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James Perrin

Looking for a Black Hat? Good luck finding one at JC Penney

15th Feb 2011 News, Industry News 4 minutes to read

Black hats at JC Penney, sounds normal enough doesn’t it? Well were not talking about the ones to keep your head warm, but rather about the news story over the weekend regarding JC Penney and their black hat SEO tactics. The punishment of which has seen JC Penney plummet in their search results.

The New York Times revealed some Dirty Little Secrets of Search that saw the huge retailer used paid links as a way of boosting their search engine rankings, a tactic that is seriously frowned upon by Google.

The Rise and Fall of JC Penney’s Google Rankings
There are two fundamentally opposed forms of optimisation. There’s the good, known as white hat, and the very bad, black hat. JC Penney’s use of black hat tactics saw them outrank all others for generic terms like ‘dresses’, ‘bedding’, ‘area rugs’, despite the apparent lack of any real on-page SEO work – as highlighted by Alan Bleiweiss on Search Marketing Wisdom. Their outstanding performance was so pronounced that it was even outranking the brands whose items it was selling. For example, they were at the top spot for ‘Samsonite carry on luggage’, outranking Samsonite’s very own site.

The suggestion, therefore, is that they achieved these lofty rankings through the use of paid links – a practice strictly forbidden by Google.  JC Penney paid for thousands of links that were dispersed across hundreds of websites across the web, these in turn linked back to their website and thus strengthened their ranking. Needless to say when Google Webspam Master Matt Cutts was alerted to this activity by the New York Times expose he wasn’t best pleased; in fact he rather ominously suggested “Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.”

This corrective action turned out to be a near instant manual penalty, which saw the site plummet down through the rankings. JC Penney moved quickly to deflect any blame by insisting they weren’t aware of this activity and fired Search Dex, their search engine consultancy firm. However, the damage was done and not only was the company now invisible on Google, but many moved to question their wider SEO ethics.

Matt Cutts explains he wishes Google’s system had detected this sooner, which raises another issue. JC Penney were gaming the system. They flouted the rules and won. Top rankings mean huge levels of traffic during the busy festive period and they nailed this. At no point did Google notice that these rankings were being generated by black hat techniques, even though tens of thousands of painfully obvious paid links were quickly discovered during this independent discovery. So just how good is the Google algorithm at detecting violations? Not very it would appear.

Google Algorithm Failing to Detect Paid Links?

JC Penney may have been kicked to the curb following a public outcry, but it would take a brave person to suggest that they are the only company to have gained (or is still gaining) a huge advantage from buying links. For many, the value of a top rank on the search engine outweighs any potential risk. For others, it’s simply a question of baffling ignorance. But perhaps this is a bi-product of Google giving brands huge advantages within its algorithm; they are simply giving them more rope to hang themselves with. But if you give them an inch, they will take a mile and if Google don’t clamp down, then they will end up looking foolish – as they have done here.

Google are right to be embarrassed by this. Okay, so JC Penney and their SEO company have been caught red handed and given a severe reprimand, but it’s Google who have really failed to do their job here. They have been conned into giving inexplicably high rankings to a single domain, leaving dozens of competitors to fight over the SERPs scraps.This is hugely unfair and will offer no compensation to those who have now been elevated to the ranking they deserve.

A report like this throws a massive spanner into the works. It may even lead some to question whether their recent talk of clamping down on black hat activity is being backed up by any kind of substantive algorithm action. There will always be some that slip through the net. But this isn’t a small company buying a few links. It’s a huge brand snapping up hundreds of thousands right underneath the nose of Google. Unfortunately they have now had to manually override their algorithm, which undermines its effectiveness hugely.

Google have acted against websites in the past, as we highlighted in When Gambling with Paid Links Backfires (and What Lessons Can Be Learnt). But evidently they have failed to do so, at least without pronounced public prodding, in this instance. Maybe it is a one off. The algorithm was having a bad few months and simply missed the wrongdoing being perpetrated by JC Penney. Maybe Google need to make an example of someone and reassure everybody that they take black hat violations seriously. JCP have been cast out of the top 50 like a sacrificial lamb, but more need to follow with the detective work carried out by Google, not external agencies.

It’s a wake-up call and hopefully one that the search overlord will respond to.

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