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By now, many of you many have heard about J.C. Penney’s epic fail: their recent attempt to trick Google and claim search superiority on a number of phrases you wouldn’t normally associate with Penney’s — phrases like area rugs and skinny jeans.

The story goes like this. Over the course of several months, at the end of 2010 and moving into 2011, Penney’s started appearing at or near the top of searches for a variety of terms: everything from dresses to home décor. The trend was spotted by the New York Times, who asked online search expert Doug Pierce to investigate.

What Pierce uncovered was what’s called “black hat optimization”; in other words, cheating.

Essentially, J.C. Penny (and its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex) engaged in a massive effort to game Google’s search algorithms. Their method of choice? Creating thousands of links to JCPenney.com across hundreds of sites across the web. Most of the referring sites were little more than “link farms”—sites set up for the sole purpose of creating outbound links to other websites.

According to the Times:

“There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.

Some of these sites seem all but abandoned, except for the links… When you read the enormous list of sites … the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.”

After the Times revealed its information to Google in February, the search giant went all medieval. Within a span of 10 days, Penney’s average position for 59 search terms dropped from 1.3 to 52.

When we talked about this scam internally, here at Atomic, we were surprised that such a major retailer could make such a stupid mistake. Trying to game Google might get you some short-term increases in traffic, but you’re going to pay for it in the long run. You’ll pay with a loss of customer trust, and you’ll pay big time when Google drops the axe on your search results, as it did in this case.

Zach Hensler, our SEO guy, noted that one of Penney’s goofiest moves was loading links on sites with totally random subject matter—like putting links to dresses on websites about fishing. Google’s all about content and context—a disconnect like this raises a big red flag for them. Especially when they see it multiplied hundredfold on link farms across the internet.

The big lesson here? Be attuned to Google’s SEO approach, and for goodness sake, don’t try to outfox their engineers. Focus on your customers and what they need, and fill your site with that content. If you’re providing valuable material that people want to read and share, inbound links will come naturally. And your search will improve as a result, now and into the long term. Inbound links are valuable but they should come from quality sites of similar subject matter.

Want to learn more about the right way to improve your search results? Contact Atomic.

testimonials

Nearly across the board, we recommend that clients include customer testimonials on their websites.

Testimonials allow you to incorporate an objective perspective on your business as part of your marketing. They let you showcase how great your business is — without having to say it yourself.

Here are some other reasons why testimonials are so important, and some tips on using them successfully.

Don’t be a salesman.
Yes, you need to include compelling features and benefits on your site. That’s marketing 101. But Nielsen studies have shown that recommendations from people you know or opinions written by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising.

So readers will take your marketing copy into consideration when they’re making a buying decision. But they’re more likely to be convinced by product reviews and testimonials written by other consumers. That includes everything from reviews on Expedia and Amazon, to case studies that include customer comments,  to customer quotes in the sidebars of a B2B site.

Include  testimonials that resonate.
Another study, this one by Edelman, showed that people trust their peers as the best source of information about a company. And the individual they most trust as a company spokesman is “a person like me.”

So when you’re thinking about asking customers to write a testimonial, think first about the potential customers you want to reach. Which of your current customers are most like your target customers? Try to include testimonials from customers who your prospects are likely to see as people “just like them.” Those testimonials will be the most meaningful and have the most impact.

Include specific results.
Testimonials are at their most powerful when they include tangible details. Check out this testimonial, for example, from a website we built for Burton Pools: Our in-floor cleaning system …  is now the talk of the neighborhood because it is so efficient and keeps the pool looking so clean and inviting. Larry helped me draw the outline on the lawn and spent a lot of time developing what we had in mind to do, while staying within our budget. Grant, Robert, Josh, Terrell, and Mark worked harder in the heat of the summer than anyone I have ever seen. Jessie even got in the cold water to monitor the in-floor system without a complaint. I had wanted a pool all my life and this is truly a dream come true built by a “dream team.”

If you had to choose between a builder with that kind of specific testimonial on their site, versus one with no testimonial, which would you choose?

Be real.
If you’re going to the trouble to include testimonials on your site, make sure they’re from real people. Reading a glowing testimonial from “Susan T. in Florida” is meaningless—even if Susan actually exists. If you don’t have customers who are willing to stand behind their testimonials with a full name (and, even better, a company and title), you probably shouldn’t have testimonials on your site at all.

And one final caution. Don’t even think about asking your marketing staff to pen bogus testimonials or product reviews. One company who did this is now paying out $300,000 in penalties to the State of New York. If they weren’t sure customers trusted them beforehand … now they know.

Want to talk to Atomic about developing strong content for your website?

web semantics

Have you ever wished that the web was more helpful—and less robotic?

Let’s imagine you’re traveling to Florida for Christmas.  You hop onto your search engine and query “christmas florida.” But the first eight results are about the city “Christmas, Florida” — not what you had in mind.

Wouldn’t it be cool if search engines could tell the difference between Christmas the city and Christmas the holiday?

Enter the semantic web. The semantic web is a development paradigm, part of the HTML5 proposal, that structures the content of sites so the internet can “understand” words based on context.

For example:

  • If you search for “house main character,” the semantic web would understand that you mean the TV show House, not a house where someone lives.
  • If you search for “green windows,” it would understand that you meant energy-efficient windows—not windows that were painted green.
  • If you wrote “I love Atomic Interactive – they provide excellent web development,” the semantic web would understand you mean that “Atomic provides excellent web development.”

In other words, the semantic web can understand the association between pronouns and the words they’re linked to. Wow.

How does this all work? The semantic web’s enhanced understanding of words is driven by microdata, one of many new tags in HTML5.

So if I were writing content about Christmas, Florida, I would include microdata indicating that I’m talking about a location. Conversely, if I were writing about celebrating Christmas in Florida, I would include microdata indicating that I’m talking about the location Florida, but the event Christmas.

Modern search engines like Bing, Google, and Yahoo take advantage of this microdata to keep your search results relevant.  In fact, Bing was built from the core up to parse microdata and associate content together. That explains why Microsoft markets Bing as a “decision engine”— supposedly, it helps you make better decisions by getting rid of superfluous search results.

The bottom line? If you have a data-heavy website or are having trouble with SEO because search engines are confused about your content, utilizing the semantic web can help. Atomic can help you take the first step in coding for this brave new web. Reach out to us anytime you want.