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Understanding the JC Penney Link Scheme that Landed them in Google’s Crosshairs

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It’s inevitable. No matter how big a company is, how carefully they go about doing it, or how sorry they are when they’re caught, black hat SEO techniques never end well. Google is the judge, jury, and executioner of search and they wield a sharp and heavy axe.

JC Penney learned this the hard way this week. Thanks to a NY Times investigation, they were exposed as participating in a link-building scheme that sent them to the top of search rankings for hundreds, possibly thousands of important organic retail search terms. While the Times does a good job of putting the pieces together, understanding what exactly happened, why it worked, and how Google is reacting is important to anyone who uses search.

JC Penney Black Hat SEO

There is a certain level of hatred pointed to professional search engine optimization firms. They receive the scorn of publications, companies, and individuals alike. Sadly, this is based upon the actions of a very small portion of the industry known as “black hats.”

Proper SEO is based upon building quality content that properly depicts pages of a website. This content can then generate inbound links from other sites that feel the information is valuable or that the source is the authority for particular keywords. That’s the elevator description of what real SEO is.

BlackhatBlack hat SEO has many tools, but the most powerful one is the purchased link. Google and other search engines have been extremely clear about their policy regarding buying and selling links. The rules are simple – if you sell links from your site, those links must be given a “nofollow” attribute. This attribute tells the search engines that the link is of a nature that should not be used to count towards a site’s link equity.

The more link equity a site has, the better it can rank for particular keywords. Google, Bing and other search engines look at inbound links in a way that is similar to votes. If Site A links to Site B and that link has an anchor text of “Best Underwater Basket Weaving Techniques,” the search engines look at it as a vote of confidence that Site B is an authority for the term.

Keep in mind that buying or selling links are not against the rules. Buying or selling links without the proper “nofollow” attribute is.

The company that JC Penney used for their search optimization was allegedly buying links from thousands of sites.

There is a market for different levels of link-purchasing. One is through paid reviews, where blogs are asked to write about a particular product or company with an anchored-link to their website or landing page. The more common and “dirtier” method, the one used by JC Penney’s SEO team, purchases footer links. While the individual links themselves are less powerful than contextual links, the footer normally appears on every page of a site, increasing the chances that the link will be indexed (and therefore counted as a “vote”).

The last method, also used by the SEO firm, uses link-placement services to buy bulk-links to a wide range of websites. These services pay websites to place a code on their site. The code generates links automatically to various clients, often shifting and rotating them from site to site to throw the search engines off of the scent.

The SEO firm has since been released from their duties. Google isn’t impressed.

Rankings for important keywords such as “Dresses” and “Furniture” have plummeted. Few would contest the statement that JC Penney was the best optimized, highest-ranking retail store in the world for months. That status drastically ended this week. Terms where they were ranked in the top 3 or even #1 earlier in the week now show JC Penney in the 30s, 50s, even 90s.

What does this mean for JC Penney? In essence, they no longer exist on Google. Their traffic for unbranded searches (anything other than direct searches for JC Penney) went from millions of visitors per month to next to nothing.

The moral of the story: do things the right way. Proper SEO using strong content and natural link-building is the only way to go. The benefits for going black hat were likely huge for JC Penney… for a few months. The consequences (beyond the PR nightmare of being singled-out by the NY Times and other publications) will be felt for years.

  1. I’ve noticed in the last few days that they’re ALWAYS showing up now within paid links. They must’ve really boosted their PPC budget to compensate for the organic link result loss.

  2. As a search marketer our company never condones any sort of link buying schemes or deceptive practices.

    Also as a search marketer, I found this whole incident very intriguing. I agree the bottom line costs of being on Google’s bad side is very bad for JC Penney. (Time to pitch business)

    However, I see Google as the one with the PR problem. Most people who actually purchased from JC Penney’s site during this period. They most likely got the item they wanted at a reasonable price from a reputable merchant. These folks most likely did not even notice. It could have been JC Penney, Macy’s, Amazon etc. Just as long as it arrived on time and in one piece.

    Now, however, more people outside the search community know that Google’s results may not be the ‘best results’. It is should be interesting to see how this develops in the near future.

  3. This is exactly why I stick to white hat only methods. Black hatters will eventually get what is coming to them.

  4. *sigh* Google’s recent ups and downs have been, at best, “problematic.” It’s hard to know what makes them happy anymore. Granted, it’s always a good idea to stick to high-quality linkable content and promote it through solid networks and paid links are always a no-no, but I agree with Spencer in thinking that this is just going to further erode Google’s ever-weakening public image.

  5. 1)       White label SEO’s frown upon the whole link-buying
    scheme. As conservative and ethical, they abide by Google’s TOS and see this
    practice unauthorized. In extreme cases (JCP for example), it distorts search
    results and rank unrelated websites with the vaguest keywords.

  6. The SEO firm has since been released from their duties. Google isn’t impressed.I like it .I like white color.Thanks to share this blog.

  7. 1) White Label SEO frown on the whole link buying

    regime. As a conservative and ethical, to follow the Google TOS and see what

    unauthorized practice. In extreme cases (eg PCB), which distorts research

    Results and ranking Web sites not related to the wave of keywords.

  8. The goal of our program of e-commerce SEO is to get maximum results from your online store while giving you a natural growth path in our service offerings.

     search engine placement

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