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Overstock Gets Penalized by Google
Written by David Harry
Wednesday, 23 February 2011 16:43

Wall Street Journal Sparks Latest Drama

With the recent public spankings of JC Penney and Forbes from main stream media, it was no surprise when I was alerted to some grumbings in the search space about This time, the Wall Street Journal is getting into the act.

It was just another Tuesday, unremarkable in many ways, when I was alerted to this thread on WMW and subsequently contacted by Amir Efrati from the WSJ. At first I braced for yet another drama, then stopped to wonder if this was all just a tempest in a tea pot.


Anatomy of the Offense

It seems while they were chatting on the WMW thread one of the members highlighted a PDF containing instructions on how to link to Overstock and which anchor texts. That then leads one to look at the various EDU links that they actually achieved with this approach.

When the story first broke, Overstock was ranking quite well for all the terms in question and has since been losing ground on them, which means a dampener or penalty was assessed. But the question remains WHY? Let's review what we know;

First off someone dug up this PDF which highlights the URLs and desired anchors for them.

Here's the cache of one of the pages in question. The links are like so (now removed);

Overstock blog links

And of course there are a bunch of others such as these;

There we more than just the EDU stuff going on here as well folks. In the limited research I did there was what appeared to be mommy blogger outreach and more. Question is; does circumstantial evidence leave one at risk? Yes, most of us SEOs know EXACTLY how they got some of these links, but that's not cut and dried now is it?

Consider this post. The links to OS all over this post seem anything but natural, but can we truly say they weren't editorial? No. Do we SEOs know better? Well..... I leave that to you.

And on the whoops side, they used the same coupon code for the program so you can also track them down (to a degree) with this query (including the infamous PDF).

Why Is This A Penalty?

Considering there is certainly some action being taken by Google, what was the problem? From what I can tell OS wasn't actually stipulating that links were part of the discount deal. There isn't anything showing that they paid for them. All we really have is one somewhat suspect link profile. Not un-common either.

One obvious element comes to mind is that they've had 'issues' in the past with Google. I haven't really dug around the rest of their link profile, not to mention their verticals (Cars, Real Estate, Auctions). It is certainly likely that they've got more issues than just this.

For example they used to have 'sponsored links' on the site. Which are no longer there... look at this SERP;

That much isn't evident at this point. A representative from Overstock did say that,

We enabled university webmasters to provide discount links to faculty and students. Google has made clear they believe these links should not factor into their search algorithm. We understand Google's position and have made the appropriate changes to remain within Google's guidelines. In fact, we discontinued this program two weeks ago.

I do know that they have indeed talked to Google and so this might just be what it was. Personally? I think there's more to this story, we may never know.

I shall edit this post as I learn more along the way. All in all, another interesting case.


UPDATE Feb 24; Further discussions have turned up the fact that the EDU links weren't the only problem. Sadly I am not at liberty to discuss exactly what, but I wanted to at least update the story. Oh and for those that seemed to think I was 'CanadianGuy' on the WMW thread, this is NOT the case. I came to this story AFTER Overstock's rankings were nuked. I do NOT work in any of the niches that Overstock covers. I merely reported on it all. Thanks

David Harry -

Hi my name is Dave and I, am an algo-holic

I am an avid search geek that spends most of his time reading about and playing with search engines. My main passion has always been about the technical side of things from a strong perspective rooted in IR and related technologies.You can find me providing SEO consulting services for Verve Developments.

You can also hook up with me via


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0 #1 alanbleiweiss 2011-02-23 17:12
Yeah those are some scuzzy links. I bet there was much more going on though. Especially since this was labeled as "in part due to..." by O's talking head.
0 #2 Derek Cromwell 2011-02-23 17:20
Sometimes I can't help but wonder if we're being spoon-fed by Google when penalties like this occur. Think of it from the celebrity perspectives, where two celebrities will create some level of dramatic "fall out" in order to generate publicity.

Google has been under fire in the past by people wondering just how well the algorithm (and the entire system overall) works at catching and dealing with spams or those with paid links. It almost seems as if they are putting the pressure on bigger brands just let everyone know "we're watching."

Would anyone really care if this happened to an unknown brand? Likely not.
0 #3 David Harry 2011-02-23 18:25
@Alan - I am not so sure I'd call them 'scuzzy' because I reserve that for the hack n link crowd. But most certainly this wasn't the most intelligently crafted link profile, that's for sure.

And yes, from what I do know, it seems there was more going on that just this. I am sure we'll hear more details in the days to follow.

@Derek - I can tell you that this was brought about from the WMW thread. This was not between Google and the WSJ. Google was contacted BY them. And in many ways, this is a blow for the little guy. When a SMB gets whacked, they get WHACKED. It's heart warming (for them) to see a larger brand face the same type of situation.

All in all? Just more drama to get us through to next week once this is all said and done IMO.
0 #4 Ken Jansen 2011-02-24 06:32
This may sound a little naive, but is the assumption that somehow a grad student was motivated in some fashion by OS to write a paper with links to OS? OS gets very little downside, if they don't get 'caught' they get an edu link, if they do get 'caught' they get a ton of free publicity. Wow.
-1 #5 Ken Lyons 2011-02-24 06:40
SEO Tattle Tailing: it's latest SEO "strategy!"

Trouble is, I'm trying to figure out where to include it in my process. Should I rat out my competitors before or after doing keyword research?

So many questions....
-1 #6 steveplunkett 2011-02-24 08:47
love this... Dave, Alan.. u know who the SEO was/is.. karma..
0 #7 Mark 2011-02-24 08:50
No doubt this story and the previous JC Penny debacle will have many SEO re-thinking their link building strategies through fear of facing a hefty left hand from Google.

Surely Google are going about this the wrong way? Google are reliant on the webmaster of all sites obeying Googles terms, in return said sites will rank well.

If webmasters decide to cross the line it appears Google have to manually devalue these sites. Now for singular sites this isn't a problem, but Google needs to create a system that takes care of business for them.

Time to update your algos Google.
0 #8 Robyn 2011-02-24 15:42 impression in following this story today, and based on your updates Dave, is that the real problem Google saw is a little deeper (and a lot more obscure). Take that PDF for example, is Google going to go after other companies that are linked to as part of the discount program? Then today is not your lucky day, Howard Diet!!

I think the issue if this is really the issue is the anchor text spam. Which is REALLY egregious. Like, comically so. As well as manipulative, and arguably deserving of punishment from Google. But otherwise I don't see how such a program is any different from Yahoo! Directory or BOTW.

As Barry Schwartz mentioned over at Search Engine Roundtable, this is a tip that top SEOs have been advocating for a few years, along with event sponsorships, etc. I don't know that there's a single link-building guide that lacks something similar to this. Guest posting is not fundamentally different from a charity sponsorship or discount deal either. I give you my time (time = money), write an article, I get a link. Voila.

It would be nice to have the actual reason for the penalty clarified. I don't think Google should let slide with a misleading explanation for the penalty if indeed the reason for the penalty was more complicated. Hopefully this is just a sign that Google is going to get a lot better at anchor text spam detection.
0 #9 David Harry 2011-02-24 21:32
Hi Robyn - I do admit that many of the links I found were also near comical, and that this alone isn't generally grounds for such a move. Thus, I can safely say that the 'other' issues are what likely played into the final decision.

And yes, it would be nice if they'd come out and make a statement, but given the fact that SEOs with agendas lead both the JCP and this Overstock one, I can see why they don't want to 'comment on specific cases' publicly. It sets a bad precedence and I can appreciate that.

I wouldn't massively over-haul your link building apporaches because of it. Just play safe and NEVER offer to exchange, renumerate, buy or sell links citing PageRank as the valuation. If you weren't doing any of those, you should be fine IMO.
0 #10 Robyn 2011-02-25 06:55
Hi Dave,

Thanks for your comment. I suppose you are right about Google not commenting on specific cases...and as you said this is just more drama to get us through to next week. I was more reacting to how this was reported outside of Search News Central than anything else. IMO, there's no particularly new lesson to take from this. Spam is sort of like the famed standard for obscenity - "I know it when I see it." When I look at the anchor text, I see it, when I look at the broader issue of discount programs, charities, etc. I don't. I didn't necessarily see that point sufficiently argued anywhere.

It would be interesting to read a post about competitor outing that describes what SEOs consider the "tipping point" for outing. At what point is your competitor acting so egregiously that you out them?
0 #11 BC 2011-02-25 11:41
The mommy blogs are notorious for link builders to hit up. They pretty much blog about saving money, so what better way then to just get something for free, or for cash... They are total spam.
0 #12 S.Jameson 2011-03-01 11:23
This issue raises as many questions as it answers. Hundreds of so-called directories are little more than well dressed link farms and many SEO companies think nothing of submitting a client's website to anyone that will provide a link. They use fake blogs, paid "sponsorships", or link swaps that are "favors". At what point does Google start to frown? Is there any protection at all for the business owner?

The worst part is coming in to a job after the damage has already been done and trying to clean up the mess.

The paid link program OS used is pretty easy to spot, but many black hat techniques are not as easy to catch or correct. And too many of those can be used without proper authorization.

If the new strategy is SEO "tattle-tale" then what is to stop those same unscrupulous individuals from submitting their competitors to every link farm or spam site themselves, then falsely "outing" that competitor later? I hope Google finds a way to manage this mess before we all end up playing Web-Wars.

This whole situation reminds me of Public Relations debacle in the 80's. At one point there was so much unscrupulous "spinning" going on that the whole industry suffered. Many people today still have a distrust of PR people and it seems as though SEO consultants are about to be painted with the same brush.

Although Google is the market leader, SEO is bigger than any one search engine and there is a real danger to business owners who are at the mercy of unethical SEO practices. An unethical SEO consultant can sink a business with its shady (and often "proprietary") practices and walk away unscathed. Six months later it is the business owner that pays the price and yet they have no legal recourse.

What we really need is some sort of legal and ethical accountability and a regulatory body to enact standardization and enforce it.

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