Skip to content

May 9, 2011


Google Violators and The New York Times: No One Cares

by Anthony Verre

Giving Away Secrets to the New York TimesIt’s happened again, the New York Times (no link as I refuse to support this sort of grade-school tattling) has blown the lid off another big, monstrous paid link scandal. This time, it was the Mother’s Day Flowers cabal. Yes, those virginal flower companies have been naughty, stacking up paid links to stack up SERP position for one of their biggest runs of the season. So, as long as they’ve been called out, here’s the line up per the NYT: Teleflora, FTD,, and ProFlowers.

But here’s the news flash: no one cares. Not Joe, not Jane, and definitely not anyone interested in flowers for their loved ones. Sorry. Them’s the facts. When you piece together Aaron Wall’s latest rendition on SEO Book, The Google Brand Bias, in conjunction with how JCP and Overstock have “recovered” from their “slap”.

The New York Times is Not Your Mother

First, I’m going to come out an say it. Stop “tattling” to the NYT. Seriously. It’s school-yard crap that needs to stop. The only thing that accomplishes is to give the whole industry a black eye. It’s paints us as unscrupulous, unethical turds. Once is forgiven, twice is a pattern.

If you have issues with something, just take it to Google or Bing. You know they’ll read it, and if they do nothing, then move on. What you don’t do is go crying to Big Media in attempt to force somebody’s hand. Keep doing that, and the GOOG will be likely to crush you all the next time for showing their ass in public (again).

The Brand Bias is Real

In combination with the Vince Update and the Domain Update [a.k.a. implicit site search], where big brands are getting multiple results at the top of the SERPs, (effectively doing ORM for big brands) it’s impossible for big brands not to get a better than fair shake. It’s always about brands, suggesting otherwise is naive.

That’s Why Joe and Jane Person Could Care Less

Brands are brands for a reason; they have consumer clout, they offer price break deals (in relative terms), and they advertise their asses off in other mediums: television, radio, print, web, etc. They achieve a saturation level at astronomical speeds. And so stuffing a single channel isn’t that much damage to a big brand. Sure they may take a revenue hit in the short-term, but other efforts even this out. That’s the “dirty little secret” no one wants to talk about.

So while a handful of Joe’s and Jane’s likely care as Danny Sullivan pointed out, it’s hard to imagine that these revelations startle anyone but marketplace we aim to provide our skill set and services to.

Showing Google Ass in Public Not A Good IdeaShowing Google’s Ass in Public: How’s That Working Out for You?

That’s all the tattles, the New York Times, and the Wall St. Journal served to do, drop Google’s pants in a very public way. And, all it made Google do is break out a temporary pimp-hand to show justice has been served. And, if you ask JCP or Overstock how they’re feeling today, they’ll probably say, “just fine thanks”. The numbers don’t lie:

Google's Temporary Pimp-Hand

Graph via

Here’s how the numbers breakdown for each of them:


  • Year over Year Gains (March 2010 – March 2011):  +17% gain in unique visitors
  • 1 Month Post NYT Scandal Article (Feb 2011 – March 2011):  +6% gain in unique visitors

  • Year over Year Gains (March 2010 – March 2011):  -7% gain in unique visitors
  • 1 Month Post WSJ Scandal Article (Feb 2011 – March 2011):  -7% gain in unique visitors

So, clearly, Overstock got the worst of it, but a 7% decrease is small price to pay. The more interesting of the two is JCP. Not only did they get 17% lift over the year, but EVEN AFTER the “supposed” penalization, they still got a 6% lift.  It’s quite clear that the “scandal” did absolutely nothing to effect JCP site traffic, in fact, one could argue for the old adage, “there’s no such thing as bad press”. And with the help of AdWords and distributors, there was hardly a tremor felt. Furthermore, it speaks to the power of brand in the eyes of Google and consumers.

What Can We Learn From This?

A couple of things to be certain. First, exploit as many media channels as you can. My gut says that if Overstock were engaging in some other media channels, they could have lessened the meager 7% decrease and probably broke even or had even a slight increase in traffic. Second, Google provides these penalizations as nothing more than dog and pony shows of justice. Even after a public Google ass-showing from the New York Times, JcPenney was doing better. It tells us these “penalties” are nothing more than facades masquerading as “fair and balanced” play. It also tells us, the more renown your brand is, the bigger the facade.

So by all means, keep feeding Big Media these tales of sordidness. Just know that your efforts, as Aaron rightly points out, feed “sleazy pageview journalism”, and serve to puncture holes in industry.

  1. May 10 2011

    Great post Tony! In fact, I just wrote a post yesterday on this same topic. It’s ridiculous that the NYT has decided to go about these outings. All it does is create a “who is next” fear for webmasters and SEOs.

    • May 10 2011


      Thanks for stopping by bud! I agree with you, the New York Times definitely needs to have some reservations about what their printing. But, on the flip-side, how can you blame them. It’s news, it helps them accumulate readership, and while I’m not a big fan of outing anyone, the issue should be addressed.

      I think the real shock is seeing that the penalties levied by Google are insignificant. JCP hasn’t felt a single thing search-wise since being penalized. It’s the case of Google publicly flogging JcPenney with silly string. It had no effect on them whatsoever. The numbers don’t lie. Overstock felt it a bit, but again, 7% is just peanuts in terms of aftershocks. In my opinion, if Google is going to do this, then really levy something that hits home. Fluff penalties for show will not only enrage others who’ve been killed by the recent Panda update (undeservingly, perhaps), but also reveals the situation at hand: Big Spenders get a pass.

      Thanks for the great comment Nick!

  2. Terry Van Horne
    May 10 2011

    Tony, great article and as Dojoer @contempt has said and I agree with wholehaeartedly… if that was display advertising would it still be seen as paid link? Perhaps JC Penney was ADVERTISING and that drove traffic no secret I have been doing it nigh on 15 yrs. See that Internet advertising stuff works…

    It’s utter BS that we listen to a Company who could easily be seen to have a bias beyond the organic results… afterall 90% or more of Googles Profits are from the sales of links as ads… as I’ve said Google has no problem with paid links… as long as they are getting a cut on the action.

    The NYT has not clue one about SEO or internet advertising in general…all they know is they want more revenue from it. If your SEO strategy includes ratting to the NYT…shame on you… you are stealing from your clients.

  3. May 10 2011

    Where do I begin Tony?

    Nobody cares? Really?

    If nobody cares, then the NYTimes wouldn’t have any reason to write about it repeatedly.

    If nobody cares, then why is there such huge uproar in the SEO community every time this stuff happens?

    If nobody cares, then please explain to me why clients now routinely ask me how they can avoid being penalized for buying links?

    If nobody cares, why’d you bother writing this article?

    Next up – like many others, you slap grade-school belief systems on anyone who speaks up or out against unscrupulous tactics.

    Why is that Tony?

    I think it laughable that people think it’s immature to blow the whistle on scummy business practices. Would you label hate-crime whistle-blowers that way? Or business embezzlement whistle-blowers?

    Or how about government fraud whistle-blowers? Or any number of countless others who speak up when they see something they think is a serious violation of trust in the business world?

    Dude, I really respect you on so many levels. Yet it’s sad that you so blatantly put down people who, without proof to the contrary, are, by all accounts, just calling much needed attention to a serious problem in the business world.

    • May 10 2011


      These are all excellent and valid points, there simply is no way around that. And, that respect is mutual, my friend. I think it’s better to address the issue of not caring in that I was specifically referring to the general populous at-large. I would suggest that they don’t give rip about under-handed linking practices. That’s who doesn’t care.

      SEOs do care, but I think it’s lost its “sticker shock” value. There’s sort of a Wizard of Oz game being all the time: “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. And kudos for the NYT to have lifted that curtain, no matter how they came about that information. Then we have the WSJ article on Overstock, while exposing more of the same linking practices, just felt like a pig-pile on the SEO/SEM community. And, when I really think about it, felt like nothing more than a naked pub grab. We all know it’s going on. Many participate in it. But as long as it stays behind the curtain, no one has a beef with it.

      I think the uproar from the community is because it’s another black-eye on the community and the industry. It’s not as if those New York Times’ articles aren’t calling out the shady ones, just their SEM firm toasted them. It paints all of us in that light. I didn’t write this post to defend us, I wrote this to show the hypocrisy Google employs with these “penalties” they employ, and to demonstrate that consumers could care less. Case in point: JcPenney.

      As for the whistle-blowing, I’m calling it out as “grade school” because, as they say in Goodfellas, “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut“. Don’t misunderstand, if you want to call out this behavior (and you should), you don’t go to the New York Times. You go to the sources: Google, Bing, Yahoo. Make the case, give them the info. You keep this in-house. Going public with a megaphone about this hurts the industry, not solely the companies targeted.

      And, if that’s not making a big enough ruckus, then double up and write a post on it too. Let Big Media find us for the scoop if they care so deeply about it. But, submarining some flower sites that will just fine in a month anyway, again pointing at JCP, when all this sits on Google.

  4. May 10 2011


    “You don’t go to the New York Times. You go to th esources: Google, Bing, Yahoo… You keep this in-house.”

    Actually that’s the same rationalization spewed by the criminal corporate world. Because they don’t want their dirty laundry reaching the light of day. It’s no different.

    It’s never until the public learns about and cries loud enough that real action is ever even considered to mitigate the problems.

    Keeping it “in-house” is exactly the worst possible notion imaginable.

    Not one time have I EVER heard a business owner make a claim that the entire SEO industry is bad due to the bullshit they read about in the papers or through online main-stream media. It’s the exact opposite. They’re now using that knowledge to question the methods and tactics used on their sites.

    It’s serving the exact purpose it needs to – it’s educating consumers. Sure, maybe not the individual who just wants to purchase flowers or a pair of jeans. I’m talking about OUR consumers -the businesses WE serve. And you can bet your a$$ they care.

    • May 10 2011


      In that light, educating the SEM consumers, then yes, I agree completely with you. If these articles can lead to more educated consumer, then I’m all for it. If another Google FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) can help create a better industry, then I’m all for it.

      Still, I want the penalties levied on these companies to be meaningful. Otherwise, it serves to educate, never changes the behavior, and they cycle continues. The dog and pony facade is laughable. If justice is the aim, Google has failed.

  5. May 10 2011


    Since when is a company of Google’s magnitude setting their main intent around the concept of justice? The best we can hope for is “clean up enough to appease, without decimating the cash cow.”

    For me, that’s better than keeping it in the dark and nothing happening.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Weekly Search & Social News: 05/17/2011 | Search Engine Journal

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: