Tuesday, 15 February 2011

JC Penney rankings expose "black hat" SEO techniques

A lengthy article by the New York Times investigates the 'Dirty Little Secrets of Search', based on the recent experience of the JC Penney store in the US. It reports how the store's website came to dominate many searches for product items that they sell, even though they might not be the 'best fit' for the searcher.

An online marketing consultant was asked to investigate the issue and claimed that the 'black hat' techniques being used by JC Penney was 'the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen'. 'Black hat' optimisation describes the range of techniques that could be described as 'spamming' or methods that contravene Google's standards when targeting search engine rankings.

In this case, the JC Penney site has benefitted from some extensive link development tactics whereby their agency paid to have thousands of links placed on hundreds of sites scattered around the web, all of which lead directly to JCPenney.com. A spokeswoman for J. C. Penney, is quoted as saying: “J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies. We are working to have the links taken down.”

Matt Cutts at Google was shown the evidence and confirmed that the 'link farm' techniques being used violated Google's guidelines and that 'corrective action' was being taken. Apparently Cutts says that Google had detected previous guidelines violations related to JCPenney.com on 3 occasions, most recently last November. Each time, steps were taken that reduced Penney’s search results but Google did not later “circle back” to the company to see if it was still breaking the rules. 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.

JC Penney have since reacted to their recent reversal of ranking fortune by, among other things, firing its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex.

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