Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve certainly heard about this JCPenney SEO debacle. But I think it’s worth mentioning that while this issue revealed itself through some sketchy SEO, the issue here really isn’t about SEO at all, and it’s not limited to JCP at all. The links that JCP and their search firm went about gathering were the symptom, not the disease.
Yesterday, my company released a response to our friends, summarizing our thoughts (I’ll put a link at the end of this post, but I’ll summarize the response here). In it, we discuss that there are two issues here.
One is the tactical issue of cheating, which, of course, has been covered in great detail.
The second issue isn’t getting as much attention, and it’s philosophical in nature. Companies are still looking for the easy and cheap way of accomplishing their goals, rather than actually taking the time to understand what the market wants and delivering fantastic site and customer experiences.
What is truly amazing about this situation, and others like it, is that we don’t look at why Google is placing such disproportionate weight on links, particularly in this case, when so many of the links are of poor quality.
Even when Google’s algorithm caught JCP with its face covered in cake and icing, the resulting shift downward in rankings (as described in the NYT article) was pretty meager, especially when compared with the effect after human intervention.
Of course, links are tremendously important to search rankings, and all of the brilliant readers of Search Engine Land understand that.
However, what we have here is a situation where JCP as well as many other brands / retailers, have a complete void of assistive and rich content to accompany their site experiences, and that lack of content is what requires search engines to look off the site for signals that this site and these pages are even worth considering.
The sad part is that in the physical stores, you can interact with salespeople. These people will talk to you about what bedding will look good in your home. They will help you dress for your first day at the new job. They will tell you what the bulleted list of product features on a steaming iron actually does for you and your clothes.
What these salespeople don’t do (in most cases) is just blab out some marketing language about each product and have a call to action on their foreheads.
The even more unfortunate part of all of this is that there were tremendous resources (in people and money) poured into link development and gaming Google (which continues to happen at thousands of companies who are seeking “the easy way”).
All of those resources could have been put into researching what users were looking for in search, what users were doing on the site (and not doing), and creating a brilliant site experience with relevant content to satisfy all of those external search and on-site hopes and dreams.
Doing this would have naturally separated JCP from its competitors who were not willing to invest in creating a genuinely great site experience or developing the same content on their site.
Brands Are Missing Big Opportunities
Today, most commerce sites look more like self-serve warehouses (albeit very pretty warehouses) than real stores with helpful salespeople. Brands tend to approach the real-world experience with customers in a very human way: they ask questions, learn what people want, and know that by giving them a good customer experience, they will succeed in the sale.
Online, however, these same brands turn into scientists, devoid of this same warmth and care for the customers’ needs, instead focusing on how many walls in their mouse maze need to be electrified and where they need to relocate the cheese to get more mice to their meal. Or worse yet, they just dump 10,000 mice into the maze, knowing that at least a few won’t get shocked, die from exhaustion, or jump out of the maze entirely (scientifically known as “mouse bounce rate”).
The issue is that companies are looking for quick wins with no effort. And they’re looking for these wins to build loyalty, brand affinity, conversion rates, and all of the sorts of things that “quick wins” actually do completely the opposite of.
Usability is not the practice of making people do something. It’s the practice of studying what people want to do and making their experience better. Consider what would happen if the usability of the air conditioner in your car were to make you choose a temperature that Ford thought you should want. You’d probably hate your whole car.
I’d urge us to collectively think about what a future where we truly deliver great experiences to our audiences looks like. Does that sound like something Google would want to rank highly? Does that sound like something that would garner word of mouth? Does it sound like it would have greater conversion, greater loyalty, greater customer lifetime value? It does to me.
Today, I can only list a dozen or so brands off the top of my head who I feel really care about me. And I pull my wallet out for them more than anyone else, I recommend them, I invest in them. I can list a thousand brands who I feel will cut any corner to do it the easy way, knowing I’m a captive or forced audience, or just knowing they have another bucket of mice they can dump into the maze.
There’s a reason for this ratio. But I think it’s a terrible one, because nobody in the short list I mentioned first is struggling for cash flow.
Truly analyze your audience; look at them as human beings, not mice. Pretend they are right there in front of you. How can you give them something truly better? Google is dying to rank that experience first, because Google wins when the user wins.
- Our response to our clients and friends on the NYT JCP SEO Debacle
- New York Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google
- 3 Issues To Consider Before Focusing On More Traffic
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.