When SEM goes wrong

The New York Times article on search engine marketing this past weekend showed that JCPenney was getting so much traffic even Google knew something was up. The retail giant was appearing in Google searches for a broad spectrum of keywords like “dresses” and “area rugs.” The Times article uncovered so-called “black hat” practices at work where thousands of links to Penney’s content were scattered throughout the Web on dubious sites.

The retailer has fired its search agency and it denies having a hand in the operation. This situation can happen to any retailer who doesn’t keep their eyes open and question the who, what, where and why of what their search team or agency is doing.

Marketers should always invest as much of their time – as they do their digital marketing dollars – to investigate, analyze and test how search is achieving results. No matter who made the error, it is JCPenney who will now pay in terms of its lowered Google ranking and the negative publicity across major news publications reaching across millions of b-to-b and b-to-c readers in the US and abroad.

Companies must remain strategic in how they identify and hire an agency. Did a highly reputable business contact, client or partner recommend the agency personally with a glowing reference? Did you meet a top-level executive from the agency at an industry conference and event? Did the agency offer a test-run of their work and follow up with a detailed presentation of their findings and how they got there?

SEO can often feel like a horse and pony trick , even when done in the right way. As the brand, it’s your responsibility to protect the brand’s reputation and to ask as many questions as possible, question how and why the agency is delivering their results and keep them on their toes. Establish the “ask questions first” precedent early on in your relationship with the agency.

A brand’s internal digital marketing team can’t afford to get lazy. It must remain up to date with the latest technology updates, search marketing trends and understand what makes SEO practices clean and what makes them “muddled.” My motto in search marketing is: If you don’t know something, “Ask.” That’s what Google is there for – they’ll keep you informed about the standard protocols and when the line is being crossed.

I’m curious as to why it took so long for Google to uncover what was going on. The second it did, thanks in large part to The New York Times, JCPenney was, metaphorically, taken to the ground by Google as their search results began to drop drastically. I must say, I do think Google’s actions were well-deserved in this case, because JCPenney has been acting blissfully unaware that they knew anything about the SEO agency’s actions. For a department store retailer with 1,000-plus stores across the US, I’m having a hard time swallowing that pill. While JCPenney may not have given the direct orders that resulted in the paid links, the results landed them in hot water with Google – and Google is not an enemy any brand wants to have.

Lorne Landsman is VP of Elite SEM.

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