JC Penny’s Black Hat SEO Backfires

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JC Penny's Black Hat SEO BackfiresYou probably have heard the black hat search engine optimization (SEO) tactics JC Penny’s pursued in order to be ranked well for various search terms particularly in planning for the 2010 holiday season.  The news was uncovered by the New York Times. Although, one has to wonder if the New York Times was tipped to this issue by a competitor of JC Penney.

The investigation by the New York Times found thousands of unrelated web sites in the retail industry were linking to JCPenny.com.  The process was done by linking very specific keywords and based on the detail of these links someone planned this process.  While JC Penny’s SEO company was apparently fired for this incident, it is difficult to believe that someone at JC Penny would not have known about this strategy and poor black hat SEO tactics.

To better understand what happened we need to take a look at linking strategies post Google going public in 2004 and serious algorithm changes that took place in 2005 and beyond.  There are a number of data points that Google monitors about individual web pages within the website.  Ultimately it is about a web page, not a web site, therefore, any page can become ranked and any page can become an entry point for a visitor.  This would then require a business to re-think the call to action if your home page is no longer the entry point.

The process first begins with how relevant a web page is to a search.  This would include your Title tag, the meta Description of a page, and the visible text.  The three parts have to work together in order to show a certain level of keyword density on a topic.  You will notice I did not say anything about meta keywords as those have become less important over the years since companies can hide what they are really about in the meta keywords versus what they are displaying to the rest of the world.

The next major point would be about the web page’s importance.  This is determined through the number of web pages linking to your web page or pages.  The more links the better.  At least that was the original thought until website owners decided to buy links cheaply without doing any work.  These links have several sub-components including if the site that is linking to you is relevant to your topic and if that linking web page itself has any importance.

The process of trying to cheat yourself into the top of a Google search is considered “black hat” optimization or SEO.  Google has different ways of monitoring this process and is generally successful in locating the problem situations.  In JC Penny’s case this was not caught until much later.  Websites caught in this act are de-listed from Google and need to clean-up their act in order to get back into Google’s search database.

The short-term benefits of black hat SEO do not make any sense to the longevity of a business.  It is better to focus your attention on developing real links from reputable websites and communities mostly using Content Marketing with articles, news releases, documents (e.g. Powerpoints), Videos, and Social Media.  Aside from the obvious benefits of Content Marketing being a credible linking strategy, the benefits for brand reputation, brand credibility and brand awareness include:

  • Traffic from Search Engines
  • Traffic from Non-Search Engines
  • Owning more search results using 3rd Party website where your content is distributed

Linking strategies are labor intensive and take time.  This process also requires four types of linking that include:

  • Direct Linking to website home page
  • Direct Linking using targeted keywords
  • Cross Linking distributed content
  • Deep Linking inside of your web pages

This is one reason where Pay Per Click advertising using Adwords becomes beneficial in order to generate short term results while the organic results are being executed through content marketing.

While we can continue to talk about JC Penny’s debacle using cheap black hat optimization tricks that has back fired, as well as, linking strategies, let’s focus a little on the New York Times article itself.

You will notice I am not linking to that article in this writing.  Frankly, I refuse to!  I do not wish to add a link giving that article any further importance on the web because within the article it is linking directly to all the black hat optimization websites.  I am sure I could write an article strictly on the ethical linking policies required by major publications, however, we’ll see if we can get the point across in fewer words.

As an owner of a web marketing agency I took the time to read the entire article meticulously to understand what was written.  Mind you I have over 17 years Internet experience with two successful companies and my knowledge is quite deep.

What I am surprised at, considering the writer’s newly gained knowledge about linking strategies, is why would the New York Times setup active links to the companies providing such horrible service from this article (meaning coming from nytimes.com domain) and give them any value, benefit, and support?

In this case:

  • Page 1 all the links in the last paragraph to black hat optimization link building farms
  • Page 2 link to SearchDex who was fired by JC Penny
  • Page 3 links to TNX, cookingutensils and Cocaman.ch who are engaged in these black hat linking building schemes

Is the New York Times planning on helping them further with their business by helping their ranking position?  Afterall, NYTimes.com, as a domain, has a lot of power and links to websites from NYTimes.com will only help the destination website.

What ethical policies are in place at the New York Times when it comes to linking to a website?  Of course I submitted this question to the New York Times and am currently waiting on a reply, which will be posted here should it ever arrive.

The Internet is a living breathing marketing tool that has no end point.  You cannot perform a certain amount of work and expect the work to provide you millions of dollars next week nor will the one time work or expenditure give you longevity.  As a business you have to plan on continued web efforts using all facets of web marketing, which is a multi-directional strategy.

Afterall, something that came up in a client meeting recently, “We will stop your optimization efforts when the search engines stop changing algorithms and technologies!”  Yeah, that will be the day.

Melih Oztalay
I have over 20 years of experience in developing successful, efficient and strategic web marketing and advertising solutions for businesses. In addition to being the... Read Full Bio
Melih Oztalay
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  • Moosa Hemani

    Nice Article though i am sick of reading articles related to JC Penny… The question that is banging over in my head is if Google cannot track this link buying… (As NY Times is the one who report not Google does that itself) then what was that all link farming algo all about? Are Google really tanking manual initiative to making change in search results? there are the quick questions that Matt should answer!!

  • Ineedcoffee

    Way to pick perhaps the least interesting part of this whole saga to comment on. I’m pretty sure their journalistic requirement to cite matters more than link value.

    A more interesting angle would be, why did Google leak this story to the NY Times? Or was it someone else who did? Because there’s no way the NYT was tracking keywords for six months.

    • SmartFinds

      Hi Ineedcoffee….I received two emails on this topic. One of them suggested that the writer at the NYT was tipped off to this issue by a JCP competitor. The other email indicated that the writer of the NYT article actually owns his on SEO company (that actually makes it worse that he’s linking out to the linking farms). I guess at this point we could make several speculations how this whole situation was uncovered.

  • Joe Robb

    I was excited to read your article because of the title, but I don’t believe that you have explained how JC Penny’s black hat SEO actions have backfired. Sure, they fired their SEO company & sure the New York Times wrote an article, but JC Penny did rank highly during the holiday season, which helped their bottom line.

    You haven’t addressed what actions (if any) Google is taking against JC Penny for their involvement in this black hat swindle. What I want to know is this: what are the actual ramifications for JC Penny’s dabbling in the dark arts? Has the company;s nose been kept clean by only firing their SEO company? If so, then I expect a spate of other, large corporate entities will be clamoring for fast SEO fixes from companies that are easily disposed of.

    • SmartFinds

      Hi Joe…thanks for your feedback. My suggestion is to read the entire article at the New York Times. As I stated in the article, I don’t want to link to them directly because they are linking out to these link farms. The NYT article does describe in more detail the results at Google.

      • Joe Robb

        Thanks for the response. I went ahead and read the article & I find Google’s response just, if not timely.

        I’ll keep an eye out for your next article. 🙂

      • Cford725

        are you sure those links are getting crawled? Could external links be set to no crawl?

      • SmartFinds

        Hi Cford725, those links are set to “nofollow” in the HTML code of this website, but I”m not sure the way they did it will really work. Let’s assume it does for a minute…..the other issue is that why not just put them not linked as plain text copy? Why do you want anyone reading the article to go to those websites? My feeling is in this case the links should not be live under any circumstance.

  • Jon-Mikel Bailey

    Great article. I especially wanted to thank you for your additional explanation of SEO and Black Hat. I think people still want that elusive “easy button” when it comes to SEO. What they do not realizing is exactly what you are pointing out here, by choosing quick and dirty, you are ruining your long term effectiveness. People do business with those they trust. Trust and authority are built the old fashioned way, you EARN them.

  • Johan Hedin

    I cant believe they fell for this old SEO technique…Even BMW got black listed back in 2006. I think it’s time for some training in SEO for any company that hire an SEO firm. Obviously their marketing department was not educated about this…

  • Sites Like Ebay

    It’s possible JC Penny didn’t know, a lot of companies hire SEO people and have no clue about seo, either way they got cauuuuughhht..

  • Steven

    This is a great article! JCP should “BLOG = Better Listings On Google”. We do it with good results.

  • Dizzle

    Kindof hypocritical that a searchengine journal would denounce SEO juicy work….this is America….nothing illegal about any of this….