(Photo credit: NY Times)
Over the past year, I’ve kept up with a few brands that I feel have done a good job of utilizing the OOH channel, particularly the “new” OOH channel – where offline is purposefully merged with the online and enabling technologies are at play. One of these brands is JC Penney.
I’ve featured them twice here, and I’ve been impressed with the initiatives they’ve executed in this space. To me, the fact that they use mobile and interactive Out-of-Home (IOOH) shows they understand all of the channels at their disposal and more importantly, that they know this is becoming more and more a preferred and effective way to reach consumers.
So, when then news about their SEO practices surfaced yesterday, I have to say I was surprised. My initial reaction – without asking any experts on SEO – was from the POV of a general digital marketer. How can a company make a decision to utilize emerging channels – mobile and IOOH – but not have a complete grasp on one of the basic (yet complex) fundamentals in their media mix? Or in simpler terms, how can they focus their efforts in building large, in-store touchscreen units rather than getting their SEO right?
It makes me feel – again, upon first blush, and not having any insight into their operation – that someone there doesn’t have their priorities straight. How could this be?
So, I dug a little bit deeper. And in what I read (here and here), the blame seemed to be put more on Penney than not. But did they really know? Or is everyone doing it, just in subtler ways? How can they not have an SEO expert? I started to get more and more interested the deeper I got into it. So, I asked our SEO guy – Ryan Smith – who is also actually one of the cinematographers in our office. And here’s what he had to say, just by me asking, “what do you think:”
- Don’t mess with Google, it isn’t worth it 98% of the time.
- We MUST be able to counsel our clients not to work with shady SEO companies, they will tell you they can provide results and then go out and buy links to do it. A brand could get burned like this very easily with very little knowledge of what was actually going on. I believe that this was the case for Penney, they can’t even get the URLs of their core pages right.
- Many SEO’s have often pointed out major hypocrisy of how Google hands out penalties. Major brands have been given passes because they are “vital” to results. BMW could do anything because if they weren’t in the SERP for “luxury car” Google users would think less of Google. So I think this says that Penney’s must have been pretty blatantly buying links on a large scale and that Google doesn’t view Penney’s as important to their results. Also maybe they found a brand to make an example of to get everybody on the straight and narrow without damaging their results.
- Penalty was confined to several non-branded keywords, if a lesser brand had been buying links on that scale they would have gotten blown out completely. They still rank fine for anything with JC Penney in the query.
- This is clearly a manually applied penalty and Matt Cutts said as much. I can’t remember another time Google pointed to a specific penalty and admitted it was manually applied. Mostly in the past they have stood on everything being algorithmic to the point that it insulted the intelligence of anything that could fog a mirror. Interesting they chose to point to manual on this one all of a sudden, might be a bit of branding change from we have the best results because of our algorithm to we have the best results because we work hard at it.
- JC Penney spends between $12 and $40k a day on Adwords, according to Spyfu.com. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Adwords has a direct link to your organic rankings.
Good stuff. I could probably expand on each one of the points above, but I don’t want to get into SEO-specifics here.
My personal takeaway is this – it’s less about JC Penney knowing whether or not this was going on (but seriously, how can a company of this size not know what’s going on on this scale, especially with their monitoring and even warnings???). It’s more about the seeming oversight of not having an SEO expert in-house/on-staff in some form or fashion – someone who would have directed, caught, and presumably fixed the tactics. And more importantly, someone who is accountable.
This is one of the hurdles this (D/I)OOH channel/industry faces – a consistent champion, from the agency and brand side, who will be accountable. Right now, I feel like the (D/I)OOH industry is fed by brands/agencies who are risk-takers. This is still an emerging/experimental channel, not a tried-and-true one like online paid/organic media. But the problem is, when there aren’t specialists who can take responsibility of those tried-and-true channels like SEO, when will there ever be specialist who can champion channels like (D/I)OOH?
I know I’m being a little dramatic, but it does give me pause, especially when looking at a brand holistically, not just in the interest of one channel over the other. I think it’s our responsibility, as marketers/communicators, to understand how each of the channels work together – especially when emerging channels like (D/I)OOH & mobile are at play – and then provide counsel accordingly. As much as we can. We must do this. Our executions, particularly in the emerging channels, will be made stronger and more credible. And that’s what it’s going to take to become sticky, when reaching consumers while they’re out and about – strong stories from strong brands. Who consumers can trust.