What to learn from JC Penney’s SEO fail

“The news over the weekend, first reported in the New York Times, that J.C. Penney had been slapped by Google for black hat SEO practices raises a couple of big questions and contains a valuable lesson for search marketers everywhere.

Let’s start with the big head-scratchers.

First of all, how did this happen? J.C. Penney is a $17.8 billion company with 1,100 retail locations. How could they jeopardize their presence in search by essentially not knowing what their SEO provider was doing on their behalf? What the article describes are pretty blatant black hat linking tricks (link farms, manipulated anchor text, etc.) Someone at a company the size of J.C. Penney should have been looking at this with a far more critical eye.

It is rather amazing that something like this would be happening at a company the size of J.C. Penny. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that these tactics actually worked (albeit temporarily).

Vanessa Fox at Search Engine Land did some analysis. Her research shows that the questionable links came in two big spurts – one before the ’09 holiday shopping season and another just before the ’10 shopping season. This resulted in J.C. Penny occupying Google’s top organic position for some very broad terms.

They were outranking manufacturers such as Samsonite on branded terms. After the Times broke the story over the weekend, Matt Cutts (Google’s head of Web Spam) publicly announced that the algorithms had already begun to work and that manual measures were also being taken.

His response seems delayed. This started more than a year ago. It’s shocking that this tactic would work for five minutes with Google. The fact that it went on for almost a year and a half is nothing short of astounding.

The moral of the story: don’t mess with Google. The price that J.C. Penney will pay for this is incalculable. First, it is horrible PR. It was reported in the New York Times,which means that their damage control efforts will need to reach far beyond the SEO world. Most significantly, J.C. Penny has made Google look bad. This story gives the impression that Google’s mighty algorithm can be fooled. Cutts said that “”manual action was also taken.”” Google is not happy and they’re busy doing something about it. J.C. Penny’s ill-gotten rankings have already fallen off the map, but how many legitimate rankings will suffer, at least while all of this gets sorted out? J.C. Penney’s site received more than 48 million clicks from the search engines in the second half of 2010, according to comScore. How much of that is going away, and what will that cost in real dollars?

Google is wincing today, because its feeding hand is sore. J.C. Penney will pay a big price for that.

Scott Ensign, Digital Planner and Channel Integration Specialist”

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