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The Reputation Disaster of Outing Competitors on the Industry

JCPenney and Overstock say “We’re Back Baby!”

If you haven’t seen yet, and are back in the SERPs. JCPenny was discovered just a day shy of exactly three months since the NY Times article outing them for manipulative link practices, has reemerged from Google banishment and is back on the first page for some very broad keyphrases.

On a tip from Brian Bowers, a Charlotte, NC SEO Specialist, I hit the SERPs to check it out for myself.


Brian goes on to say,

“Instead of 301 Redirecting each individual old product page to the new redesign product page, it redirects each product page to its home page now, therefore making the old page’s content hard to crawl/index except for the URL itself”¦ Also, I am mainly seeing the 1st Page Rankings in Google and very few occurrences in Yahoo and Bing for the keyword samples that I am reviewing.”


Also, Overstock appears to have bounced back just as well from its indiscretions against Google and for the term “baby furniture” you can easily see just how well. Overstock is in the 5th position and JCPenney is in the 6th (but this is following both local and shopping enhanced listings).

They’re Back but, How?

When Google catches you in the act of intentionally manipulating the search algorithms it is not always a kiss of death that equal indefinite banishment from the SERPs. Google downright hates algorithm scammers and if your “square peg” practices don’t fit their “round hole” guidelines all you have to do is reshape your practices to fit and your back.

The list of steps to be re-included in the Google SERPs is relatively short:

  1. Play the victim, throw your SEO agency under the bus. JCP has already laid the ground work for you with this excerpt from the NY Times article:
  2. Clean-up your link profile by having as many of the offending links taken down.
    For example, before the banning by Google, JCPenney had keyword-rich links coming from sites all over the place like real estate sites, casino sites and blogs about anything, everything and nothing to do with the actual linked to product. The relevancy of these sites was exceedingly low but the keyphrase targeting was exceptionally high, a clear sign that something manipulative was in the works. Now, when you pull up JCP’s back links using Google’s link command you tend to find much more relevant sites in the list.
  3. Submit a re-inclusion request via Google Webmaster Tools and wait, sometimes, up to 3 months.


Okay, I may have over simplified step 2 but that is really what Google is primarily interested in. By cleaning up your linking profile, your peg transforms from square to round and you are ready for a Google review.

The Short Lived Tactic of Outing

As SEOs, the arsenal we have to pull from to optimize sites is full of weapons that we can use to build effective strategies. These weapons run the gamete from on-site optimization techniques that are now best practices to succinctly timed pieces of PR that “happen” to attract links. You will either agree with me or wholeheartedly disagree with me on the following statement but, outing competitors for overly manipulative practices is one of our weapons.

I am not saying that everyone should now tattletale on their competitors to the search engines (or the newspapers) when you get beat. Nor, am I saying that the search engineers need our help because, believe me, if I was as smart as them I would be filthy-rich, on a boat and most likely not writing this. What I am saying is that there are SEOs who choose to operate outside of the guidelines that the search engines hold us to and when that happens, don’t feel bad about reporting competition for not working within them.

Also, let’s be completely honest, outing a competitor is a not going to cure any of the SEO shortcomings with our own site; at best it buys a little time and forces our competitors to operate within the guidelines just long enough to pass a re-inclusion test. We can also clearly see that the impact of outing is short lived. Both JCPenney and Overstock were back in the SERPs within a few months.

Other SEOs definitely agree with this. In a recent email to the SEO Training Dojo members from David Harry, he said

“Nuking competitors is NOT the answer”¦ at the end of the day, using the media or other avenues, reporting top competitors will often only be a very limited and short term solution. Move along… nothing to see here.”


Now, what I do have a problem with is the stage on which these outings occurred and the manner in which the competitors of JCPenney and Overstock conducted themselves.

The Pending SEO Reputation Disaster

Every time I come across a new search community online where education, discussion, sharing and guidance is being conducted or a fresh SEO blog where through what they share I can tell SEO is being done right, I feel great about the advancement of not only SEO but the Search Engine Marketing industry as a whole. However, when bullshit like outing competitors through a global news source happens rather than through the appropriate channels, I fear for the reputation of our industry.

Let me share a short story about an experience I had that cannot be too far from the general public’s perception of SEOs.

I was at a wedding a couple weeks after JCPenney splashed the headlines and, like at every wedding you go to, we were going around the table saying what we did for a living. When it came to my turn, I said “Search Engine Marketing” because the chances of someone knowing what SEO is at random is really small. My wife does the best job of explaining in layman’s terms what I do by stating, simply, “He gets websites to rank higher in Google.” Immediately, the woman sitting across from me exclaims and asks, “Oh! Are you one of those Blackhat SEOs?”

After clearing up exactly what I did for my clients and how I was not “one of those Blackhat SEOs”, I asked her how she came to know what SEO was because most people have never heard of it. She said “The JCPenney article from the New York Times.”

Unbelievable. Well, not totally. People do actually read the NYT so the chances of this happen are not zero. But, previous to reading the article, this woman had never heard of SEO and the first opinion she had formulated about those who work in the industry was a negative one.

There are many SEOs who work tirelessly to polish and shine their SEO badges and proudly display them; I am one of those SEOs. So, when the tarnish builds on MY reputation through indirect and direct hits against the industry I am left asking, “Is that what was really best?”

Your hatred of competitors may run deep, but before you make the move to publicly out their tactics consider this – Besides the narrow focus of you vs. them, how could this ripple out and impact the SEO industry? There is an industry out there that we should all be worried about because if our reputation continues to tarnish there will be a retraction of marketing dollars invested in SEO.



  1. Peter Young May 24, 2011

    Great Post Matt.

    I have to agree with your thoughts on the outing – something I wrote about in a similar post on State of Search –

    Whilst none of us want to see blatant flouting and outing – at the same time washing our dirty laundry in public possibly isnt the best way to instil confidence in what is still a close/tight knit and misunderstood community

  2. Matt May 24, 2011

    Hi Peter! Thanks for sharing your State of Search post (I had missed that one and recommend everyone should go read it).

    Your closing paragraphs succinctly drive home the point. Public outing is not doing us any favors and yes, as many SEOs do deal with reputation management, we suck at it as an industry.

    I am “young gun” who is utilizing SEO as a platform to build a long-term consulting business on. So, you can see why the reputation of the industry does matter because not only my current but also future livelihood rests on it.

  3. Doc May 25, 2011

    Great piece, Matt!

    You can definitely count me among those that worry about the reputation of the industry as a whole. It irked me tremendously, when the NYT writer chose to cast us as the villains, when he obviously has learned only the buzz-words of the industry, rather than any real understanding of it.

    Not as much, of course, as when I see a knowledgeable SEO actively promoting the “ratting out” of those that don’t toe the Google line.

  4. Alan Bleiweiss May 26, 2011

    It just blows my mind how everyone who uses kindergarten language to describe the public reporting of known questionable SEO tactics is completely lacking in the vision department.

    Just because something can be used as a “weapon”, does not mean that is the reason the reporting is conducted. It’s a bullshit justification of sensationalized fear mongering. Warnings of doom and apocalyptic mayhem.

    There is every reason under the sun to publicly report on these issues that have NOTHING to do with competitive sabotage. And have everything to do with a desire to clean up the SEO cesspool.

    All these articles are no better than this past week’s claims of Rapture.

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