Unsurprising stuff about JCPenney, bad SEO and The New York Times

One of my LinkedIn groups made me aware of a Feb. 12 New York Times article by David Segal which stated that Google had completely missed a flagrant example of black hat SEO on the part of a JCPenney SEO vendor.

JCPenney apparently used link farming to boost its placement in search engines for dozens of keyword phrases, some of which should have arguably been strong keywords for other, less general stores.

An interesting blog commentary was posted Feb. 14 by “SmartFinds Internet Marketing”. Sadly, no byline was present on the blog article (as a journalist for more than 15 years, this sort of gives me the heebie jeebies).

The blog article used a good chunk of its space questioning the ethics of The New York Times for linking to the SEO company fired by JCPenney, SearchDex. I visited the NY Times article and found that indeed, the newspaper provided a good link to the SEO company. Looking at the article through the lens of the SEOQuake Firefox add-on, it seems that they at least made some effort, on the first page of the article, to make the link farm pages “no follow” links. The link to JCPenney on the first page goes to the Times’ business section report for the department store rather than directly to its site.

I don’t think The New York Times was exhibiting questionable ethics in this case – it looks like either an unbending editorial policy on when and when not to link (page-specific, by the looks of it), or simple online editor error.

What seems most shocking to me is that the department store was able to run this SEO campaign for 3-4 months. Google had in November taken corrective action (demotion in search results) but the black hat techniques continued after that until The New York Times brought the information to Google as part of the Feb. 12 story. In response, Google confirmed this was a violation of the rules and said it would take corrective action. I held my breath as I read this – this is what every search engine optimization specialist dreads, what my mentor Charles Taylor trained me to avoid.

To quote the article:

“At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for ‘Samsonite carry on luggage.’

Two hours later, it was at No. 71.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”

By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.

In other words, one moment Penney was the most visible online destination for living room furniture in the country.

The next it was essentially buried.”

Ouch. Temporary SEO death. It makes me sick just to think about it.

Not surprisingly, right after that JCPenney fired its SEO firm. In my opinion this does nothing to mitigate the company’s responsibility for what happened:

  1. If the SEO company told them it was “no big deal” that they used link farming to boost rankings, the person at JCPenney who was managing that vendor contract should have seen that as a red flag.
  2. Even if the SEO company didn’t disclose its methods to JCPenney, the department store had the responsibility, as the owner of the site, to understand enough about what black hat SEO was to be able to detect it by periodically doing a link analysis on their own site. This is not hard and can be taught in a few hours to anyone with a basic comfort level with a Web browser.
  3. JCPenney should have evaluated the possible risks of jobbing out its SEO and at least sketched out a plan for mitigating and preventing those risks.

What does this do for regular SEOs that are following white hat methods? I suppose you could say it strengthens the case for choosing an SEO that uses white hat techniques. But it also highlights how easy it is to game Google, much to the detriment of readers and shoppers who are just trying to find decent search results. Estimating that this SEO project had a very large budget, it’s safe to say that the SEO company was paying attention and knew about Google’s ranking demotions when they happened, and that for whatever reason they opted to keep doing what they were doing. It’s not known whether they let JCPenney in on what was happening at that time.

JCPenney should not be demonized, here. There are lots of companies that are willing to pay marketing companies to build up their Web traffic, and many of those either don’t know the best practices or don’t have a good reason to care.

If an SEO company can essentially get away with dumping links into irrelevant Web sites for the purpose of sending mass amounts of “link juice” to the Web site getting the SEO, why should the rest of us continue working hard to create well organized sites with relevant content and linking carefully with full consideration of the relevance of the sites? Well, the answer is that eventually Google will adjust its algorithms to limit the success of this sort of thing.

The worst thing about this JCPenney black hat SEO scandal is that it reveals the attitude among some poorly run SEO companies that they think their Web audience members are idiots, unable to sort out whether the top search results really are relevant for the items they wanted to buy.

Even if Google is not able to stamp out this sort of thing, the audience will eventually re-prioritize search results in their heads to take into account the spammy, inappropriate results, just like they have learned to tune out TV commercials and block pop-up Web advertising. They may even get so disgusted that they start limiting where they do searches to vertical searches and special directories that they trust.

Read the full New York Times article on JCPenney’s black hat SEO caper by David Segal.

Read the blog article by SmartFinds Internet Marketing.