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A Degree of Cheating? Overstock Incentivise University Websites in Return for Links

James Perrin

by James Perrin on 24th February 2011

What have JC Penney, Forbes and Overstock got in common? Well, in the eyes of Google they have all been penalised for gaining artificial rankings through linking irregularities. However is there a distinct difference between what their latest victim, Overstock, has done in comparison to the former two companies?

What were Overstock accused of doing?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Overstock were perceived to be ‘gaming’ Google by artificially boosting their rankings. They did this by encouraging US Colleges and Universities to link to their site, in return Overstock were incentivising the educational institutions with a 10% discount for students and employees.

Now, it’s of huge benefit for commercial websites to gain links from educational institutions. This is because these type of websites (in the case of this story, this is referring to ‘.edu’ sites) are considered more authoritative by Google’s algorithm. This gives their links added strength and helps them to transfer more benefit.

Google declined to comment as they don’t discuss specific websites; this makes it difficult to precisely understand the exact offence from Overstock. However, generally we understand they violated Google’s policy when it comes to optimisation. Is this because Overstock incentivised websites that linked to their website? It certainly looks that way.

Is this really the same as buying/selling links?

Here’s an example from a previous blog post [see: The Ethics of Using Visitors to do Your Link Building, SEO and Social Work]. The premise of the story revolves around the issue of receiving free items of clothing should shoppers leave ‘happy comments’ on blogs. These weren’t even blogs associated with shopping website but rather ‘favourites from across the web’. Isn’t this buying links by another name? Fair enough we’re not talking about the exchange of cash, but it’s an incentive nonetheless.

It’s unsure if this website was penalised for their activity – however there wasn’t much of a difference between what they and Overstocked were doing. Although, one was significantly more open about their activity (albeit the one who may have escaped punishment).

So is that it then? A PR battle? On one hand Google have stepped up their efforts against ‘gaming’ for purely operational reasons – they don’t want people cheating them. On the other hand they are also showing that they will take on the big boys if they find irregularities. The JC Penney story [See: Looking for a Black Hat? Good Luck finding one at JC Penney] revealed how slow Google were to react to Penney’s tactics and more so how Google’s algorithms were failing to detect these paid links – creating bad PR for Google.

Google’s recent efforts to stamp out perceived black hat SEO tactics could also be an effort to reinforce their credibility and show that they mean business when it comes to gaming. It’s a double edged sword – on the surface it’s a good thing to penalise companies involved in black hat SEO activity. However, it also exposes potential flaws in their own algorithm and definitions of link manipulation.

So with three major sites getting a slap on the wrist, the big question now surely is who’s next? You can be sure that there’ll be a fair few companies digging away to find out what their competitors are up to, newspapers seeking out the next big scoop and SEOs getting a little hot under the collar.

James Perrin

James Perrin

Content Marketing Manager, James Perrin is a regular contributor to the Koozai blog. Well experienced in sales and marketing, James also has a passion for journalism and media, especially new media. From the latest industry related new stories to copywriting advice, James will provide you with plenty of digital marketing information.

6 Comments

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 24th February 2011

    A tricky one. Did Overstock ask specifically for the links in return for the discount? If not then this is no different to a student discount scheme and schemes that give savings for national services. Google really should draw the line and tell people where it ends so there’s no confusion.

    On the other hand giving stuff away in return for a favourable review is incredibly dishonest. For a link is one thing, but for deliberately positive coverage is certainly due to be penalised.

    Reply to this comment

  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen 24th February 2011

    The issue I have with this, particularly in light of Mike’s comment is the fact that they used specific anchor text and linked to deep (category) pages. A small issue, but one that shows that they weren’t simply offering a discount but deliberately looking to gain an advantage – otherwise, why not just send a link to the homepage and give the code.

    It looks more like a deliberate action as a consequence. The discount/payment thing is a moot point, they used that simply for leverage to get their links shown on the .edu sites. Whilst JC Penney can claim ignorance, I don’t think the same is true of Overstock. Just my two cents, more to come next week I’m sure.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 24th February 2011

    Ahh I had assumed the image was from the company website, not one of the edu site. In that case (spammy anchor text used over and over), it’s no wonder they got penalized.

    Glad to see that legitimate discount schemes won’t be penalized, if they don’t try to spam the world anyway. Which is good, because student discount got me through University.

    Reply to this comment

  • Kristoffer 24th February 2011

    I thought of this too when I first read the story on Wall Street Journal. It makes me wonder what more Google considers as “black-hat”. Will they go as far as calling guest posting a black hat technique as well. The link didn’t get there naturally after all…

    -Kristoffer

    Reply to this comment

  • Thomas Abacioa 24th February 2011

    So there are 3 big sites compared to how many getting away with it. Seems like Google turns a blind eye until there is a public outcry. Why are reporters and forums members doing a better job at identifying these tactics than Google? Well Google is probably getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in PPC ad money from these guys. I’m Just saying!

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 25th February 2011

    Thanks for your comments Kristoffer and Thomas.

    Today’s big Google update (in the US) seems to be focused more on punishing content farms, so hopefully they are learning lessons from these public outcrys. eHow are still safe, so it’s still not a complete clamp down but it’s a start.

    As for SEO’s exposing black hat tactics it seems the flood gates have opened, if my Twitter feed today is anything to go by, so you can expect a lot more in the future.

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