JC Penney Gets Ratted Out & Google-Slapped: Let's Review

September 14, 2017

JC Penney

On the off chance that you’re not right sick of hearing about the JC Penney SEO scandal – or that you had better things to do this week and missed it entirely – let’s go over some of the many responses to the incident.

The quick recap: The New York Times alerted Google spam man Matt Cutts to JC Penney’s highly questionable, probably full-on black-hat SEO tactics that had it ranking in the top five for many highly competitive head terms (via a slew of paid links). The Google slap was administered, and JC Penney’s rankings have plummeted, but naturally, this raised all sorts of questions, like how did such a high-profile company get away with such a large-scale violation of Google’s guidelines? I’m also wondering:

  • Why is JC Penney’s branding so weak? Half the stories I read this week misspelled the retailer’s name (as Penny). And is there a space between “JC” and “Penney” or not?
  • Why is the NYT playing spam-cop? Whenever they write about “S.E.O.” I get the feeling they really don’t understand it. The thing is, they don’t have to understand it – they’re the freaking New York Times. They’ve maxed out on authority so everything else can suffer and they usually still rank.

But that’s just me. What else are people saying?

First off, if you’re interested in a detailed run-down of what exactly happened, why JC Penney would do what it did, the consequences and so on, check out Vanessa Fox’s post at Search Engine Land.

Alan Bleiweiss at Search Marketing Wisdom thinks JC Penney has a bigger problem than paid links – namely, the site’s on-page SEO is “weak” to “nonexistent.” Bleiweiss had a “red flag moment” when he saw that JC Penney’s spokesperson Darcie Brossart claimed only 7% of their traffic came from organic search, as though this were something to brag about:

IF that is a correct statement, JC Penney has an EPIC failure in place as far as their SEO is concerned.  I don’t care how big or small your site is – if you are only getting single digit percentage visits from organic search, all the paid links in the world are still failing to achieve the ultimate desire to profit from search engine listings.

Now, that may just be a red herring figure, used purely to deflect criticism, or it could be corporate arrogance pointing toward a complete lack of understanding in the potential value of organic SEO.  

Bleiweiss did a quick audit of the site and discovered problems such as a “massive duplicate content conflict,” problematic URL structure, “worthless” page titles and a distinct lack of “HTML readable content” on key top-level pages. I think JC Penney’s SEO team is looking for new work.

Hugo Guzman discovered that the NYT has SEO problems of its own when he couldn’t find their original article through a Google search, despite their massive domain authority and all the links and page views it’s been getting in the past week. He actually had to add “nytimes.com” to the query (nytimes alone didn’t work) for it to show up on the first page! Guzman blames this primarily on the article’s title, which doesn’t contain either of the key terms (JC Penney or SEO). He writes, “this failure to ingrain SEO as part of the fundamental culture at NYTimes.com is one of the reasons that they and pretty much the rest of the publishing establishment are getting their lunches handed to them by newer, nimbler and more online marketing savvy competitors.” [Emphasis mine.]

Erika Morphy of E-Commerce Times thinks it’s fishy that Google looked the other way for so long – perhaps because JC Penney “happens to spend a lot on Google advertising”? “When an offender is caught” for black-hat tactics and link buying, Morphy writes, “it usually is banned from Google's search rankings altogether.” So why not in this case? She adds that Darcie Brossart claims the SEO company the Times hired to help make their case is a competitor of the one JC Penney was using. (But aren’t all major SEO companies competitors?) She quotes an analyst who says that “Google comes out worst in this story, at the very least for not having caught the misdeeds itself and then for not bringing the full force of its disapproval down.”

Patrick Altolft agrees that GOOG has egg on its face: “The fact that Google didn’t catch this sort of spam is a big PR nightmare for them”: “They should be buying links from all the major link sellers every day and removing the ability for the link sellers to pass PageRank every time they find a new one. Missing something like TNX is a major error.”

Frank Reed of Marketing Pilgrim jumps on the Google-bashin’ bandwagon too:

Google now has painted itself into a bit of a corner and it will be interesting to see how it gets out. Because of its constant harping on content being so critical to ranking (which was just a diversion from the fact that the real rank influence comes from links) it has now created a monster. Content farms have found a way to look like they are playing by the rules but all they are doing is abusing them. Quality is hard to determine when the limits of what is acceptable to the engines has been discovered. What comes out of all of this is maybe just that we now know Google can’t tell the difference between quality and junk after all. [emphasis mine]

Rishi Lakhani lists 10 things we should have learned from the fiasco, among them: link farms are alive and well, anchor text is still a big deal, and links from off-topic sites have value. In addition he notes that it’s possible one of JC Penney’s competitors set it up, by buying the links themselves and then tipping off the NYT.

Doug Pierced of Doug Unplugged gives us an in-depth view of how to discover this type of SEO manipulation, pointing to link profiles and keyword stuffing.

Your SEO Sucks says this “does nothing to scare me away from buying links”:

Google’s algorithm and Spam Team missed a massive link campaign…by a major retailer…during the peak of the holiday season? Seriously? I’m sorry, Matt, but this story does nothing to scare me away from buying links. As I understand it, the NYTimes reported that JCPenney bought 2,000+ links with optimized anchor text on topically-unrelated sites (most of which are probably ‘bad neighborhoods’)! If your spam algorithm is not able to catch that, then I’m fairly certain that it’s not going to flag contextual paid links on topically-related, authoritative sites with solid PR4+, especially links that are built up slowly.

He also thinks this looks like a classic case of paid link sabotage. Regardless, he says, big brands will always get away with more gray-hat SEO than little guys, because people expect to see big brands on the first page for certain queries.

Finally, while we’re on the topic of search engine spam, have you seen thecontentfarm.tumblr.com yet? Pretty hilarious – I enjoyed this post on how to pour milk.

More Internet Marketing Highlights of the Week

Debra Mastaler warns us not to break the cardinal rule of linkbait: knowing the motivation of your target audience.

On Search News Central, Matthew Diehl explains how to create a directional long-tail keyword list, using keyword tools, Excel and analytics data.

Michael Gray says it's OK to offend people on social media sometimes -- it might just serve as a point of differentiation, and make your core audience love you all the more.

SEOmoz did a cool case study on the unexpected and powerful effects of a tweet on rankings.

Copyblogger outlines seven small tweaks that can make a big difference in conversions, including button color and the call to action for clicks to Twitter.

Finally, for the geeks out there: I got totally sucked into this discussion of the problem with "hashbang" URLs (ones with #! in the string), as used in the recent redesigns of Gawker and Twitter.

Have a great weekend!

Photo credit: Dov Harrington

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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