The Aftermath of the JC Penney's Paid Links and what it means for SEO

It seems ironic that just a few weeks after Google declared this year “the war on spam”, JC Penney is accused and publicly convicted of gaming Google’s algorithm during the all-important holiday shopping season.

If you haven’t heard, JC Penney’s SEO Company was caught paying for hundreds of low value links from unrelated sites across the internet. The result was ranking at the top of the search results for dozens of keywords associated with its enormous catalog of products. Upon discovery of their “black hat” SEO practices, Google performed a manual audit of all of JC Penney’s inbound links.

The result was devastating to their rankings. Aside from branded keywords, JC Penney has nearly disappeared from the search results for any of the words that they used to rank well for.

The important question is, what does Google do to make sure that this doesn’t happen again? Certainly, JC Penney is not the only company paying for links in order to boost their rankings, and Google cannot perform a manual audit of every site on the net.

What can Google do to fix this problem?

There are two ways that I can see Google doing a better job at detecting paid links. Both are already a factors in the SERPs, but will need to be further refined to adequately address these black hat linking tactics.

First, by refining their LDA algorithm, Google will need to be more strict about how similar in theme the linking page is to the landing page. That is to say that links from pages that are clearly not related to each other will not be weighted as heavily, and for blatant offenses, penalized.

Second, Google will have to give more weight to contextual links. These links presumably provide enough value to the reader that the author decided to include the link within the context of the article. These links constitute a legitimate vote by the content creator for the the page that they are linking to.

The Marriage of Social Media and SEO

In my opinion, the only other place for Google to turn is social media. While Matt Cutts has confirmed that Google does pay attention to social networking sites, I think that this effort should be one of their primary focuses moving forward. Although Bing has an exclusive search partnership with Facebook, Twitter is still a fantastic place to mine for public sentiment of products, websites, businesses, and quality content in general. The fact that Twitter is public by default makes it the perfect place to Google to monitor what people are sharing on the web without infringing on anyone’s privacy.

My prediction is that we will see social media become an even bigger and more noticeable part of Google’s ranking algorithm and by extension, SEO. I can even see sentiment analysis taken into consideration at some point in the future as well (thanks to this guy) to rank content based on people’s response to it.

What does this mean for SEO’s?

While fresh content has been extremely important for a while now, creating viral content and encouraging people to share, will be the way that SEO companies set themselves apart from the competition moving forward.

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