JCPenney Gets Caught Gaming Google

NY Times Uncovers Blackhat SEO Scheme and Google Drops Their Ranking

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The New York Times did a little undercover work in the world of search and discovered that JCPenney was benefiting enormously from paid links. They ranked number one or close to it for some very prominent search queries including “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture", “tablecloths” and many other highly searched for terms.

(Note: Tweets regarding this from Google’s Matt Cutts can be viewed below.)

The JCPenney links take consumers directly to the appropriate sections of their site. This lasted for month including the Christmas holidays according to the article.

A spokeswoman for JCPenney, Darcie Brossart, told the New York Times, “JCPenney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,” She added, “We are working to have the links taken down.” Apparently the actual blackhat SEO work was done by the company’s SEO consultant firm SearchDex which it has since terminated. 

The New York Times secretly contacted Google with their information about JCPenney and also arranged an interview with none other than Google’s Matt Cutts who is famous in the search world and well known to the readers of WebProNews. Cutts told them, “I can confirm that this violates our guidelines". He added, "Am I happy this happened? Absolutely not. Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.”

WebProNewsOnce caught by Google, JCPenney moved from an average search position of 1.3 to a rather low 52. What are your thoughts?

According to the article JCPenney dropped from an average search result position of 1.3 on Feb. 1 to an average postion of 52 on Feb. 10. Unlike what happened to BMW.de a while back, Google did not remove them from their search index but with an average search result position of 52 they might as well have. 

Update: Since this article was published, Matt Cutts posted some tweets as seen below:

@arrington left a comment: I really wish that our algorithms or other processes had caught this much faster–I’m definitely not celebrating.less than a minute ago via web

@arrington the newer/most recent spate of links happened in the last 3-4 months; not over a year. JCP still ranking on [dresses] on eg Bing.less than a minute ago via web

Vanessa Fox covers the tech aspect of SEO story in NYT: http://goo.gl/x4XHd A must-read for companies thinking about SEO.less than a minute ago via web

David Segal of the NYT discusses some blackhat SEO: http://goo.gl/RdnTi Google’s algorithms had started to work; manual action also taken.less than a minute ago via web


JCPenney Gets Caught Gaming Google
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  • Guest

    I just don’t understand the problem here. JC Penny’s does sell A LOT of dresses, bedding, curtains, etc. If they used a term like Chinese cooking then yes I could understand. Someone please help me understand the problem. Please keep in mind I am a newbie here. Thanks in advance for your explanations.

    • Rich Ord

      Google considers buying links an attempt to game their search engine. JCPenny via their SEO consultants bought links on all kinds of high pagerank sites. This caused Google’s search engine to rank JCPenny’s various product sections much more highly than they would have otherwise. That’s why once Google stopped counting the suspect links JCPenny’s average search ranking fell from a high of 1.5 to 52.

      Rich Ord
      CEO, iEntry, Inc.
      Publisher of WebProNews

      • http://www.prestoreviews.com Scott


        I was wondering if you would share your opinion on paying for a link from a site like Yahoo or BOTW.org.

        Both are directories (for the purpose of this discussion). Should these sites be weighted so heavily by Google?


        • Rich Ord

          I don’t think Google should give any weight to whether or not a site is in Yahoo or BOTW.org. Paying for a link is …. paying for a link. Is Google against paying for a link or not?

          Rich Ord
          CEO, iEntry, Inc.
          Publisher of WebProNews

      • Stupidscript

        Buying links is not a problem, and it wasn’t a problem for JC Penney, either.

        The violation of Google’s terms occurred when the bought links turned out to be active redirect code that pushed users over to deep links within JC Penney’s site.

        1) Searcher seeks “flowered blouse”
        2) Sees link to “abc.com/flowered-blouse.html” in SERPs
        3) Clicks link to “abc.com” site
        4) Is transparently redirected to “jcpenney.com/blouses?pattern=flowered”

        Google showed the link to the page where the link text was found, but searchers who clicked those links were not taken to those sites, but rather were taken to JC Penney’s site.

        That’s the violation, and the black hat SEO.

        • Stupidscript

          Sorry. I am factually incorrect. Please disregard my previous post in its entirety.

      • http://www.steerpointmarketing.com John Slimak

        If a page has high rank value and is

  • http://forum.smobot.com SMObot

    There is nothing technically wrong or illegal about JCPenny purchasing links. In fact, it could be considered purchased ad space. The well-known fact is that most SEOs do it. Purchasing a link in the Yahoo directory is actually weighed into Google’s “trust” portion of their algorithm.

    If Google has a hole in their algorithm, it’s really on them to fix it. Bottom line is that natural linking is not, nor has it ever been a good ranking metric, especially for new websites. The fact that links can be purchased without detection speaks to that. Natural (unsolicited) back links are acquired at a rate proportional to inbound traffic… which may be very low if a website doesn’t do some sort of paid advertising upfront, or doesn’t rank for any valuable terms in the first place. Something like 1 in a million hits actually results in a link… lower for ecommerce websites like JCPenny.

    You have to consider generating natural back-links in the same context you might consider sharing or “liking” something via social media. However, since there are far fewer webmasters than Facebook users, or even Twitter users, natural backlink rate is INSIGNIFICANTLY slow for the vast majority of websites.

    • Guest

      I agree, this problem is Google’s, not jcpennies. When did the amount of links going to a website with certain terms start to determine how relevant that site is..

    • http://webconsulting.posterous.com Michael Hayes

      Links may not be a good ranking metric, but its the best anyone has ever come up with. That’s why Google overtook its rivals in the 90s – because its system produced much better results than anyone else’s.

      And if no-one paid for links, their results would be even better, so of course they clamp down.

      Re your paid advertising space analogy – the difference is that if a company pays for hundreds of low quality ads, it reflects on the company. With backlinks, users don’t see the links, just the result, so its a form of deception in my opinion. Could be argued that its more like bribing people to vote for you in an election than putting up ads.

      So Google should do better at ignoring low quality links – but it must be a hard problem to solve. Until there’s a search engine which can understand writing quality and the overall relevance of a page to a subject, rather than just identifying words, this will always be a problem.

  • http://www.marketappeal.co.uk/ Anthony

    The problem is that JC Penny broke search’s golden rule: don’t embarrass Google.

    As for the NYT’s motivations, that’s another matter. Their a newspaper, so their first priority is to attract readers… and they did get a juicy scoop. Of course, not everyone would want to highlight Google’s flaws, while flaunting their power, but then stories such as this recent one: http://searchengineland.com/the-new-york-times-demand-media-edition-62643 may not be enhancing their sense of humour. It’s possible that this one didn’t cheer them up either: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/02/why-times-will-lose-to-huffpo/

    So, we now have open web warfare between media ‘giants’ with mud being thrown in every direction: http://www.webpronews.com/topnews/2011/02/01/google-bing-and-blekko-talk-content-farms-and-search-quality

  • Guest

    J.C. Penny should sue G. for the “manual” adjusting making them lose revenue and all ranking gained before the increase in backlinks. They definitely have a strong case against them. G. would have to prove that it was them who posted the links and on top of that there are some antitrust issues with the “manual” adjusting. G. has gotten away with “manual” adjusting many times against the little guy but these big companies should make them pay the price and sic the government on them. Microsoft can do this legally as well as Yahoo but Google must not be able to get away with this.

  • http://www.chotrul.com/ chotrul

    It’s very interesting reading this. The thing that strikes me is the role NYT played in this, and their contacting Matt Cutts directly. How different would the situation be if there wasn’t this detective work being done for them? How well is Google doing at sorting this stuff out for themselves?

    Interesting also to see a relatively large brand involved here.

  • http://www.fullmedia.com Robby Monk

    JCPenney’s was unaware of this strategy. I do believe that. The crazy part is many people don’t understand SEO and will just see that JCPenney’s did something “wrong”. Just goes to show that it is VITAL companies know what their SEO agency is doing!

  • Guest

    Well, this article aroused my curiosity, so I checked my own link stats. Imagine my surprise when a link to my site from aplastic-anemia.com showed up.

    The site is an obvious magnet site for Google AdSense ads. I don’t know who these people are and I have not contracted with anyone for SEO. Yet, there it is. They obviously copied some text and included a link to my site because it is fairly popular for the niche that page is trying to pull in. Granted, it is only one link. But think about more popular phrases and popular sites like JC Penny.

    They are prime targets for this. I can imagine AdSense scum sites of all kinds using this tactic. So who is to say how much just happened involuntarily and how much was intentional, if any?

    And has Google shut down the AdSense ads on these sites that are participating in the link scamming? Or do they turn a blind eye because of the revenue… until NYT uncovers it.

  • http://www.vacuumspot.com.au Alec Nelson

    So I think that JCpenny should be penalised as ignorance should not be an excuse for doing the wrong thing. I wonder what the length of penalty time will be? I am sure that once the guilty seo are fired the new firm will have pleanty to do trying to recreate a whole bunch of white hat seo.

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