JC Penney (NYSE:JCP) Busted by Google SEO Web Spam Cops for Black Hat SEO and Link Farms


JCP) Punished by Google SEO Web Spam Cops for employing Black Hat SEO and Link Farms to Manipulate Organic Search Results

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article exposing the black hat SEO tactics of J.C. Penney, explaining how jcpenney.com was able to obtain #1 organic search rankings (unpaid or natural search listings) for virtually everything the retailer sold including searches for "bedding" or "dresses" or "Area Rugs," and enjoyed near-the-top first page rankings for searches like "skinny jeans," "home decor," "furniture," "comforter sets" etc.

The New York Times looked into JC Penney's link profile and uncovered a massive web of thousands of pages of blog spam and paid links linking to the J.C. Penney website, rich with relevant, descriptive anchor text designed to fool Google’s ranking algorithms.

The New York Times presented their findings to Google. Googler Matt Cutts, head of SEO webspam, who confirmed that the tactics violated the Google webmaster guidelines and shortly after, the J.C. Penney website was nowhere to be found for the queries they had previously ranked number one for. Matt tweeted that "Google's algorithms had started to work; manual action also taken."

JC Penney reacted to the Google slap by firing its SEO consulting firm, SearchDex.

Analysis of the JC Penney SEO Link-Farm Fiasco

  • The fact that google failed to uncover a link-building scheme of this magnitude shows just how vulnerable Google search results are to rank-manpulation schemes.
  • JC Penney and SearchDex were just too greedy! They were only caught because they deployed such an egregious use of black-hat SEO techniques on such a massive scale, to the point where a New York Times reporter started snooping. It would be like ... over-stating your business expenses on a tax return by 10,000x and hoping to get away with it.
  • Despite this high-profile bust, the probability of getting busted by the Google SEO Web Spam Cops remains incredibly low, while the benefits are incredibly high. In the article, Mr. Cutts emphasized that there are 200 million domain names to police and "Spammers never stop." Meanwhile, 34 percent of Google’s traffic goes to the No. 1 organic result. I'm only aware of one other high-profile SEO spam bust (BMW, a few years ago).
  • Sell JCP stock (NYSE:JCP)! Seven percent of JCPenney.com’s traffic comes from clicks on organic search results – I'd expect that to fall dramatically. And fewer people finding JCP through Google searches is a sure bet they’ll see far fewer sales from SEO in Q1.
  • If you're outed for spamming Google, it sure helps to be a big AdWords customer. Matt Cutts said in the interview that he'd "circle back" to the company to see if it was still breaking the rules, he said. Presumably they don't want any hurt-feelings from a company that spends $2.46 million a month on paid Google AdWords search ads!

So what do you think? Is Black Hat SEO worth the risk? Should we all be looking to retain SearchDex as our SEO consultants? Write your comments in the fields below.

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Richard Kraneis
Feb 14, 2011

News flash: Piano player for hire links to J.C. Penney bed comforters

And so it goes. That was just one example of J.C. Penney's Link Fiasco in cheating to get better Google listings.

At 6 AM Chicago time I tweeted to @WordStream that this J.C. Penney SEO Black Hat fiasco would be a great blog topic. Obviously you were already working on it Larry.

Is J.C. Penney guilty of Black Hat SEO or just plain lazy? Which one is it?

1) J.C. Penney fired their black hat SEO firm almost immediately when the NY Times broke the link fiasco story. If someone at J.C. Penney silently nodded in a meeting when their SEO firm proposed having spammy links from piano teacher websites to J.C. Penney bed comforters to increase SERP position and sales, shame on J.C. Penney.

But perhaps J.C. Penney is totally innocent.

2) Then J.C. Penney and their Marketing/Sales department of guilty of not doing their due diligence. It's called an audit. Corporations audit everything: travel expenses, equipment inventories, everything. If a corporation's sales rely heavily upon their online marketing, perhaps they might take a serious look at the origin of their organic traffic.

So J.C. Penney has some serious work to do before they get their organic search, online traffic, and profits back in order.

J.C. Penney's moral to their link fiasco? If you get caught at your black hat SEO have a fall guy handy, or, extend your corporate audits to include your online marketing and traffic.

Thanks Larry. Perhaps corporate sales/marketing executives will turn to their generation x/y assistants today and ask them what "black hat seo" means.

Feb 14, 2011

I agree. Sale JCP stock for sure! I'm really shocked it didn't go down a lot more than it did today. I don't believe that only 7% of their traffic was via organic search. With that many high rankings in the SERPs, organic traffic was bound to be higher. Usually SEO traffic is a lot higher % of a sites traffic. Also, with their Google quality score now lowered, won't their PPC costs sky higher as well?

Tom Demers
Feb 15, 2011

Funniest part of this is how SHOCKED everyone is about the links - look at pretty much every major e-tailer link profile I'm sure 8 in 10 or some such are doing similar. It's actually a pretty tame link profile I have seen worse from JC comps. How do people think they're getting all these links to their DRESSES e-commerce pages? :).

Larry Kim
Feb 15, 2011

Yeah of course everyone does this ... I guess what is "shocking" (if anything) is that it got written up in the New York Times and perhaps just the agressive scale of this link farm operation and how easily manipulated googles results are.

Jul 15, 2011

“Sleazy” is a perfect description for this practice of spamming. Nonchalant SEOs who don’t want to diversify and instead focus on convenience as his tool of trade, finding the cheapest tricks at the expense of his audience.

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