For those of you who thought black hat SEO methods were reserved to those guys who clutter your inbox with subject lines like, “Make $2,500 per day with affiliate ads!!!” or “FREE wireless internet provider – click here!”, think again. In 2006, Google caught car maker BMW using a black hat scheme to improve the ranking on its German website. More recently, JC Penney was caught using a black hat link scheme to rank #1 in Google’s results for a myriad of keywords, some of which were only secondary JCP products. A JCP spokesperson insists that the company knew nothing about this black hat scheme, and cannot imagine how thousands of links from “bad web neighborhoods” managed to point back to the JCP website.

Google’s Matt Cutts, who is considered by denizens of the SEO world to be like a wrathful demi-god, stated about the JCP farce, “Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will”. JCP’s Google rankings plummeted from #1 for certain keywords to #71, #68, and so forth.

What #71 Really Means

If you’re a brand new R&B singer and your first single debuts at #71 on the Billboard Top 100, you would consider yourself pretty darn lucky. Number 71 out of the top 100 means you’re getting decent airtime, and there’s a good chance people have heard of you. It’s an indication that if you keep working hard, you might make it into the coveted top 40. Once you’re in the top 40, you’re getting a lot of airtime, plenty of people are buying your music, and you’re on the road to stardom.

If you’re a website owner and your website is at #71, you are receiving basically no traffic. In a recent study conducted by Chikita Insights, it was discovered that 34.35% of Google traffic goes to the #1 spot. That’s nearly the same amount of traffic as the #2 – #5 spots combined, and it’s more than the aggregation of #5 – #20 combined. Number 20, by the way, is the end of page 2. In other words, at #71 the JCP website was basically tanking.

White hat SEOs expert might be shaking their heads as they watched Sheriff Cutts take JCP away in handcuffs. What was the company thinking? Check Google’s AdWords keyword traffic estimator, and you’ll find that the keyword “dresses” alone generates 11.1 million searches per month. The black hat that took JCP first to #1 and then to #71 potentially lost the company nearly 4 million website visitors per month! All this for a company who’s been struggling to keep up with the internet revolution and watching its catalog sales dwindle.

“I Didn’t Do It – I’m Innocent I Tell Ya”

In the cases of JC Penney and BMW mentioned in the New York Times article cited above, it’s pretty clear that some corporate Robber Barons thought they could play their corporate espionage tricks and get away with it, without attracting the attention of the superhero-like supergeeks over at Google.

Imagine, however, a different scenario, one in which a JCP competitor actually paid a shady link farm to put all those bad neighborhood links up. Imagine a company so confident in the superpowers of Matt Cutts and his SWAT team that they were willing to put a competitor into a #1 spot for a few months, then evilly giggle when Google catches and punishes said competitor. In other words, is it possible to frame a company for search engine manipulation?

It probably wouldn’t be that hard to do. Link farms, after all, are playing a game that’s not technically illegal but which is certainly reprehensible, so they probably wouldn’t mind playing their part as long as the money is good and they don’t think they’ll get caught.

Pretend that JC Penney has a competitor named KD Nickel. KD Nickel, lingering away at #2 or #3 in the search engine results for “dresses”, badly wants to leap frog over JCP, but can’t seem to make their site move out of the hinterlands of #3. KDN’s web development department, under intense pressure to perform, yet already having used every white hat SEO trick they know, makes a fateful decision: they will frame JCP.

They search around the internet for the shadiest, spammiest link farm they can find. When they finally find one, they offer them a lot of money – the kind of money only corporate America can come up with – to create a massive link campaign to catapult their competitor to the top. Then the web developers over at KDN just wait for a few months. They keep tabs on how the link campaign is going. Then, when it’s gone on long enough, they either wait a little longer for Matt Cutts to figure it out, or else they drop an anonymous tip with, say, the New York Times. Then they gleefully watch as their competitor drops off the face of the internet Earth.

Can’t you almost hear a comic book villain cackling to his sidekick, “Finally, the #1 spot is mine… ALL MINE! Muahahahahahahaha!”?

Not only would JCP lose its top spot that way, giving KDN’s above-board techniques room to finally take over the coveted top position, it would also damage JCP’s reputation with customers once the media got hold of the story. It would be the perfect coup.

Protecting Your Website from Evil

Hopefully the scenario above hasn’t been attempted yet, but don’t count on it. To be on the safe side, you should keep an eye on links to your site. If they suddenly shoot through the roof, you have reason to suspect that someone out there might be trying to get your site into trouble.

There are several free tools online to help you discover how many links you have and who’s linking to you. Yahoo, Google, and independent sites can all provide this information without too much trouble. Yahoo’s Site Explorer is especially helpful when it comes to understanding where your inbound links are coming from. Otherwise… well, you certainly don’t want to find out the hard way that your site has been compromised.