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.)Home Depot's Niemi also said: "In this case, where it's stated 'visually indicated,' it could better have been said 'visually differentiated.'" If a link isn't visually differentiated, that would still seem to meet Google's hidden definition, in that a site visitor couldn't see that it was a link, nor where the link went to, but search engines could.
An even more interesting explanation from Niemi speaks to the key question of why Home Depot would even suggest that a link needn't be "visually indicated." She wrote: "Because our service providers for the installation business can generate business from other avenues beyond The Home Depot, [the Home Depot SEO group's] concern was that the link to Home Depot would be a distraction, so we just wanted them to know that a link to The Home Depot didn't need to be any more prominent than any other links to their other partners."
In other words, the Home Depot argument is that installers wouldn't want to alienate their customers at Lowe's and other Home Depot rivals by including a link back to Home Depot. So to remove that reason to resist the link, the suggestion was made to make it not visible.
Two concerns with that. First, the memo didn't say anything at all about a link being more or less prominent. The memo suggested that the link not be "visually indicated" at all.
As for being sensitive to its partners not wanting to upset Home Depot rivals, another SEO consultant had a different take. John Williams, the president of SEO consulting firm RankSolid, said he is guessing that the installers' fear that Home Depot was really trying to address through its invisible link suggestion was traffic exits. The installers might fear that a visible link to Home Depot would give its customers an option to click away and explore alternatives.
Williams said the competitor concern might be something that impacts Home Depot more than its installers. Home Depot is likely thinking, "We don't want to alert our competitor, Lowe's, so that they don't try and do the same thing," Williams said.
As for saying that Home Depot's links need not be more prominent than those from rivals, Williams offered this cynical interpretation: "Your hidden link for us doesn't have to be any more prominent than your other hidden links."
The Home Depot move struck an emotional nerve with many SEOs. "They don't think very much of their suppliers and partners if they think they can pull the wool over their eyes. It's flat out wrong," said SEO consultant David Strom. "It annoys me that someone will take the time do this rather than optimize their page for actual SEO results. It's an offensive, wrong-headed, dumb idea. Bad Home Depot, bad Home Depot."
Google has always been aggressive about slapping down retailers for abusing link procedures—consider JCPenney and, shortly afterwards, Overstock.
Even in those two cases, the retailers each pointed fingers elsewhere. In the Home Depot case, the company had the courtesy to put it all in writing, and then to send it to a few thousand of its closest friends.
We reached out to Google to get its take on this situation and the company had nothing to say to us. Somehow, we're guessing Google will have quite a bit to say to Home Depot.