JCPenney & The NYTimes: A Story About Google, Paid Links & SEO

Did you hear the news?!?!?! The NYTimes told on JCPenney for buying links. Then Matt Cutts went into the secret room at the Googleplex, unchecked a few boxes, and effectively banished jcpenney.com to the depths of SERPs page 5 and beyond. This has got to be the biggest story since 2006, when Google gave ‘the death penalty’ to BMW.de for about 3 days.

So here’s my initial reaction to this whole thing…

NYTimes, don’t you have better things to do? And JCPenney. Jeez. Where do I even start? “Uh…we didn’t buy any links.” Is that the best you could come up with? That’s like when the cops bust some dude for possession, and the guilty dude always issues this classic line: “Officer, that’s not mine.” Gimme a break. Now, we know you’re guilty. Or are you? DUN DUN DUN!

But seriously, JCPenney got ratted out for buying links, and within 24 hours, Google took “strong action.” And in order to save face, JCPenney turned around and immediately fired their SEO agency, SearchDex. I guess they had to do that, right? I mean, did JCPenney find out someone at SearchDex bought those links? If so, I wonder how that person paid for 2,000+ links. Maybe it was with a gigantic paid links budget from JCPenney. Oh yeah. I already forgot. JCPenney had no idea that someone spent money on 2,000+ links so that jcpenney.com could rank #1 for awesome keywords during the holidays.

Is this good press for Google?

I’m a big fan of Google. Google built one hell of a search engine, one heck of an algorithm, and a marketshare that continues to increase. Furthermore, Google built an entire industry (SEO), where people like me can provide excellent search engine optimization recommendations for a fee. I’m not rich or anything, but SEO puts food on my family’s table and a roof over our heads. Thanks, Google! But I digest…

In the NYTimes article, Google’s #1 spam cop, Matt Cutts – the chief, the commissioner – admitted that his team had noticed jcpenney.com’s tactics a few times before. From Matt Cutts:

He said Google had detected previous guidelines violations related to JCPenney.com on three occasions, most recently last November. Each time, steps were taken that reduced Penney’s search results — Mr. Cutts avoids the word “punished” — but Google did not later “circle back” to the company to see if it was still breaking the rules, he said.

He and his team had missed this recent campaign of paid links, which he said had been up and running for the last three to four months.

“Do I wish our system had detected things sooner? I do,” he said. “But given the one billion queries that Google handles each day, I think we do an amazing job.”

WTF? Google’s algorithm and Spam Team missed a massive link campaign…by a major retailer…during the peak of the holiday season? Seriously? I’m sorry, Matt, but this story does nothing to scare me away from buying links. As I understand it, the NYTimes reported that JCPenney bought 2,000+ links with optimized anchor text on topically-unrelated sites (most of which are probably ‘bad neighborhoods’)! If your spam algorithm is not able to catch that, then I’m fairly certain that it’s not going to flag contextual paid links on topically-related, authoritative sites with solid PR4+, especially links that are built up slowly. Is it arrogant of me to think that? Probably. Will Google eventually find and discount all of the paid links? I don’t think so, but that remains to be seen.

Mr. Cutts emphasized that there are 200 million domain names and a mere 24,000 employees at Google.

Sooooo…the Internet is growing by “x” sites per day and Google can’t keep up with it because Google only has “y” number of employees. The Internet is only going to get bigger. If you can’t find paid links when there are 200 million domains, what are you going to do when there are 500 million? 1 billion? Furthermore, what are you going to do when a significant number of those domains are rapidly-generating content?

This whole story sounds like a press release aimed at scaring current and would-be paid link buyers. Well, I’m not scared. Not even after Vanessa Fox’s warnings.

Paid Link Sabotage?

Surprisingly, no one has mentioned the possibility that this was an act of paid link sabotage. What is that? Glad you asked. The logic goes like this:

  1. Google says paid links are bad.
  2. If I buy paid links to my competitor’s site, Google will think my competitor is doing bad stuff.
  3. I buy links to my competitor’s site, and then Google punishes my competitor.

Brilliant, right? Yep. It sure is. And this story has all the signs of a classic paid link sabotage:

  1. A massive number of links go up. (In this case: 2,000+)
  2. A large percentage of the links go up in a short amount of time (In this case: during holiday season)
  3. A large percentage of the link have optimized anchor text (In this case: competitive, non-branded keywords such as “casual dresses,” “evening dresses,” “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.”)
  4. ALL of the links are on sites that are topically-unrelated sites that appear to be abandoned. (I won’t link to those sites, but the New York Times did! 5 of them, in fact. And yeah, they used a nofollow tag. But link condoms don’t always work.)

I’ve never worked with SearchDex, but I’m assuming they have some good SEO’s over there. I even assume that they have some good link builders on staff. It is extremely difficult for me to believe that someone at SearchDex built a paid link proposal with the above criteria. Furthermore, I cannot imagine a client signing off on buying 2,000+ links on those random sites. Also, I can’t believe that in a massive company like JCPenney, no one in the chain of command raised any doubts or questions about this paid link campaign. I just can’t believe that.

To me, it would make more sense that someone bought 2,000+ crappy links in an effort to get a competitor knocked down in the rankings. But hey, people do make mistakes. I just don’t see how this could happen for a massive retail website like jcpenney.com.

Follow Michael Gray on Twitter at @graywolf

Follow Michael Gray on Twitter at @graywolf

And as Michael Gray put it:

The company outed in nyt should sell that exact service guaranteed to get someone banned

Graywolf is correct: The link broker who was outed in the story could potentially be used as a way to sabotage your competitor’s rankings.

Link brokers are the crack dealers of the Internet. They sell a product that makes them rich and ruins the lives of others (sometimes). I’m not hating. It is America after all. If there’s a market, let them sell their product. As long as they make money, they don’t need to worry about why anyone is buying the product. Disregard intentions. Acquire cash. Right?

Big Brands Can Typically Operate in the Gray Area

One last topic before I end this thing. If someone searches for “nike running shoes” or “dell desktop pc” or “fender stratocaster” – they probably expect to see Nike.com, Dell.com and Fender.com in the top results, respectively. Wouldn’t it be strange if you searched for a product from a major brand, and you didn’t see the official brand site in the top 10? Granted, not all brand sites are as good as some of their dealers’ sites. But if you never saw the brand sites in the top 10, you’d probably think that the search results were not very good. It might not cause you to change your search engine preference, and most people would probably not even notice it. But over the past few years, Google has become very good at returning brand sites for branded searches, so it must be important to users. Maybe Google thinks you would change search engines if you didn’t like the results. Hmmm…

So, on one hand, Google has to punish shady, blackhat SEO. But on the other hand, Google must return brand sites for branded searches… *and* for many non-branded searches. Because of this, it’s probably safe to say that bigger brands can get away with more grayhat SEO than their smaller competitors. It’s very likely that Google overlooks some of the more aggressive/risky SEO tactics being used by bigger brands. For example, even when BMW.de admitted to using doorway pages back in Feb-2006, the site was only out of Google’s index for 3-4 days (delisted, reinclusion). That would never happen with a small brand’s website.

In many ways, bigger brands get preferential treatment. And that makes this whole story even more ironic: Why would JCPenney do this? They should be able to leverage their strong brand, use some basic SEO strategies, and get ranked well for pretty much anything they sell.

Springer’s Final Thoughts

First, this post is way too long. Sorry about that. Thanks for hanging in there. I hope it was worth it. On the topic of paid links, I really don’t think that there are too many “natural” links on websites or blogs anymore. Nowadays, I think social media has the best indicators of authentic, natural link growth. Think about it. You will rarely ever see e-commerce sites linking out to other products on other sites. If they do, I’m probably going to assume something is in it for both parties. And when I see a link in the footer or sidebar of a blog, I’m fairly certain that it’s paid or sponsored. And if I see a link in the context of a blog that points to a site where I can buy something, I’m going to assume that the blog owner is being compensated for the link. That’s just the world we live in right now. Blame Canada, err, I mean Google.

If anything, this NYTimes article shows me just how hard it is for Google to keep up with the growth of the Internet. In light of the recent AOL/HuffPo news and the news of Google finally setting their cross-hairs on content farms, I imagine that this whole paid link topic is only going to get messier. It’s a cloudy issue already because the fact remains that paid link sabotage is theoretically possible. How does Google know who is buying the links? As Tommy Boy said: “Hmm…that a mystery!”

"Hmm...that's a mystery!" - Tommy Boy

"Hmm...that's a mystery!" - Tommy Boy

Finally, be smart out there, especially with your link building. The wrath of Google is real, so don’t get caught. Play it safe. Only purchase links on topically-related websites with a solid fan base, decent traffic, and/or high PageRank. Grow your links slowly. Mix up your anchor text (i.e. some branded keywords, some non-branded keywords). It’s okay to push the boundaries a little. Just keep it classy, and you’ll be fine.

Cheers!

Update [Feb. 13, 2011]:

  • DougUnplugged has a great read with a lot of the background data on the story. It turns out that SearchDex was to blame for the paid links. Doug also found some evidence of JCPenney using doorway pages built by SearchDex. He also shows some screenshots that prove JCPenney was stuffing keywords and links on their product pages. Will SearchDex survive this story?

6 thoughts on “JCPenney & The NYTimes: A Story About Google, Paid Links & SEO”

  1. Great story. I considered the “sabotage” angle myself. But then I thought: “during the holidays?” Why push your competitor up during the most profitable time of the year? And, we have to agree that JCP made a ton of money due to the practice…whoever initiated it. Sure, JCP got penalized, and they will be punished from Jan – Aprilish? Rigggght, ok. I’m just sayin. In Google’s defense, I think they are evolving as fast as they can, which is faster than any other company on the Internet. Regardless of who did what, I agree with your conclusion: play it safe with SEO! Shortcuts are a temporary solution for a problem hasn’t been addressed.

  2. Agree with the above commenter – great insights to a great story. I didn’t read the original NYT piece, but I’m curious who tipped the reporter off? It seems like an overlooked piece of the puzzle. It’s unlikely the reporter was operating on a “hunch” or felt the whim to look at JC Penney’s link profile. But anyone who’s ever used SEO Majestic or a similar tool easily can see where the potential for link building shenanigans takes place. And I couldn’t agree more with your comments on big brands operating in the gray areas. To me that’s what’s most disconcerting – do big brands get a pass while the medium to small sites get busted for the same behavior? Interesting and thanks for putting together this piece.

  3. I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering the same thing! Who tipped off the reporter?! If you hear anything, please let me know.

  4. Yep. JCPenney will probably be punished for a little while. But they did get the best of Google for 2 straight holiday seasons. Personally, I can’t believe Google didn’t de-list them and remove them from the index entirely. If that type of link campaign doesn’t earn you the death penalty for a while, then what incentive do you really have to follow Google’s guidelines. And that’s even more evidence that big brands get preferential treatment and a mere slap on the wrist for something that would have gotten a smaller site banned/de-listed for a long period of time.

    Also, regarding the holiday link sabotage idea: Maybe a link sabotage strategy would be to buy really crappy links at what is the most obvious time to buy links – the holidays! I dunno. There’s all sorts of psychological games we can play with that one. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Thanks for the link, Doug. And BTW great article the other day! Loved seeing the data you posted. Cheers!

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