Google penalises for offering discounts in return for links

  • 0
  • February 24, 2011

Following on from the JC Penney story Google has penalised another of Americas largest ecommerce sites, for apparently offering .edu sites a 10% discount if they placed a link on their pages.

Apparently Google was responding to a complaint from a competitor last week. Google contacted Overstock to explain the problem. A thread has been running on WMW for over a month about this and full details are here.

The first link of this sort I found was here which immediately raises the question of what Google intends to do about the other 1104 links on that page? Certainly if you have a link on a page like this it’s time to start worrying.

Another example is here.

To me this is a lot less clear cut than the JC Penney story. Retailers should be able to offer discounts to people without worrying that the links will be in violation of Googles guidelines. I can’t imagine there would have been a penalty if the links didn’t have optimised anchor text. If Google wants to discount these links that’s fine but this is quickly turning into a race to report competitors and a PR battle where Google has to be seen to take action before a big newspaper writes the story.

Overstock’s pages had recently ranked near the top of results for dozens of common searches, including “vacuum cleaners” and “laptop computers.” But links to Overstock on Tuesday dropped to the fifth or sixth pages of Google results for many of those categories, greatly reducing the chances that a user would click on its links.

The incident, according to Overstock, stemmed in part from its practice of encouraging websites of colleges and universities to post links to Overstock pages so that students and faculty could receive discounts on the shopping site. Overstock said it discontinued the program on Feb. 10, before hearing from Google, but said some university webmasters have been slow to remove the links.

“Google has made clear they believe these links should not factor into their search algorithm,” said Patrick Byrne, Overstock’s chief executive, in a statement. “We understand Google’s position and have made the appropriate changes to remain within Google’s guidelines.”

In Overstock’s case, the retailer offered discounts of 10% on some merchandise to students and faculty. In exchange, it asked college and university websites to embed links for certain keywords like “bunk beds” or “gift baskets” to Overstock product pages.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • Mark Carter SEO

    This is starting to get a little odd. Is it not normal business practice for a company to incentivise their customers to assist them with their marketing efforts? I thought that was precisely how you leverage your existing clientelle to ramp up your marketing?

  • seoangie

    Wow, that’s pretty scary. They’ve clearly used a lot of SEO anchor text which is a bit dodgy, but I wouldn’t have really considered that to be black hat or against Google’s guidelines. I agree the J C Penny issue was much more clear cut! I can foresee a big surge in competitors trying to get one another penalised for link building practices now – where will it stop?

  • Harry Hill

    I think overstock over optimised the paragraph with highly optimised keywords which attracted attention from frustrated SEO’s who want the same type of links from the same website. Maybe a little envious.

    I really don’t see a problem if a company has a single link from .edu websites if they are offering a genuine discount or service to students. I think it is entirely justifiable for them to have a link from .edu sites and I look down at the people for reporting them.

    I imagine the people who reported overstock to Google are competing for the same keywords and were checking the back links of overture to see how they can compete. Rather than compete they complain. Boo hoo!

    However I do think overstock’s overkilled it by stuffing the paragraph with far too many spammy links. A single link to the homepage would suffice.

  • John Callaghan

    It is odd isn’t it. leveraging their existing clientelle is just good marketing. And one would assume if failed to deliver quality service they wouldn’t get the links. Personally, I’d put more trust in a business that relies customers linking to them than the majority of the alternatives.

  • donna

    if this was the case, google as to focus on many sites which was offering more percentage of amount to publish other sites with in there sites…. any comments????

  • Kieran Flanagan

    This is a little much. To penalize a site for something that could be deemed smart marketing does seem to be odd and a product of the articles that came before it. I wrote yesterday and it appears I could be write. Telling on your competitor may be the next big thing. Lots of envious SEO’s are going to have a field day if the above results in such a big penalty.

  • Dave

    Hi Patrick, I have been talking some more with people involved, and I can tell you that there was MORE than just the EDU spam. Your instincts are correct that there is more to it. I am not at liberty to say what, hopefully Google will clear things up in the days ahead.

  • Mook

    IMHO, penalization easons are to simply find on backlink profile of several big pages of :!links!!filter!all!!source!external!!target!page

  • Dixon Jones
  • David

    Glad to hear that you and people in the comments thinks there must be more to this story. I originally thought it very strange the first time I heard about it as well.

  • Angela

    This is bad practice. It’s the same as buying links. They should have kept it more secret, it’s a smart plan, but not something that you want Google to know about.

  • Mr. SEO Company

    JCPennys, now overstock. Unreal. Wow would like to know who blew the whistle on this one. Must have been a competitor who cant keep up when they are basically offering discounts for links.

    My issue is, where does google stop the penalizing? Do they have people sitting there manually reviewing websites? It’s impossible to create the links google is looking for these days.

    Someone, please have google post some real guidelines.

  • SofaBlogger

    Strong action from Google here, business owners need to take note and ensure their compliance – even if it Google does seem rather overbearing at times!

  • Richard

    Lots of people up there saying its ok to leverage existing customers in your marketing efforts. I agree but the point is that that’s not the problem here. Google guidelines say to do things for customers, not for search engines. Does anyone really think that the structure of those links is ideal for customers or is aimed at anything other than artificially increasing overstock’s ranking for certain terms that these customers would not have natirally linked to?

    A simple link to overstock with the domain name as the anchor text would have been fine but from a Google guidelines point of view these links are black hat all the way and unquestionably deserved to be penalised.

  • russ

    Competitors are so cut throat! Reporting them to Google.. give me a break.

  • Ewan Kennedy

    I agree with Richard. There’s nothing wrong with joint marketing but it matters what the terms of that co-operation are and how it manifests itself which in this case was clearly a little too much for G to swallow.

  • Perfect Bound Books

    I think this is obvious! It’s a clever strategy but was always going to be caught out.

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