Home / Articles  / When Big Companies Don’t Play Fair: A Lesson in SEO
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Mom always said that life’s not fair, and we’ve all learned the hard way that even when we do everything right, things don’t always go our way. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of SEO, where some big corporations can practice old or even black hat SEO and still rank number one. But how?

As an SEO agency, it’s our job to advise companies on the best possible ways to reach their online goals. We’re constantly analyzing our clients’ data, following industry thought leaders and vigilantly looking out for Google algorithm updates. I think it’s safe to say that we know a thing or two about SEO. But, much to our frustration, one of the things we’ve come to know is that not everyone has to follow the rules to get ahead.

SEO No-Nos

Any good SEO agency will tell you that the following practices can drastically hurt your SEO performance, and it’s true… for about 90 percent of us. The other 10 percent are still getting away with:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Thin content
  • Duplicate content
  • Paid links

But who are these rule-breaking rebels and what makes them so special? Well, when you look at who they are, you can’t deny that they are pretty special. However, that doesn’t make their SEO shortcomings any less annoying. As you’ve probably guessed by now, among these violators are some of the biggest online brands: Amazon, eBay, Target, Best Buy, etc.

For instance, look at the top three sites ranking for “kids bike”:

kids bike

The top three search results are big e-commerce sites that are loaded with duplicate content and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pages that are cannibalizing each other. Some are even teetering on the edge of keyword stuffing:

kids bike

Besides having so-so SEO, there’s another thing these companies all have in common, and it’s probably the main reason why they’re able to get away with what most of us cannot: trust — Google trusts them.

Earning Google’s Trust

Here’s where the “life’s not fair” analogy really comes into play. For many big brands, like Target and Best Buy, all they need to do in order to earn Google’s trust is just be big brands. When you’re a huge, successful corporation like Target, you really don’t have to do very much SEO optimization to rank well on the search engines. Google trusts sites that have a lot of authority, and big brands generally have a lot of authority because they have the budgets to produce large, offline campaigns that bring them scores of backlinks, shares and other social signals. They also get a lot of clicks because consumers know and trust their brands, as well.

But not all big brands get away with shady SEO practices. In 2011, both JCPenney and suffered the wrath of Google when they were penalized for buying links and offering discounts in exchange for .edu links, respectively. The good news here is that big brands can get penalized, no matter how authoritative they might be. For JCPenney and, it was just a matter of time before their bad SEO practices were found out. Obviously, buying links is a much more serious violation than keyword stuffing or having duplicate content. But what about the companies that are still getting away with smaller infractions yet still ranking extremely well? Is it ever possible to compete with these giants?

How to Stand Out in a Crowd

As long as authority and trust are among search’s biggest ranking factors, competing head-to-head with a business like Amazon will be an exercise in futility, and most of us have the good sense to realize that it’s simply not a realistic goal. That is, unless you’re a well-established, well-known brand like Schwinn or Huffy and you’re competing on brand terms. In this case, it’s fair to aim for #1 in the SERPs.

schwinn bike

But what about newer or lesser-known brands? There are quite a few ways that these types of companies can compete online. What’s more, many of these businesses actually have an advantage over big corporations because they have the creative freedom and the motivation to disrupt a marketplace that is already saturated with copycats. Here are a few ways smaller companies can stand out online:

Promote Your Unique Value Proposition

One of the best ways to get potential consumers to take notice of your company, products or services is to highlight what sets you apart from the competition — your unique value proposition (UVP). But first, take the time to understand and analyze your target audience so you can identify what their biggest needs and pain points are. This way, you’ll be able to position yourself as a company that understands them and can offer them truly effective solutions.

Start by focusing on a small, target market that you’ve researched well. By doing so, your UVP and messaging will resonate strongly with them, giving them confidence in your brand. Nurturing smaller, niche consumer groups will take significant time and effort in the beginning, but the idea is that their positive experiences with will encourage them to like, share and promote your brand on social media to a much wider audience.

Local SEO

With the increase in personalized search results and mobile, on-the-go searching, local SEO should be an essential part of every small business’s online marketing strategy. In fact, if you’re not implementing local SEO, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Here’s why…

According to Marcus Miller from Search Engine Land, “Having a physical address and proximity to the searcher as ranking factors gave every local business a potential shot at attracting customers from search engines.” Did you read that? “Every” local business. Local SEO, while not a magic bullet, can help level the playing field for smaller companies.

For details on how to maximize your company’s local search visibility, check out my colleague Nic Jolin’s post, Local SEO: How to Gain Visibility in 2016.

Mobile SEO

Another area where small companies have an advantage over online giants is in mobile SEO. Surprisingly, many of the biggest players in search aren’t sufficiently optimized for mobile, despite the fact that today, more people search on mobile devices than desktops. If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you are missing out. Today’s mobile users don’t have the patience or time to deal with sites that aren’t mobile-friendly or take more than three seconds to load.

Obviously, this presents an enormous opportunity for smaller players to gain a competitive edge in mobile search, so be sure to follow industry best practices for mobile site optimization and craft your content to speak to mobile users. Particularly with voice search, the keywords you’re optimizing for are going to be vastly different, depending on whether your intended audience is driving down the freeway or sitting at their desk.

Good Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

While it’s very disheartening to see big companies outranking your site in spite of their lackluster SEO, there is absolutely no reason to throw in the towel. We’ve shown that not only are there ways help close the gap between large and small companies online, but there are even instances where the little guy has the advantage. So don’t think your SEO efforts are all for naught. In the world of search, the good guys can often win.

Mary Hayes is a Manager in Earned Media at The Search Agency, where she’s worked for 10 years. She has prior experience in SEM, print and email marketing, publishing and advertising. Mary is passionate about her two children, working smart and making a positive impact in everything she does.

  • Mike

    Great to see more methods for smaller sites to find success against big brand competition from leveraging their unique value propositions to optimizing for local and mobile SEO.

    May 8, 2017 at 6:23 pm Reply
  • Igor -

    Hi there,

    I believe the only way to compete with the big boys is with content. Huge loads of content and aim for the long tails which get 80-90% of the searches anyway.

    My 2 cents..

    Sincerely, Igor B.

    May 14, 2017 at 8:03 am Reply
    • Mary Hayes

      Indeed, huge loads of content will definitely put the smaller guys at an advantage as long as it is highly relevant and useful to the target audience. However, writing lots of content just for the sake of having lots of content will be a waste of time if it is not carefully crafted with the reader and his/her intent in mind. Cheers!

      May 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm Reply
  • Andre Douglas

    its all about trust guys, start on building trust to a site before anything else.
    really good read Mary, and good to hear about JCpenny its really not fair that they get away with so much, i would be surprised if JC penny is the only company buying links, have you heard of any more instances like this?

    June 1, 2017 at 10:58 pm Reply
    • Mary Hayes

      Thanks, Andre. Well, JCPenny didn’t get away with shady link buying for very long. The lesson being that black hat tactics may spike your performance at first, but in the long term, it could be detrimental to your business. For a company that was already struggling to compete in the e-commerce market, it was a bad move. There are plenty of other companies that have done the same, including

      June 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm Reply
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