Have you heard about JCPenney’s backlink-buying scandal? If you’re out of the loop, I’m here to fill you in on all the sordid details. Buckle up, readers – this is a pretty crazy ride.
JCPenney has been around for over 120 years, so you’d think they know a thing or two about running a business, right?
Well, apparently even the mightiest giants of retail aren’t immune to making really stupid mistakes.
Way back in 2011, JCPenney was ranking highly in the search results for all kinds of great keywords, like “men’s clothes,” “cocktail dresses,” and things like that. I’m talking about high-value keywords that any business would kill to rank for.
Evidently, that wasn’t good enough for JCPenney.
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The New York Times wondered how JCPenney was doing so well in the search results. These were unpaid organic search results, too, which looks a little suspicious to anyone who knows anything about SEO .
Anyway, the NYT launched an investigation to figure out what JCPenney was up to. In the end, it found a ton of unrelated websites that were linking to the JCPenney site. These pages were packed with junk content and a bunch of weirdly descriptive anchor text. Basically, it seemed pretty obvious that JCPenney was buying shady backlinks to game the search results.
The NYT reported this scandalous behavior to Google. Long story short, JCPenney was found in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines, and they promptly stopped receiving any traffic for those keywords they were ranking so highly for.
All that traffic, from thousands of searches – just gone.
So is buying backlinks a smart idea? Only if you don’t mind nuking your website from orbit.
Why Buying Backlinks is a Horrible Idea
Google hates it when websites buy backlinks. If you get caught trying to game the search engine algorithms through bad SEO practices, here’s what’s going to happen:
- Google will straight up ignore the links you paid for, meaning they’re not going to help you get higher in the search results. If you buy backlinks, it’s the same thing as throwing money out the window.
- Google will prevent certain pages – or even your entire website – from showing up in any search results. It’s like those pages don’t even exist anymore, just the same as what happened to JCPenney.
Hopefully, that’s enough to convince you that buying backlinks is one of the dumbest things you can do for your website.
If Buying Backlinks is Bad, Why Do People Do It?
Building backlinks naturally takes a ton of time and effort. As you’re probably aware, people are simply lazy. Why bother doing all that work if you can buy dozens or hundreds of backlinks for just a few pennies each?
Link buying is so easy. You can even head over to a site like Fiverr right now and buy backlink packages for dirt cheap. Even the most ethical people can be tempted to take the bait.
Other people write articles that have links back to their website. Then, they pay someone to publish the content on their own site. Others simply ask the site owner to put a link on their website for a fee.
These unethical tactics are far simpler than building your own backlinks. Still, no matter how you do it, buying links is a black-hat method that’s going to sink your website sooner or later.
Black-Hat Backlinks and How to Avoid Them
How do you make sure you’re not using bad backlinks? The best way is to avoid link-buying sites, also known as content farms.
A content farm is a site packed with low-quality junk articles. These sites use keywords to push their content higher in the search results. But Google knows these sites are garbage, so you definitely don’t want links from them.
How do you recognize a content farm? It’s actually quite simple.
Is the Site Scammy?
Most content farms give off a ton of red flags. Lots of them just look awful, like the owner put no effort in whatsoever.
But some content farms actually have a professional appearance. Those are harder to recognize. Still, here are a few things to look out for that give you clues about a site’s quality:
- Generic author names, such as “John Smith,” “Guest Poster,” or “Team Website Name .”
- No author bio information or writer credentials. This is especially important to watch out for in certain niches, such as the legal, medical, or financial fields (Google calls these “Your Money or Your Life” topics). You don’t want the average Joe to write articles about surgery or other topcis that require specialized knowledge, for example. If the content is inaccurate, it could do serious damage to your website’s reputation.
- Stock images in place of real writer photos (you can do a reverse Google image search to find the source of an image if you’re not sure). If the pictures are fake, the site might also be using AI-generated content, which may or may not affect your search rankings depending on recent Google algorithm updates.
- Content that’s poorly written, repetitive, or filled with fluff that says nothing of real substance.
- Backlinks that lead to sites in industries with a shady reputation, such as online casinos, adult entertainment, or oversea pharmacies where visitors can buy drugs without a prescription.
Does the Site Sell Links?
Not all paid links come from content farms. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a site sells links, so you’ll have to dig a little deeper.
Checking out the site’s recently posted content is one of the best ways to tell if it’s legit or not. Look for:
- Content that is stuffed with links in places where they don’t belong
- Unnatural-sounding or overly long anchor text for links. For example, “ Are you interested in how to make money fast with no job or college degree ?”
- A high number of links leading to pages that are selling something
Checking a site’s content can take a lot of time, so consider using website analytic software to do it for you. This software can flag strange outgoing external link anchors, and if it finds too many, that’s probably a site you ought to avoid.
How’s the Traffic?
The best backlinks come from sites with high organic traffic. Traffic that comes from paid links isn’t organic, so you’ll want to steer well clear of sites that use those tactics.
You can find plenty of tools out there, both free and paid, that tell you how much organic traffic a site is getting. These tools can show you traffic trends and fluctuations over time, too.
If a site shows a massive spike in traffic at some point, it could be coming from black-hat backlinks. This isn’t necessarily the case, though. Maybe the site owner posted some really great content and it went viral. You’ll have to investigate a bit to find out.
On the other hand, if a site’s traffic seems to have fallen off a cliff, it could have been hit by a Google update. These regular updates make changes to Google’s algorithm and can penalize sites that are doing something shady, like posting junk content or buying links.
If a site suddenly loses a ton of traffic overnight, it’s definitely one you want to avoid.
How to Get Backlinks the White-Hat Way
“If I can’t pay people for links, what are my options?” you ask.
I have an answer for you, but you’re probably not going to like it.
Creating quality content is probably the best way to build legit backlinks that’ll boost your position in the search results. I’m talking about engaging videos that go viral, articles packed with good information, and entertaining blog posts that people actually want to read.
I know that takes lots of time, but this is a step you can’t ignore. Sorry.
“Okay, I’ve got my awesome content,” you say. “I’ll be rolling in backlinks in no time.”
Not so fast.
You can’t expect backlinks to just show up magically. No, you’ve got to reach out to other site owners and say, “Hey, look at this cool blog post. I know your readers will love it.”
Then if the site owner likes your stuff, they’ll put a link to your content on their own site. That’s how you build backlinks that Google approves of.
Yes, it’s going to take some time – don’t expect instant results – but I promise it’s all worth it in the end.
Don’t Let the JCPenney SEO Horror Story Happen to You
If you’re ever tempted to buy backlinks or do something shady to game the search results – don’t! You could end up just like JCPenney. Black-hat backlinks are a one-way ticket to losing serious traffic, and once that happens, your site will end up in a hole that’s hard to climb out of.
Stick to building backlinks the old-fashioned way – with killer content that other site owners will beg to link back to – and you’ll never have to worry about Google taking away your traffic again.