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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.