J.C. Penney gets busted juicing its Google results

February 14, 2011: 11:38 AM ET

...and now has to deal with the repercussions from Google.

The NYTimes did an expose over the weekend on a name brand company who apparently outsourced their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to a shady SEO firm.

J.C. Penney was established in 1916, long before search engines were even imaginable. They find themselves in a precarious place, having been caught trying to juice their search results by Google.

Most companies who do this sort of thing are fly-by-night organizations who don't have anything to lose, so a big, known, established brand practicing this is quite a surprise.

The company bought and traded links to JCPenney.com(JCP) on other non-related websites to trick Google (GOOG) into thinking that people were naturally linking to JCPenney.com.  Naturally, JCPenney.com went up in search results.  Not just on Google either. Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing is affected too since they use the same methods to promote sites (and they copy Google!).  Soon, and during the lucrative holiday season, JCPenney was on top of a lot of searches where it naturally didn't belong.

The company undoubtedly made a lot of money from this practice.

But then Google, and reportedly its algorithms, got wind of the activity and immediately cut them down to un-naturally low status in the Google search results.

J.C. Penney's SEO company SearchDEX was promptly fired once J.C. Penney learned of getting busted by Google.  But the prompt dismissal probably indicated that J.C. Penney was somewhat aware of what their SEO company was doing (and the resulting un-natural traffic gains).  Otherwise, they would have done an investigation first?  And what about the people at J.C. Penney that hired SearchDEX.  Who is going to take the fall?

The article is a study in the high stakes game of search optimization where Google is the judge, jury and executioner.  While the rewards are high (J.C. Penney rode way higher than they normally would in Google and other searches, even during the lucrative holiday season) they now have to deal with Google's penalties, which will net them with significant losses in search driven traffic.

Another question: How far does Google penalize the well known J.C. Penney?  They can't simply make them disappear like they do to the fly-by nights who trick Google.  In fact, J.C. Penney spends a lot of money with Google, so it would be surprising to see them go away at all (a quick Google of J.C. Penney shows them at the top of direct searches- though very much penalized on indirect ones).

But there is another explanation why Google might not have caught J.C. Penney or penalized them as harshly.

J. C. Penney spent $2.46 million a month on paid Google search ads, according to the report.  Could Google be giving a pass to companies on their ad programs?  Of course Google will deny this up and down.

However, the question keeps coming up over and over again and not just by journalists.  The E.U. is looking into these issues as well.

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Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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