What the JC Penney Link Buying Scandal Means for SEO

In mid-February, the New York Times broke the story of J.C. Penney holding the number one rank in Google for hundreds of search terms thanks to an apparent link buying scheme on a grand scale. Google web spam fighter Matt Cutts took action, burying J.C. Penney’s site for the questionable practices. What does this say about using appropriate SEO techniques?

Here is the article on the link spam scandal if you somehow missed it. One of the things the Times found was that J.C. Penney outranked Samsonite’s own website for "Samsonite carry-on luggage." That’s suspicious enough that the newspaper asked Doug Pierce to investigate. Pierce, who wrote about his discoveries separately in addition to sharing his findings with the Times, discovered thousands of web pages linking back to J.C. Penney’s dress section with anchor text related to dresses.

That’s no big deal, until you notice that most of the pages on which the links are located have nothing to do with dresses. Tell me, if  you can, what a website ostensibly on nuclear engineering has to do with a little black dress! The dress section link scheme is just one example of something that was going on throughout the retailer’s site for "tens of thousands" of terms, according to Pierce.

It’s worth reading Pierce’s piece; he found other violations involving J.C. Penney, such as a doorway page and what he calls "anchor link keyword stuffing." He concludes by asking "How can small businesses compete with large companies that have deep pockets for paid links?" It’s a valid question, and not the only one that this situation raises.

For example, J.C. Penney claims that they didn’t know their SEO company, SearchDex, was doing this. "J.C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that [the New York Times] sent us, as it is against our natural search policies," J.C. Penney spokeswoman Darcie Brossart told the newspaper. Indeed, the retailer fired SearchDex when they got the news. And yet, in the article, Matt Cutts noted that Google spotted violations related to the retailer’s website on three previous occasions, most recently last November. How could J.C. Penney NOT know that their SEO was doing this?

If you’re particularly gullible, you might believe that SearchDex didn’t know they what they were doing, either. Here’s a quote from the company’s website in reference to this debacle: "SearchDex has not participated in, nor endorsed the linking schemes mentioned in the New York Times article. Our company is built on the highest ethical standards and at no point have we incorporated the use of improper linking schemes or other gaming techniques into programs for our clients. SEO tactics employed by SearchDex for all of our clients, past and present, have been compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. As a result of the NYTimes story, SearchDex is verifying that all strategies employed for our clients continue to comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. We are also conducting a formal investigation in order to attempt to determine the source and motivation of the links cited in the article."

If you’re feeling inclined to poke around SearchDex’s site, guess what you won’t find? A customer list. It used to be there, but apparently it got taken down. Fortunately, Your SEO Sucks caught it from Google’s cache before it disappeared completely – and there are some very big names on it.

You might be interested to know, by the way, that until after the Times broke the story, the most recent press release on SearchDex’s website dated to 2007 – March 15, to be exact. It mentioned J.C. Penney signing up with the SEO company for an unprecedented fourth year. Imagine that. Somehow, I don’t think the retailer will be signing up for a fifth year of service from SearchDex.

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Every SEO knows there are link sellers; in fact, the process is so prevalent that it’s automated. One of the publishers who sold links on his website to J.C. Penney’s site through a link-selling middleman came clean, explaining the entire process, naming the company he dealt with, and so forth. He promised he’s learned his lesson and won’t do it again.

That won’t necessarily stop others, though. Consider this: J.C. Penney’s link scheme brought their website to the top spot in Google for many, many terms, during the height of the holiday shopping season. While the retailer tried to downplay the effect of the link scheme, in January it reported that "Internet sales through jcp.com posted strong growth in December, with significant increases in traffic and orders for the key holiday shopping periods of the week after Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas." The retailer finally got slapped in February – but they already earned what they could from the scheme through the holidays, and they now have months to rebuild before this year’s holiday shopping season.

I’ve seen comments that said, in effect, that the only thing J.C. Penney did was buy and build the links too fast. Others said that they doubt anything would have been done if the Times hadn’t reported it. At least one commenter thinks that the newspaper was tipped off by a white hat competitor to J.C. Penney. Multiple observers have said that if Google really is cracking down on spammy link schemes now, one should pay to build such a scheme, aim it at a competitor, and then turn that rival in to Google.

So why not engage in this kind of manipulative link scheme? As former Google employee Vanessa Fox notes in an article for Search Engine Land, "The trouble is that generally, these tactics don’t work forever. And if you’re basing your business on them, you’re building on a shaky foundation that could cause things to come crashing down at any moment." 

That’s almost literally true, by the way. If you check out the Search Engine Land article, you’ll note that Fox talks about other companies who have engaged in link schemes on this scale, and who went into a panic when Google found out what they were up to and devalued their links – or worse, penalized them. "Now that I’m no longer at Google, I regularly field emails and phone calls from companies, large and small, panicked because they’ve lost their major source of revenue due to lost rankings in Google," Fox notes. "More than one company has told me they’d have to close down entirely if they weren’t able to get their traffic from Google back (and a site can’t always get its rankings back)."

Particularly telling is the graphic she includes with this article that shows what can happen when Google finds out about your attempt to game the system. It’s a simple chart that shows the ups and downs of site traffic – that suddenly looks like the EKG of a patient who has just died. If you depend on Google for traffic to   your website, that dead patient image can hit uncomfortably close to home.

Yes, there are those who are going to say this is a sign of what you can get away with. But for how long? And do you really want to risk it? It’s better to focus on building exactly the kind of site and backlinks that Google appreciates – one that is useful to searchers. Nobody ever said it would be easy. Good luck!

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