JC Penney Black Hat: Spammers Getting Ahead of Google?

A lengthy article posted at the New York Times entitled The Dirty Little Secrets of Search illustrated how JC Penney a US retail giant may have benefited from large-scale link building schemes to boost its ranking for highly competitive keywords.

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The article starts with an assumption that if you were Google — that is, you serve search results based on keyword queries entered by users — which site would you rank first if the keywords entered are “dresses”, “beddings” or any arbitrary term used to find a nugget of information or an influencer in making buying decisions? Certainly, the Google search engine is operated by large data center of servers whose results are dictated by algorithms that ensure the best pages appear on top results.

How do we judge best pages as this subjective question is open to multiple version of answers: most number of links, best position of search query on landing page, prominence of keywords on tags and referring links? We somehow have an idea what Google wants to see (PDF), but the search engine giant still has the last say which pages it deems most appropriate to occupy that highly coveted top ranking. And Google is particularly secretive about its secret receipe as much as KFC is on its herbs and spices. So one can only speculate and perform a multitude of experiments to separate what works from what doesn’t.

From the business of JC Penney, we can think of it ranking well for clothing, shoes and accessories related keywords. Until recently, Google seemed to find something at jcpenney.com it couldn’t on millions of other sites; JC Penney ranked well for “bedding”, “area rug”, “furniture” and other terms that defy conventional wisdom that other brands are supposed to occupy top search engine rankings. The Times article even described that JC Penney was ranked even ahead of Samsonite.com for terms like “Samsonite carry on luggage”. Top ranking is very important that, according to a Chitika, 34 per cent of Google traffic went to No. 1 result, twice the volume that went to No. 2.

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Samsonite can breathe a sigh of relief now that JC Penney isn’t ranked ahead of it for a brand-related search.

The case, which has been resolved by Google that resulted in gradual drop in JC Penney’s rankings on plenty of keywords, has nonetheless raised eye brows in the industry constantly aiming to capture the lucrative search engine market and evading shady search engine marketing practices. The pull marketing nature of search marketing is lucrative that web pages appear on search results at a time when apparent demand arises. Korean hotel booking sites appear when someone searches for ‘best hotels korea’ and less disruptive than advertising on a fashion magazine whose primary purpose is to deliver content to a reader.

The more popular a keyword is, the more competitive it becomes. This pushes certain webmasters into resorting into subterfuge to get ahead of competition. “Black hat” optimization methods such as link spamming or keyword stuffing might improve website profile, but risk Google’s wrath as these techniques belong to other side of the fence, one that is classified as unethical and deserve penalty through drop in rankings or removal of pages on search engine index. Google has been vocal in its effort to weed off spammy content from search engine results and empowered search engine users in its crusade. The penalty does not affect only small potatoes, as websites of Ricoh and BMW Germany endured similar outcome for questionable SEO practices in the past.

JC Penney’s case might just be another case of cat and mouse, where risk takers embark on ambitious attempts to game search engine results in their favor. No wonder Google has recently made updates on its algorithm to check a longstanding issue of scraper sites overwhelming original websites on search engine visibility. But the method Times article described does not appear new, at least to us search engine marketers. It’s well documented since the idea of PageRank emerged that inbound links help improve credibility of a web page. That means if the more inbound links my website gets from other websites, the better since Google looks at links as positive citation and implicit symbol of trustworthiness. But Google sooner became more sophisticated, focusing its criteria on relevance. That means if my website is about cooking, links from forums or directories about healthy food, kitchen design websites or blogs about organic vegetables and fruits is welcome. But links from car dealership, Beverly Hills property or high-end audio equipment websites could be red flagged.

As it turns out, links from thousands of pages, regardless of relevance, were created. All of them pointed towards JCPenney.com using various keyword-rich text: “Cocktail dresses”, “black dresses”, “evening dresses”, appearing on pages with various topics ranging from dogs to diamond drills and from cars to cameras. On some cases, websites appear outdated and abandoned, and the only thing that’s new is probably the links, updated by webmasters after agreeing to post them for a fee.

Once Google was notified and ranking gradually fell for high-traffic search terms, JC Penney fired its SEO consultants from SearchDex. While the whole experience is embarrassing not only to JC Penney who appear clueless of what’s going on in the background, and SearchDex which could potentially lose clients to competitors, Google also tried to keep the issue low profile as it aims to preserve integrity of search results rather than embarrass people. But as Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google and heads its web spam team said, “.. just because we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we won’t take strong action.”