Overstock.com Busted Again – Using Black Hat SEO

Once again, Overstock.com is suspected of playing dirty.

Last February, Overstock.com was penalized by Google for manipulating the search engines. The online retailer offered students and faculty discounts in exchange for posting links from college and university websites to Overstock.com. Their motivation? Ranking in search engines are, in large part determined by assessing the number of sites that link back to the site being ranked. In order to avoid artificial influence on search engines, Google forbids sites from paying other websites to embed links on their pages, and penalized Overstock.com for this unethical (“black hat”) practice. The Wall Street Journal quotes Patrick Byrne, Overstock’s chief executive, as saying, “We understand Google’s position and have made the appropriate changes to remain within Google’s guidelines.”

But they might be at it again.

I made this discovery while working on a competitive analysis for a client who wanted to rank for the keyword “kids’ bedding”.  The top organic position was held by Overstock.com with this page: www.overstock.com/Home-Garden/Kids-Bedding/5389/subcat.html. My browser tools indicated the page had a large number of backlinks, an unusually large number for even a large retailer. I looked further. Using Open Site Explorer I found they had some very suspicious backlinks, including:

All of the above pages follow the same basic format. They’re branded to look like part of Overstock.com and filled with anchor text links that guide users back to the Overstock site. The pages themselves, though, are hosted on sites that are unrelated to Overstock or its products, including the websites of a writer, a musical composer, and an Australian photography and printing service.

The pages listed above are not the only suspicious-looking ones. Many of Overstock.com’s top-ranking pages have similar backlink profiles. You can check them out yourself using keywords like “Egyptian cotton sheets”, “sateen sheets”, “bedspreads”, “kids’ bedding”, and “bathrobes.” You’ll find many more.

Based on my years of industry experience, this type of activity seems to be as “black hat” as it gets. I can imagine two scenarios that might explain these links:

  1. These are paid links, and the sites’ webmasters allowed Overstock.com to post the pages.
  2. The sites were hacked, and the pages were placed on the sites without the webmasters’ knowledge.

Either way, the Overstock pages on these sites appear very suspicious. Overstock.com, whether intentionally or not, is clearly violating Google’s webmaster guidelines again. Based on these guidelines, I am curious to see how long it will take Google to serve up another penalty.

Overstock.com may or may not be aware of these pages. The world of Internet Marketing is full of miscommunications, implementation errors, and newly developed techniques that might be considered “grey hat”. We don’t want to accuse Overstock of trying to manipulate search engines again, but only bring attention to these questionable SEM tactics.

What’s your take on this issue? I’d like to hear your viewpoint. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.