m a big fan of Google. Google built one hell of a search engine, one heck of an algorithm, and a marketshare that continues to increase. Furthermore, Google built an entire industry (SEO), where people like me can provide excellent search engine optimization recommendations for a fee. I’m not rich or anything, but SEO puts food on my family’s table and a roof over our heads. Thanks, Google! But I digest…

In the NYTimes article, Google’s #1 spam cop, Matt Cutts – the chief, the commissioner – admitted that his team had noticed’s tactics a few times before. From Matt Cutts:

He said Google had detected previous guidelines violations related to on three occasions, most recently last November. Each time, steps were taken that reduced Penney’s search results — Mr. Cutts avoids the word “punished” — but Google did not later “circle back” to the company to see if it was still breaking the rules, he said.

He and his team had missed this recent campaign of paid links, which he said had been up and running for the last three to four months.

“Do I wish our system had detected things sooner? I do,” he said. “But given the one billion queries that Google handles each day, I think we do an amazing job.”

WTF? Google’s algorithm and Spam Team missed a massive link campaign…by a major retailer…during the peak of the holiday season? Seriously? I’m sorry, Matt, but this story does nothing to scare me away from buying links. As I understand it, the NYTimes reported that JCPenney bought 2,000+ links with optimized anchor text on topically-unrelated sites (most of which are probably ‘bad neighborhoods’)! If your spam algorithm is not able to catch that, then I’m fairly certain that it’s not going to flag contextual paid links on topically-related, authoritative sites with solid PR4+, especially links that are built up slowly. Is it arrogant of me to think that? Probably. Will Google eventually find and discount all of the paid links? I don’t think so, but that remains to be seen.

Mr. Cutts emphasized that there are 200 million domain names and a mere 24,000 employees at Google.

Sooooo…the Internet is growing by “x” sites per day and Google can’t keep up with it because Google only has “y” number of employees. The Internet is only going to get bigger. If you can’t find paid links when there are 200 million domains, what are you going to do when there are 500 million? 1 billion? Furthermore, what are you going to do when a significant number of those domains are rapidly-generating content?

This whole story sounds like a press release aimed at scaring current and would-be paid link buyers. Well, I’m not scared. Not even after Vanessa Fox’s warnings.

Paid Link Sabotage?

Surprisingly, no one has mentioned the possibility that this was an act of paid link sabotage. What is that? Glad you asked. The logic goes like this:

  1. Google says paid links are bad.
  2. If I buy paid links to my competitor’s site, Google will think my competitor is doing bad stuff.
  3. I buy links to my competitor’s site, and then Google punishes my competitor.

Brilliant, right? Yep. It sure is. And this story has all the signs of a classic paid link sabotage:

  1. A massive number of links go up. (In this case: 2,000+)
  2. A large percentage of the links go up in a short amount of time (In this case: during holiday season)
  3. A large percentage of the link have optimized anchor text (In this case: competitive, non-branded keywords such as “casual dresses,” “evening dresses,” “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.”)
  4. ALL of the links are on sites that are topically-unrelated sites that appear to be abandoned. (I won’t link to those sites, but the New York Times did! 5 of them, in fact. And yeah, they used a nofollow tag. But link condoms don’t always work.)

I’ve never worked with SearchDex, but I’m assuming they have some good SEO’s over there. I even assume that they have some good link builders on staff. It is extremely difficult for me to believe that someone at SearchDex built a paid link proposal with the above criteria. Furthermore, I cannot imagine a client signing off on buying 2,000+ links on those random sites. Also, I can’t believe that in a massive company like JCPenney, no one in the chain of command raised any doubts or questions about this paid link campaign. I just can’t believe that.

To me, it would make more sense that someone bought 2,000+ crappy links in an effort to get a competitor knocked down in the rankings. But hey, people do make mistakes. I just don’t see how this could happen for a massive retail website like

Follow Michael Gray on Twitter at @graywolf
Follow Michael Gray on Twitter at @graywolf

And as Michael Gray put it:

The company outed in nyt should sell that exact service guaranteed to get someone banned

Graywolf is correct: The link broker who was outed in the story could potentially be used as a way to sabotage your competitor’s rankings.

Link brokers are the crack dealers of the Internet. They sell a product that makes them rich and ruins the lives of others (sometimes). I’m not hating. It is America after all. If there’s a market, let them sell their product. As long as they make money, they don’t need to worry about why anyone is buying the product. Disregard intentions. Acquire cash. Right?

Big Brands Can Typically Operate in the Gray Area

One last topic before I end this thing. If someone searches for “nike running shoes” or “dell desktop pc” or “fender stratocaster” – they probably expect to see, and in the top results, respectively. Wouldn’t it be strange if you searched for a product from a major brand, and you didn’t see the official brand site in the top 10? Granted, not all brand sites are as good as some of their dealers’ sites. But if you never saw the brand sites in the top 10, you’d probably think that the search results were not very good. It might not cause you to change your search engine preference, and most people would probably not even notice it. But over the past few years, Google has become very good at returning brand sites for branded searches, so it must be important to users. Maybe Google thinks you would change search engines if you didn’t like the results. Hmmm…

So, on one hand, Google has to punish shady, blackhat SEO. But on the other hand, Google must return brand sites for branded searches… *and* for many non-branded searches. Because of this, it’s probably safe to say that bigger brands can get away with more grayhat SEO than their smaller competitors. It’s very likely that Google overlooks some of the more aggressive/risky SEO tactics being used by bigger brands. For example, even when admitted to using doorway pages back in Feb-2006, the site was only out of Google’s index for 3-4 days (delisted, reinclusion). That would never happen with a small brand’s website.

In many ways, bigger brands get preferential treatment. And that makes this whole story even more ironic: Why would JCPenney do this? They should be able to leverage their strong brand, use some basic SEO strategies, and get ranked well for pretty much anything they sell.

Springer’s Final Thoughts

First, this post is way too long. Sorry about that. Thanks for hanging in there. I hope it was worth it. On the topic of paid links, I really don’t think that there are too many “natural” links on websites or blogs anymore. Nowadays, I think social media has the best indicators of authentic, natural link growth. Think about it. You will rarely ever see e-commerce sites linking out to other products on other sites. If they do, I’m probably going to assume something is in it for both parties. And when I see a link in the footer or sidebar of a blog, I’m fairly certain that it’s paid or sponsored. And if I see a link in the context of a blog that points to a site where I can buy something, I’m going to assume that the blog owner is being compensated for the link. That’s just the world we live in right now. Blame Canada, err, I mean Google.

If anything, this NYTimes article shows me just how hard it is for Google to keep up with the growth of the Internet. In light of the recent AOL/HuffPo news and the news of Google finally setting their cross-hairs on content farms, I imagine that this whole paid link topic is only going to get messier. It’s a cloudy issue already because the fact remains that paid link sabotage is theoretically possible. How does Google know who is buying the links? As Tommy Boy said: “Hmm…that a mystery!”

"Hmm...that's a mystery!" - Tommy Boy
"Hmm...that's a mystery!" - Tommy Boy

Finally, be smart out there, especially with your link building. The wrath of Google is real, so don’t get caught. Play it safe. Only purchase links on topically-related websites with a solid fan base, decent traffic, and/or high PageRank. Grow your links slowly. Mix up your anchor text (i.e. some branded keywords, some non-branded keywords). It’s okay to push the boundaries a little. Just keep it classy, and you’ll be fine.


Update [Feb. 13, 2011]:

  • DougUnplugged has a great read with a lot of the background data on the story. It turns out that SearchDex was to blame for the paid links. Doug also found some evidence of JCPenney using doorway pages built by SearchDex. He also shows some screenshots that prove JCPenney was stuffing keywords and links on their product pages. Will SearchDex survive this story?

User Experience Fail: The Super Bowl 45 Ticket Fiasco

Did you watch Super Bowl 45? If so, you were one of the record 111 million people who watched it on TV. If you were actually at the game, you were one of the 103,219 people in attendance. Amazing numbers, right? The Super Bowl is like that seasonal website you have that gets 99% of its yearly traffic on one day. So when that day comes around, you gotta make sure your site is 100% operational, functional and usable. Because if it’s not, your visitors will become your worst nightmare. And that’s even more true in these days of social media and sharing.

This year’s Super Bowl was marred by several things. First and foremost, the ice storm. Next, you had ice falling off the roof of the stadium and onto some innocent bystanders on the ground. Then there was the fact the ice basically shut down North Texas for 3-4 days. There were rolling blackouts at NFL headquarters hotel. And a taxi strike at the airport. It was a real nightmare. Everyone was ready to get to the game. And as luck would have it, the sun came out on the weekend. Awesome!

Super Bowl 45: Unused temporary seats deemed unsafe by the Fire Marshall
Super Bowl 45: Unused temporary seats deemed unsafe by the Fire Marshall

Well, it wasn’t so awesome for about 1,200 Super Bowl ticket holders who arrived at the game, only to find out that their seats were not available. As it turns out, their seats were part of a last-minute installation by the NFL – a rush job that the Fire Marshall would not approve. The temporary seats were all in place, but there were no handrails leading up the stairs to the seats. That’s unsafe, and the Fire Marshall said there just wasn’t enough time to get it completed and checked by game time. The NFL was able to find suitable accommodations for about 800 of the ticket holders, but 400 of the ticket holders were completely SOL. And man, were they pissed off!

Because I am a huge SEO nerd, this entire situation reminded me of website usability. It’s widely known that the NFL and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted this Super Bowl to set the all-time Super Bowl attendance record.

“I know the stadium can handle it, relative to restrooms, space and concessions,” says Jones, mindful that the Cowboys’ home opener against the New York Giants in 2009 drew 105,121. “You want to do something that’s never been done before.”

My belief is that they got so carried away focusing on that Super Bowl attendance goal – they forgot about their customers, most importantly, their customers’ experience and satisfaction. [And to be completely fair, I’m sure the NFL provided an amazing experience in several others areas of the Super Bowl, but this really goes to show you how all of the good stuff can be overshadowed by one mistake.]

Worst seat at Super Bowl 45? I mean, I can see some of the field.
Worst seat at Super Bowl 45? I mean, I can see some of the field.

Many ticket holders found themselves in temporary seats that had extremely obstructed views. While many other ticket holders had knowingly purchased tickets in standing-room-only areas with very limited views of the field. There were even people who paid $200 per person to stand in the parking lot and watch the game on gigantic TV screens. In those cases, buyers beware. But it really goes to show you that the goal was not to provide an awesome experience. Rather, the goal was to set an attendance record. This is all sorts of backwards.

Just like when you’re building a website, the first thing you want to think about it usability and the experience of a visitor on your website. If someone lands on your site, can they easily find what they are looking for? Is there a quick and simple path to convert and/or purchase? Is the overall experience of the site positive? This is classic conversion optimization, and it sounds like the NFL could’ve used a lesson in these concepts on the gridiron.

I mean, really. I see this all the time: websites with too much stuff packed into the header, navigation, footer, sidebar(s) and content area. This is what visitors never say about your site:

Oh, awesome! That is an amazing splash page. I love the hi-res 3D HD pictures that load into the splash page slideshow! What kind of camera did you use for that?!?! Wow. Such stunning images. And OMFG! That awesome Flash object in the right side bar…it might take forever to load, but it really makes me want to purchase something right now. Great! Oh, and I really like your javascript navigation. It doesn’t seem to load in Firefox, but I’ll switch over to IE8. No worries at all. And whoa! You’ve got music that auto-plays in the background on every page. Killer!

Exactly. These types of things kill the user experience. Get rid of them. Now.

When you are designing your pages, do not forget about the user. In fact, they should be the first thing you think about. Please don’t be like the NFL at Super Bowl 45. Be better than that. Learn from them. Please.

WTF, Gawker? You Redesigned All Your Sites?

This is the new Gizmodo? Really?
This is the new Gizmodo? Really?

    Gawker launched a site redesign today. And it’s not very good. At all. Also, the right-side navigation doesn’t ever seem to load completely. But wait! Doesn’t Gawker own several *really* popular websites? Why yes, yes they do. And as it turns out, they launched this new design across *ALL* of their websites: Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Jezebel, IO9, Jalopnik. Yep. This new format is live on all 8 sites. That’s not good at all. I suspect they will be taking some heat on this one, especially in the short term. I mean, really. It looks like a frames-style site from 1998.

    One of the things that is bothering me on the SEO side of things are the URLs. All of the links to posts have a hash (#) in the URL, just after the domain. This is not good. Check it out:

    Gawker URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)
    Gawker URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)
    Deadspin URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)
    Deadspin URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)
    Lifehacker URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)
    Lifehacker URL with # (New Site Design Feb-2011)

    Probably the most glaring mistake they made is loading all of their content via AJAX and javascript. For example, if you disable javascript and try to load the Gizmodo homepage, this is what you see:

    Hey Gizmodo. Disable Javascript and this is what you see: Nothing.
    Hey Gizmodo. Disable Javascript and this is what you see: Nothing.

    On another interesting note, you should take a look at the cached version of each of these sites:

    That can’t be good! After trying to load the cached versions of these pages –  it seems that the request is just repeated over and over again for a while – and then I’m directed to a Google page that says:

    Our systems have detected unusual traffic from your computer network

    Also, if you’re not a fan of slow loading times, you’re not going to enjoy this site right now. Get used to this gif:

    To be fair, I’m sure that much like all new website launches and redesigns, this project was not 100% complete. There are probably still some glitches that need to be fixed. And maybe that’s what I’m seeing with the URLs. But seriously, my first take on this new design is that it’s terrible. Maybe it will prove to be awesome once they fix everything. And who knows, maybe these sites are the first to move away from the typical blog-style template that has become so popular in the past 5 years. Were they trying to make a statement? Or were they trying to make a better product for their massive fan base? So many questions…

    I’m very interested to see how this one plays out. BTW Gawker, I’m still a big fan. Cheers!

    Some Big Websites Suck at Non-WWW to WWW Redirects

    Alright, folks. Today we’re going to talk about PageRank. Oh, I know. It’s dying and/or dead. Ok. Awesome. But it’s still a metric that we can use… at least a little. Like in this post, which happens to be about people not correctly redirecting their homepage URL from the non-www to www version.

    I’m going to assume you know the advantages of redirecting the non-www version of your site to the www version of the site. Across all pages. Or maybe you prefer to go the other way – swim up stream like I do with this site’s URLs – and redirect the www version to the non-www version. It’s all about eliminating duplicate content and making sure every link is most effectively attributed to the ‘official’ URL for your product pages, category pages, etc… Blah blah blah.

    Here are some sites that do this very efficiently and effectively (and their respective PageRank values):

    So fresh and so clean clean: Awesome examples of non-www to www via 301 redirects
    So fresh and so clean clean: Awesome examples of non-www to www via 301 redirects

    It’s so nice to see this being done correctly. And these are some bigtime brands. Well done, big brand sites. Well, done.

    In March 2010, Matt Cutts dropped some knowledge on us:

    Note: in a follow on email, Matt confirmed that this is in fact the case. There is some loss of PR through a 301.

    So really, we shouldn’t think of this non-www to www redirect method as something that is going to pass all of our linkjuice and PageRank through to the final URL. It simply doesn’t work that way. However, it still passes some PageRank AND it helps reduce duplicate content. And that’s good enough for me.

    So…the awesome examples were just the beginning of this post. Now we’re going to see some websites that are losing a lot of link juice from doing it all wrong.

    First, let’s take a look at sites that do not use any type of non-www to www redirect. And again, these are some big brand names right here:

    These sites need to join the party: Go ahead and 301 those non-www's already!
    These sites need to join the party: Go ahead and 301 those non-www's already!

    Wow! Sprint has the PR8. That’s impressive. But what would it be if you 301’d the 4,280 links that are currently pointing to the non-www homepage URL? If you wanted to go buy 4,280 links, that would be pretty expensive. You could pass all that linkjuice to the www version of your site – FOR FREE! How about that? That’s 4% of your total links to the non-www version of your site! And you could at least get some of that linkjuice. [BTW I got the external link numbers from SEOmoz’s Open Site Explorer tool.] The point is: Returning a 200OK for your non-www and www homepage URL isn’t terrible, but it’s not up-to-date with fundamental SEO principles.

    Now here are some sites that are doing the non-www to www redirect, but these sites all share the honor of having used the dreaded 302 temporary redirect. In general, the 302 redirect is the ‘Voldemort’ of SEO. You really don’t want to be caught mentioning it – ever. The 302 has its place, but it certainly is not needed in this conversation. Mainly, we don’t want to use a 302 for this because it does not pass any linkjuice. So here are some big sites that are using a 302 redirect from the non-www to the www version of their sites:

    I won't tell anyone. Just please change that to a 301 redirect. Already even!
    I won't tell anyone. Just please change that to a 301 redirect. Already even!

    Really, Apple? Really, Costo? Really, Walgreens? I’m just going to assume that you all have awesome SEOs who know what they are doing. Obviously there is a perfectly good reason for your sites to be using the 302 redirect for non-www to www. It’s probably classified. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, I still recommend that you update that redirect to a 301. It would make me happy. Because I’m an SEO nerd, and even more specifically – I want to see Apple at a PR10. I mean, maybe the linkjuice from another 114,524 links would help to get to PR10. I dunno. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

    Let’s dive into some other sites that are really screwing the pooch. As you will see in the following screenshot, some websites prefer to use *double* redirects and, yes, even *triple* redirects to get from the non-www to the www version of the homepage URL:

    Chain chain chain: Redirect chain of fools.
    Chain chain chain: Redirect chain of fools.

    To me, the double redirects and triple redirects look like a chain. Just imagine all the PageRank that is lost, siphoned off with each redirect. It’s terrible. Simply terrible. Verizon, I am a customer of yours. In general, I think you service is great. But it pains me to see a double 302 redirect on your homepage. Please fix that. Please. For the love… This is just depressing.

    Finally, I found a website that is guilty of something that I can barely bring myself to discuss. From a usability standpoint, it makes my blood boil with the rage of 1,000 SuperBowl-week ice storms. This site does not load when you visit their non-www homepage URL:

    The unforgivable sin of usability: homepage URL unreachable
    The unforgivable sin of usability: homepage URL unreachable

    Okay. Hahaha. Get your mind out of the gutter. BJ’s is a Fortune 500 company and a wholesale club. Now, redirecting the non-www to www is one thing. But in this case, basic web design and usability principles override SEO practices. It’s imperative that they at least get the non-www version of their homepage to return the actual homepage of their site, even if it is a 200OK. Even that would be better than the current scenario. I urge everyone to make sure this is not happening with your site. Please go check. You’ll feel better if you do. I promise.

    Well, that’s pretty much it. In conclusion:

    • 301’s are good, and 302’s are generally bad
    • non-www to www redirects can help increase your homepage URL’s PageRank
    • double redirects and triple redirects are not good
    • is a respectable Fortune 500 wholesale company

    Now get out there and take a look at your .htaccess file(s)!


    New Google Robots.txt File Disallows Eric Schmidt from CEO Directory

    My buddy Mike Smith made a funny joke about a new robots.txt file or robots meta tag for Google in the post-Eric Schmidt CEO era. I went ahead and made it. Funny?

    New Google Robots.txt file disallows EricSchmidtBot from CEO directory
    New Google Robots.txt file disallows EricSchmidtBot from CEO directory

    Now, anyone wanna give me the username and password, so I can upload this file via ftp?

    PS. I was going to make a title joke, too. But I’m too busy to do all that. Maybe someone should write a post about this with the headline “Page & Brin Update Eric Schmidt’s Title Tag” 🙂

    Update: Anonymous source claims Brin & Page caught Eric Schmidt buying links. (j/k)

    Monitoring Historical PageRank Trends & Changes

    With today’s Google PageRank update, I had to dust off a few old Excel docs. Actually, I pretty much check the PageRank for all of my sites every couple of months, so there was no ‘dusting off’ involved. I know, I know. PageRank is dying and/or dead. And it’s Toolbar PageRank, so it’s not even current data. In fact, looking at Toolbar PageRank is a lot like looking into a telescope that is pointed at the center of our universe. Essentially, you are looking back in time. Don’t be surprised if Emmett Brown jumps into view with a flux capacitor, offering to have Mr. Fusion eat all your garbage.

    But seriously, I thought I would share the method that I use to visually monitor historical PageRank changes and trends for a set of URLs:

    Monitoring Historical PageRank Changes & Trends
    Monitoring Historical PageRank Changes & Trends

    Yeah. I know. It looks like a weird game of Minesweeper (SEO version). But it’s easy to set up, using conditional formatting, and it really helps to quickly identify Toolbar PageRank lottery winners and losers.

    Now, do I freak out if some of my sites drop in PR? Not at all. What about the URLs that move up in PageRank? Well, I do take a little joy in that. But overall, I really don’t use this data to make any major SEO decisions. And I wouldn’t recommend using PageRank as a KPI for your SEO campaigns. However, this data can be used for diagnostic purposes if something totally random occurs with your PageRank. For instance, if you see a massive PageRank drop (i.e. PR4 –> PR1), then I recommend you find out why that might have happened, as it could be affecting your overall results.

    Let me know if you have any other ways of monitoring PageRank trends. I’d love to hear about them.


    PS. I know that ‘-1’ is not a valid PR value. I use ‘-1’ instead of ‘PageRank Unavailable’. It makes it easier to sort. Boom. Roasted.

    PageRank Update January 2011

    "It's about damn time." - Angry PageRank Bird
    "It's about damn time." - Angry PageRank Bird

    Well, it looks like Google updated the toolbar PageRank today. And now everyone is going to be checking their sites for PageRank changes. It seems like the last PageRank update was back in early 2010 (April, right?). Ahhh, yes. Those were the days. Pre-caffeine. Pre-MayDay. Pre-Snooki being a New York Times best-selling author (link). Welcome to 2011, Google. Thanks for joining the party. Better late than never. I guess.

    SEO Vets Take All Comers (SMX Advanced 2010)

    On this panel:

    • Alex Bennert, In House SEO, Wall Street Journal
    • Greg Boser, President and CEO, 3 Dog Media
    • Bruce Clay, President, Bruce Clay, Inc.
    • Vanessa Fox, Contributing Editor, Search Engine Land
    • Todd Friesen, VP of Search, Position Technologies
    • Rae Hoffman, Owner, Sugarrae Internet Consulting
    • Stephan Spencer, VP of SEO Strategies, Covario

    I’m glad that Danny Sullivan is moderating this one. This is my favorite panel of the entire conference circuit.

    • “We have 300 or 400 years of experience on this panel.” – Danny Sullivan
    • “My name is Greg, and I’m as old as dirt. Almost as old as Bruce (Clay).” – Greg Boser
    • “I’m Bruce Clay, and you’ve all probably been to my site.” – Bruce Clay

    Talking points:

    • Is it open season on javascript links? Well, kinda, now that Google is looking for them and crawling JS to find paid links.
    • Supposedly, Mayday went after the longtail. It’s more of an algorithm change that goes after spam, specifically longtail pages that they refer to as “content farms”. This probably happens to sites that have a lot of links to the homepage, but not many links to deeper URLs in the site. They are not necessarily content farms, but they are not as authoritative or relevant as other sites.
    • Greg Boser: “External links are the key.”
    • Sugarrae noticed that where product pages dropped out of the rankings due to Mayday, category pages replaced them. And a lot of it has to do with how you link internally.
    • Danny: “Is Matt Cutts a damn liar?”
    • Stephan just gave the audience a way to determine if Matt Cutts is lying.
    • Todd: Who cares if Google is tracking your bounce rate. People are leaving.
    • Bruce: There is no PageRank evaporation from NoFollows.
    • Bruce is upset that CNN won’t link to his site. 🙁
    • Bruce says CNN publishes a million articles a month. There’s no way they can SEO the content once it’s been launched. The best way to do SEO is at the point of creation. You have to teach them SEO so they can embed it in their processes.
    • Now Vanessa is going on and on about crawl caps.
    • Greg: Ratio of total pages to traffic’d pages – that’s an important number. You can improve the performance of the pages that are showing up in Google by excluding the crawling of the crappy pages. And then start going after the poor performing pages one by one.
    • Is the site: on Google very reliable? It seems to be broken. One day it shows 380k. Then the next day it shows 50k. Then the next day it shows 110k. What’s the deal? The panelists say that most google operators are unreliable.