Overstock.com's Great Rankings Got Them Penalized In Google

Feb 24, 2011 • 8:22 am | comments (37) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine Optimization

Overstock LogoAnother one bites the dust! Google Penalizes Overstock for Search Tactics from the Wall Street Journal reports on Google's latest victim. Overstock.com is now penalized by Google for linking schemes.

It has been a fun month, first we had J.C. Penney and then Forbes and now Overstock. What is with Google going after big sites with big brands so publicly?

Well, J.C. Penney was reporter driven, Forbes was my fault and Overstock, well, that was WebmasterWorld's fault. As we reported over a month ago, Overstock had great rankings and WebmasterWorld allowed what they normally do not allow, to talk about a specific site's tactics openly. They allowed an open thread at WebmasterWorld about Overstock.com's success.

It lead to Amir Efrati from the Wall Street Journal to take notice and ask SEOs like David Harry to dig deeper into what was going on. So although we may have suspected great links and content, it was more.

According to David and the Wall Street Journal, Overstock.com was offering customers discounts for adding links to their site to Overstock.com. Now, this is a tip we covered back two years ago, the post is named Offer Customers a Discount in Exchange for a Link? In that post we asked SEOs if this was a form of link spam and SEOs were split on if it was link spam or not. I guess now we know, Google considers it link spam.

Here is an excerpt from the WSJ article:

In Overstock's case, the retailer offered discounts of 10% on some merchandise to students and faculty. In exchange, it asked college and university websites to embed links for certain keywords like "bunk beds" or "gift baskets" to Overstock product pages.

Until recently, links to Overstock pages were among the top three results for such words on Google search results. By Tuesday afternoon, links to Overstock for those same searches dropped to between No. 40 and No. 70 in the rankings.

The change followed a complaint by a competitor last week to Google about Overstock's actions

David Harry captured screen shots of the link pages and the email link exchange offer. Here they are:

EDU Links:

Overtstock links

Email Link Request:

Overstock Email Link Request

The WebmasterWorld started to uncover the links on the EDU sites and then shortly after, I assume around the same time the WSJ began asking Google about these links, Overstock vanished (or dropped significantly) from the search rankings. On February 22nd at 5:14 pm (EST) a WebmasterWorld member noticed the rankings vanished. SEOs scrambled to figure out why and then 24 hours later, the WSJ article appeared and we knew why.

WebmasterWorld learned a lesson, as Tedster, WebmasterWorld's administrator said:

One thing's for sure, I'm not likely to let another rankings analysis thread run on this forum. I do not want this forum to be leveraged in anyone's ranking wars, not at any level.

Brett Tabke, the forum's sponsor added:

agreed tedster. Lets bookmark this thread and whne the whiners start about the no outing / no linking to serps policy we point them back here and remind them IT COULD BE THEM and that policy was here to protect them as well as the Overstocks.

It is amazing that the one time WebmasterWorld lets a specific example, this happens. Specific examples are given all the time in Google's own Webmaster forums.

In any event, it has been an interesting link month - don't you think?

Forum discussion at WebmasterWorld.

Previous story: Daily Search Forum Recap: February 23, 2011


Branko Rihtman

02/24/2011 01:32 pm

I am not sure it is accurate to say Overstock offered discounts in exchange for links. The discount was not conditioned by link placement, as far as I understand.


02/24/2011 01:42 pm

It is hard to survive from a Google penalties and it is not really well when we would have a good online business.


02/24/2011 03:05 pm

>Specific examples are given all the time in Google's own Webmaster forums. and no one takes them seriously because it is Googles forum (eg: the vast unwashed masses of clueless newbies). Whereas Webmasterworld is all prolevel SEO's.

Erik Dafforn

02/24/2011 03:17 pm

Barry, is it cynical to think that given his WMW profile, CanadianGuy may be one of Overstock's most brilliant competitors?

Erik Dafforn

02/24/2011 03:44 pm

Never mind - I guess they address that later on in the WMW thread. I obviously am not the only one who found it coincidental that his inaugural post to WMW was a request to break policy and openly discuss a specific site. That's either a hell of a coincidence, or brilliant.


02/24/2011 04:44 pm

karma's a bitch... today's tip.. never heckle someone on black hat panel at pubcon.


02/24/2011 05:14 pm

LOL!!! But it's so tempting!!!


02/24/2011 06:19 pm

Having worked for a University this is common practice. Having partners and linking to their sites is usually how Alumni Associations fund their organization. Athletic departments also have partners and links to their sites off of .edu domains. All computer manufactures offer discounts to students. Housing programs list partners to give students discounts. Given, the information presented I don't see how Google can say the intent was wrong. Overstock sells to student, students are in school, and you should provide discounts to schools so that you can get the student customer. What's next, Google will penalize espn3.com (offered free to students) because the Universities link to that page off of their site?


02/24/2011 06:36 pm

Something funny to look at. Go to any University (Matt C. PHD) and search for discounts. You will see plenty of these paid/partner links.


02/24/2011 07:02 pm

One of our members just noted that it may seem from this post that I was involved in the downfall. When the WSJ contacted me, the rankings on those terms had already been nuked. Google had taken action before I became involved. I simply helped them understand SEO, Google Guidelines and what was going on. I do not have any clients in niches that OS is in. I don't waste my time outing people. #justsayin

Roie S

02/24/2011 07:10 pm

I have a question eHow should write about: How can you manipulate Google results and get away with it? I'm sure this would end up as a very helpful article, since eHow's SEO must have a clever answer. (maybe it's got something to do with them making Google 100's of millions in ad revenue whereas Forbes and co. don't)

Doc Sheldon

02/24/2011 09:30 pm

"Whereas Webmasterworld is all prolevel SEO's." Oh, gee! I HOPE that was sarcasm. Granted, there are many "pro-level" SEOs over there, but I'd wager they're the minority. ;)

Jaan Kanellis

02/24/2011 09:50 pm

True Barry why doesn't Google take the same notice and act on SPECIFIC and mostly accurate examples in there own webmaster forum?

Barry Schwartz

02/24/2011 09:50 pm

Honestly, I kind of agree. They didn't necessarily pay for links. Like I said above, it was a strategy I mentioned two years ago and hey - 50% felt it was legit. Tough call.

Barry Schwartz

02/24/2011 09:51 pm

I heard you had a client named UnderStock.com? ;-)

Thomas Abacoa

02/24/2011 10:27 pm

So there are 3 big sites compared to how many getting away with it. Seems like Google turns a blind eye until there is a public outcry. Why are reporters and forums members doing a better job at identifying these tactics than Google? Well Google is probably getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in PPC ad money from these guys. I'm Just saying!


02/24/2011 10:34 pm

lol.... hmmmm.... scrambles off to reg domain...

Fionn Downhill

02/24/2011 11:39 pm

First I do not believe that Google only penalizes sites which do not bring them lots of Adsense. That is hysteria. Outing sites is awful and today you think you are white hat whatever that is tomorrow your "squeaky" clean linking tactics are black hat whatever that is. The reality is that any link created to improve and inflate rankings for a keyword in Google whether paid, free, bartered whatever is against Google's guidelines. So the next time somebody decides to out a site, think have you ever got a link to help withyour rankings. Unless you are a very ineffective SEO then the answer is going to be yes. There are much much worse examples of abuse out there blatant, awful garbage linking which has been reported to Google and which Google does nothing about. The penalties on these high profile sites are supposed to scare those people. Hah, not happening they are making a fortune off their spam and will continue to do so until Google topples them. A bit like Ghadaffy.


02/24/2011 11:50 pm

IMO, this is more about the spammy anchor text than anything else. Because that clearly IS manipulative. Otherwise if this is simply about cash I would expect any business with a link from Yahoo! Directory to come tumbling to the ground.


02/25/2011 05:31 am

Outing a penalized site equates to bad PR, and while actors are aware that it can affect a business' credibility and even profit, Google has to send a strong message to other websites a s well.

Derek Jansen

02/25/2011 08:03 am

This is an interesting case of Google intervention - the question is to what extent will this intervention occur?

Barry Schwartz

02/25/2011 09:56 pm

Okay. Encouraged it.

Barry Schwartz

02/25/2011 09:56 pm

Okay. Encouraged it.

Barry Schwartz

02/26/2011 01:53 am

So it is not all your fault? ;-)

Troy Glancy

02/26/2011 06:17 am

I learned something new..didn't know EDU addresses gave you a higher rank haha. Google killed overstock big time!

Barry Schwartz

02/27/2011 02:49 pm

They don't.

SEO Training Wizard

02/28/2011 03:43 am

At the end of the day, even with Overstock and JCPenny being penalized for black-hat SEO tactics, didn't their plan work? One more thing to think about is negative feedback sadly works the same as positive feedback for SEO purposes. This was a big issue in the last few months after the sunglasses / Google debacle. Here are the Top SEO Mistakes that everyone should be aware of.


03/01/2011 11:29 pm

In this video, you can buy 300 links per week. Is that like the Overstock and JCPenny example? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDmgnEfywT4


03/03/2011 11:17 am

They do.

Barry Schwartz

03/03/2011 12:08 pm

No, they don't.

Jared Stevens

03/14/2011 12:33 am

There are poor cheaters and rich cheaters. But at the end of the day all of this is cheating. It's like pro athletes taking steroids. It's become normal and does enhance performance. But does that make it right? Trying to game the search engines means you aren't willing to just put up good content and have people actually talk about your stuff. I bet overstock could've done something similar without a cash incentive and it may have gone smoother.

Adriana@Cheap Tents

03/25/2011 05:36 am

Great article. I am puzzled though... It is the first case I see that Google penalises for links? Am I crazy? And I see on Majestic seo that their back-link history is not really suspicious... I wander was it just for the exchange link with students? It does not seem to be enough reason... I see more sites with more obvious and suspicious back-link actions that do not get penalised....


04/04/2011 12:59 am

EDU websites traditionally were respectable websites, and generated great levels of authority. Its not that it is judged as a bitter website than your standard .com or .net but they more frequently linked to and seen as authority websites and therefore normally give you a better google ranking advantage.. Barry is right.. No - you will not get a benefit buying / obtaining brand new EDU domains and getting links from them. It is purely based on the level of link authority they seem to get because of the type of websites you tend to find at those domain names. Likewise with .GOVT and .GOV domains.


04/12/2011 07:56 am

Hahaha bh SEO ?? Noob

SEO Professionals

08/14/2011 11:48 pm

Blacklisting is actually a somewhat outdated concept, but the Google algorithm can still penalize unscrupulous web designers and marketers for certain things. One of the main ways that people get penalized, or essentially pushed back in the rankings by Google, is something known as keyword stuffing. 

Cody Sharp

09/02/2011 10:11 pm

Well, it looks like Overstock may be at it again. Globe Runner SEO recently uncovered some very suspicious looking backlinks for Overstock.com using SEOmoz's Open Site Explorer. Here's the link:  http://globerunnerseo.com/overstock-com-busted-again-using-black-hat-seoI'd like to know what y'all think of these backlinks and if you agree that Google could penalize Overstock, again, for such use of suspicious backlinks and SEO tactics. 

Cody Sharp

09/02/2011 10:55 pm

Sorry, the link for the below post is: http://globerunnerseo.com/overstock-com-busted-again-using-black-hat-seo

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