Google the words "bunk beds" or "towels" and you'll see links for Amazon.com, WalMart, Macy's, Target and other popular companies. One name you won't see until wading through several screens, however, is Overstock.com -- and not by accident.
In February, the Sale Lake City-company was penalized by Google for trying to outsmart the Internet company. Overstock's transgression? It offered discounts to college kids who linked their ".edu" pages to Overstock.com. Because .edu pages don't normally drive commercial traffic, Google considers them to be important sources of information and ranks them high in Internet searches. Overstock's attempt to exploit this insight helped increase its visibility on Google.com. Or at least it did until it changed its tactics. Afterwards, Google announced changes designed to penalize those who try to artificially boost their results through questionable search engine optimization (SEO) techniques and other methods.
From a historical perspective, "gaming" Google's search engine is not new. To many spammers, it's little more than standard operating procedure. Not until recently, however, has evidence surfaced that brand-name companies with storied histories and vaunted reputations benefited from questionable practices. In addition to Overstock, J.C. Penney has also been penalized for supposedly leveraging "black hat" techniques such as connecting to "link farms" whose sole purpose is to outfox Internet search engines. J.C. Penney denies that it knowingly did anything wrong, and so does the Web search consulting company hired to help it. But Google let it be known that it won't stand for this type of activity.
What lesson can you learn from these stumbles? Be careful when it comes to technology you may not fully understand. Today, countless organizations -- small businesses especially -- are being told that their fortunes will improve if they learn to harness the magical powers of SEO. If you own or operate a Web site for your business, the come-ons are no doubt familiar: "I visited your website and noticed that you are not listed in most of the major search engines," goes one popular one.
Do organizations fall for these pitches? They sure do. In fact, entire industries have become enamored with SEO. Take the media business. Today, many publishing companies are putting more investment into search gimmicks than in quality content. The result? Fewer impactful features, more animated slideshows and plenty of SEO-optimized headlines, including one from the Washington Post that read simply, "SEO headline here."
Infatuation with SEO and related technologies extends to companies of all stripes. According to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), North American spending on search marketing is growing nearly 15 percent annually and will top $17 billion this year. This is in addition to the vast sums spent on SEO technology and consulting.
Add it all up and it's clear that search has seized the attention of scores of business executives worldwide. It joins a long list of technologies and business innovations such as Six Sigma and thin-client computing that have done so. Don't get me wrong, many of these have provided tremendous value to companies. And so will SEO -- to a point. Sooner or later, every competitive company will develop or invest in SEO capabilities. When this happens, distinguishing your organization with basic SEO technology will become very difficult.
SEO has not matured to this point yet, especially in the areas of social media and digital asset optimization. But there are signs that some SEO companies are having to go to greater extremes to produce results for their clients. This has led some experts to wonder if the sun will set on SEO.
It might, but don't cancel your contract with your SEO provider just yet. For the foreseeable future, SEO technology will remain a valuable business tool -- but one that you should keep in perspective. Putting too much stock in what it can do for your organization is the worst SEO mistake a company can make. Contrary to promises, SEO technology will not provide you a sustainable, competitive advantage. For that, you're going to have to focus on business basics, including your innovation, prices and operational excellence.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's as true today as ever.
Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Author proceeds from sales of Doing Both go to charity. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.