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James Perrin

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

24th Feb 2011 News, Industry News 2 minutes to read

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.

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