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Black Hat SEO And What It Can Cost You

JCPenney Blackhat SEO

JCPenney Were Caught Using Black Hat SEO Techniques

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a story about how they had uncovered a scheme by retailer JCPenney to game the search engines by buying lots and lots of text links. In fact they discovered 2,015 text links relating to “dresses” alone. SearchEngineLand went on to show 774 pages linking to the JCPenney Comforter Sets page.

With Google taking plenty of flak recently about spam filled results they were particularly quick to act and happy to talk about taking strong “corrective action” in this case. On February 1st the average Google search results position for a JCPenney page for the 59 keywords the New York Times were tracking was 1.3; after Google were notified the average position of the JCPenney results dropped to 52.

There are a few interesting points raised by this story. First of all, by Google’s own admission, this link building campaign had been going on for months unnoticed. It’s probably less noticeable when a big company gets number one in the search results for a generic term like “dresses”, but 2,015 text links from spam link sites should have raised a flag earlier. For a company so fond of algorithms it’s odd to hear them say they only have 24,000 employees by way of a defence.

Second, even though Google have now taken their corrective action, i.e. punished JCPenney for violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, I wonder just how much money they made over the lucrative Christmas shopping season by gaming the system? Certainly more than the links cost them to buy. Do a quick back of the envelope calculation. Let’s say each of the 59 tracked keywords averaged 500 paid links each (less than either of the keywords talked about above), and that each link cost $10 to buy. That would cost $295,000, or a small fortune to you and me, but given that the keyword “dresses” alone has an average of 11.1 million searches per month suddenly you can see the value.

Third, as mentioned in the New York Times article, JCPenney claim to only get 7 percent of their traffic from organic searches. For an online retailer as big as JCPenney that is just unbelievable, but it’s easy to see why when you look at their on-site SEO efforts in any detail, as Alain Bleiweiss did in this post.

Finally, just as incredible as JCPenney’s poor on-site SEO is that of the New York Times itself. Despite knowing the name of the paper, the name of the company at the heart of the story, and the topic of the story, it still took me a number of searches to find the article. In the end I had to add a “site:nytimes.com” to the end of my search. Admittedly I should probably have done this at the start but I thought just having NYTimes in the search string would be enough. Hugo Guzman discusses the NYTimes.com site’s poor SEO in this blog post.

So, the black hat SEO discussion goes on with no real answer one way or the other. JCPenney are clearly paying a price now for what they’ve done, but I’d be very surprised if they didn’t come out ahead in money terms at least. As for Google, they will probably frighten a few people into avoiding black hat techniques by talking publicly about this case, but I’m sure plenty of others will see it as proof that gaming the system isn’t that hard and that you’re not likely to get caught for quite some time.

9 Responses to “Black Hat SEO And What It Can Cost You”

  1. Caelen says:

    What makes this even more incredible is the article mentions that Google had previously caught JC Penny breaking the guidelines – yet even with this red flag on the website they still managed to miss this.

  2. What I am curious to find out is will this infraction by JCP put them on a secret “black hat watch list” that Matt Cutts might be keeping? I had assumed in the passed that sites went onto some sort of list after a first infraction, but clearly that’s not the case.

    And the other question is – whether they’re on some awesomely bizarre watch list (if it exists), will they roll the dice again regardless? I suppose if the profit margin is high enough, they probably will.

    • Philip Boyle says:

      Hi Alan,

      I would have assumed that some sort of black list existed, but it seems like Google’s corrective actions are applied and then just fade away over time.

      If you look at what JCPenney gained, i.e. 4 months of increased sales including the lucrative holiday season, compared to what they stand to lose, i.e. lower sales for a few months at least, they’ll probably come out ahead in money terms.

      That alone will encourage more people to try similar strategies until it can be shown that Google have closed whatever loopholes allow this to work. That said, with all the eyes of the SEO world on JCPenney now, I’d be surprised if they try anything similar anytime soon. :)

      • that also makes me wonder if there really is a black list, but big brands like JCP just don’t get put on it. I know – that’s a conspiracy theory thought, and it would be denied until the cows come home. Yet I really am curious about it. JCP potentially made millions of dollars and it wasn’t their first time. So why the heck wouldn’t there have been a black list with them on it?

      • Philip Boyle says:

        I’d like to think that Google were aware of the problem before the New York Times story and decided to work on a change of algorithm to address. I would think that given JCPenney’s massive AdWords spend Google would be reluctant to take immediate corrective action against them if at all possible, but once the media spotlight was on the story they had no choice.

        I would be far more worried about the state of search in general and Google in particular if I thought they didn’t know that this was going on as it means that anyone with deep pockets can game the system without fear of being caught for at least a few months.

  3. It would be interesting to know how Google tweaked their algorithm in response to this and paid links in general or is that just a nice bit of PR from them (as per the last post in the NYT about bad PR getting you good results). One way of filtering out paid links is to increase the value they give to how many times an external link is geting clicked.

    I would say JC will loose money over this in the long term. It’s going to be a long way back from such an outing.

    I also don’t see why this was such a big story. You could do up a post per day on identical tactics being used across the web by other large sites.

    • Philip Boyle says:

      Hi Kieran, I think the main reason it was such a big story is because Google played ball with the NYT to confirm what was happening and what action they were going to take, which doesn’t happen that often. Presumably Google took part in the story because they want to discourage this kind of behaviour, but I think it is just going to give some people ideas.

  4. Eamonn says:

    I’m sure you’ve all seen this sort of stuff before but it’s new to me (and highly amusing)
    Page Rank rap
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnSJBpB_OKQ

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