Home Depot’s SEO Furor

Written by Evan Schuman
April 18th, 2012

What began as a Home Depot effort this month to get installers to boost the chain’s Web traffic has morphed into a strange SEO Google mess, with a Home Depot E-mail encouraging those service providers to use invisible links on their sites.

This is not merely an issue of violating the rules of a major search engine. A lot of these partners—carpet installers, for instance—have minimal E-Commerce teams, which means they rely on partners such as Home Depot for E-Commerce guidance. And when chains give advice that is false and endangers the ranking of the sites of those partners, it is a problem.

This all began on April 9, when the home services operations group at Home Depot sent an E-mail blast to all of the chain’s service providers in the U.S. At a big-picture level, the memo’s goal was to try and get these installers and other partners to add Home Depot links to their sites. But it then said this: “Please note that the hyperlink does not have to be visually indicated.”

(Update: On Thursday (April 19), Home Depot seems to have changed its position. Home Depot’s Niemi said the company “investigated the letter,” which had not been approved by communications and concluded that “it was a truly unfortunate letter that was poorly worded and misleading.” She said that a corrected letter will be sent to the roughly 2,000 service providers who received the initial version. Home Depot has also reached out to Google, she said.)

The change of position of Home Depot was initially reported by Search Engine Land.)The memo didn’t explain further, leaving it up to the installers to decide how to make the links not visually indicated. But whether they opted to use the same color as the site or to simply make the link not appear to be a link makes little difference.

Google’s rules on the matter are clear: “If your site is perceived to contain hidden text and links that are deceptive in intent, your site may be removed from the Google index, and will not appear in search results pages. When evaluating your site to see if it includes hidden text or links, look for anything that’s not easily viewable by visitors of your site. Are any text or links there solely for search engines rather than visitors?”

The next line of the memo raised a different—but equally troubling—issue. “Linking to The Home Depot Web site will benefit our business partners by increasing the page authority of your Web site.” The problem is, that is simply not true. Linking to Home Depot will do nothing to boost the page authority of the installers’ Web sites. It will, however, potentially do a lot to help Home Depot’s Web site. That’s sort of the opposite of the memo’s argument.

(Note: The memo said “authority,” and that is clearly not true. Had it said “page rank,” it’s still a stretch. But when a small site links to a much larger and more reputable site, it sometimes certainly can help with its page ranking. But there are so many factors to consider it’s not likely to help. Besides, if everyone who received this memo complied, the ton of identical links to Home Depot might be seen by Google as SPAM link building, which is something that could have Google slapping down both Home Depot and partner sites that participated.

Home Depot corporate stressed that the memo was not advocating hiding links, but corporate was vague on what it did mean.

“Hiding links is not something we would ever advocate,” said Home Depot spokesperson Jean Niemi. “We were in no way to trying to ‘hide’ the link. From Google’s Webmaster guidelines, hiding the link by making it the same color as the background would make no sense, as the request was for a text link in the middle of a sentence.”

A few concerns, though. First, the Webmaster guidelines don’t specify the same color part. Its description—as quoted above—is much more broad.

Second, “the request was for a text link in the middle of a sentence” isn’t supported by the memo that was sent. That memo didn’t say at all where the not “visually indicated” link was to be placed. (Note: Bill Hartzer, an SEO consultant, broke the story about the Home Depot memo, and he includes the memo’s full text. It’s definitely worth reading.)


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