Erin Everhart / Digital Marketing / February 16th, 2011

J.C. Penney vs. Google: Google Will Always Win

jc penny google link scheme

Last week, we saw, yet another, social media SNAFU unfold. Those are all-too-common than we social media specialists care to admit. Now, retail giant J.C. Penney has stepped in to take some heat for what Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team and the soothsayer that we SEOers cling to for information, considers one of the most ambitious attempts to pull a fast one on the search engine giant. (Image via New York Times.)

In an effort to be No. 1 in Google, something that gets 34% of the clicks from a given search query, for probably a dozen of the most-searched terms, J.C. Penney has been caught red-handed in an elaborate link scheme that put keyword text links on more than 2,000 unrelated, spammy sites all pointing to specific pages on its website. Since incoming links are probably one of the most important aspects when it comes to increasing your search engine rankings in Google, it worked but not without some repercussions they’re facing now.

J.C. Penney has claimed they didn’t know these links were out there and has since parted ways with their SEO company, SearchDex, who is also getting a big black mark on their record, but the damage has already been done. It’s not the outsourcing of SEO efforts that rubs me the wrong way (obviously), but if you are using an SEO agency, you will be held responsible for things that they do on your behalf. And it’s not like companies are without options when it comes to creating a good link-building campaign.

I do wonder how long the retail giant held onto their rankings for terms like “dresses,” “bedding,” and “area rugs.” Doug Pierce of Blue Foundation Media, who did the analysis and broke the story in a New York Times article, — and you should read the entire article; it’s fantastic — suggests it went on for months, months that coincidentally (or not?) during the holiday season when retail boosts its highest sales numbers.

While their rankings have all been buried since Google was informed of these black-hat tactics, going from No. 1 to as low as No. 70, you’ve got to be curious about how much revenue they received just by having those positions for those extraordinarily high-searched terms, even if it was for only a few months. J.C. Penney spokesperson said it wasn’t a “bonanza” but methinks she’s being modest as not to add any more fuel to the already engulfed fire.

Still, it’s a double-edged sword this game Google is playing. They made themselves the biggest kid on the block. They have the market share to prove it. You want to be the one place consumers go to get information and make purchasing decisions. So, naturally, you’re going to have to expect people to manipulate the system.

Maybe if you weren’t so tight-lipped about your ranking algorithms, there wouldn’t be this cannibalistic approach to getting that coveted No. 1 spot. In this dog-eat-dog world of raw veracity, can you really say “shame on you” when a company did what creeps up in the back of every other company’s mind?

I’m not saying what J.C. Penney did was right; that’s quite the contrary. But, they’re certainly not the only ones doing it; they’re just the first big name brand to get caught. You think Reggie Bush getting caught receiving “improper benefits” when he was still playing college ball was a one-in-a-million occurrence?

Unlikely.

There are others who have done, may be doing, and will do the exact same thing. J.C. Penney is just going to be made the example because when it comes to this typical David. vs. Goliath match, Goliath is always going to win. Voluntarily or not, they gave back their Heisman Trophy, and while they’re still going to be players in the field, that black mark will probably be one of the first things people think when they hear the name.