JC Penney link spam – What can we learn from it

by Peter Young on February 14, 2011 · 5 comments

You may have read from a number of sources of the recent New York Times article which ‘outed’ the link building practises undertaken by JC Penney or more accurately their SEO agency Searchdex. For those that haven’t read the story the following resources are worth reading:

To provide a quick overview, it appears that JC Penney had utilised a load of low quality link sources as the basis for the SEO link building, primarily from the well known link network TNX. Its not the first time I have seen TNX work particularly well, it used to work fantastically for GHD counterfeit sites as well. However more worryingly it has highlighted a number of more worrying issues as regards Google and its ability to deal with any sort of simple ‘negative’ link building.

They have since taken action. On Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a “manual action” against JC Penney, primary keyword level demotions specifically aimed at the company.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”
Two hours later, it was at No. 71.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”
By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.

However the following key points would appear to stand out as regards the activity which entire issue:

  • Relevancy or lack of it would appear to have little bearing on site success. The fact that a number of the links came from a number of ‘dubious’ link sources would be testament to this, and I have seen Russian sites within the TNX network work very well as well.
  • Spikes in link building don’t necessarily mean Google will catch you. Lets face it, it wasn’t Google that caught this issue going on – it was the NYT and before that the site had seen some very aggresive link building taking place – which as mentioned earlier didn’t exactly have a blend that should have gone unnoticed.
  • More importantly – why didnt Google pick this up. We are led to believe that Google’s network of human evaluators and cutting edge algorithm is more than capable of finding and punishing you if you overstep the Google guidelines – however it wasn’t until the news broke that Google took any action at all.
  • Strangely it is a newspaper breaking the news. One better hope they never decide to offer any form of linkage which goes against Google Guidelines as one would suggest there are going to be a lot of people waiting to return the favour if they do.

At the end of the day, one has to say that Google does do a better job of sorting the wheat from the chaff than many of their competitors – however one can’t help that a certain level of competition wouldn’t go amiss – if not just to keep Google on their toes a bit more. Missing such an example sends completely the wrong message out, and goes against much of the traditional rhetoric that comes out from Google. After all its actions that often speak much loader than words.

Google+ Comments

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

John February 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Lets face it mate – if NYT wouldn’t have broken the news JCP would still be raking in the millions.
Whatever Google says publicly – $2 + million per month on paid search is definitely entitled to some human errors or should I say overlooks!

Gennady Lager February 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I saw this coming from miles away. SearchDex has been known as a shady SEO business since I first ran across them in 2007. What people need to also check is JCP’s on-page practices such as mirror pages made for search engines. They have worked on making those pages more forward facing of late but it is still pretty bad.

The lesson here is when you hire an SEO firm, you better stay on top of them. Clearly, JCP just wrote a check and said get me links. No one was there to check these links or stop SearchDex from participating in TNX.

Ian Miller February 14, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I think the most worrying thing is how these links can attract this level of attention and the impact on the target site when outed. Google appear to have actively penalised, rather than simply discounting these links and seeing where JCP should fall. That is surely the most logical thing to do, that way any chance of negative SEO would be greatly diminished. There’s been lots of discusion how easy it is to identify them.

This highlights to me how likely negative SEO is to work. I’ve long wanted an option to disavow or report links you don’t like to be discounted, but Google are adament they don’t need it, although I’d suggest this proves otherwise.

There’s no doubt that JCP have serious on site SEO issues, which might be enough to cause these drops anyway, but the way this gives a green light to effective, negative SEO campaigns gives be chills.

White Label SEO February 24, 2011 at 7:32 am

Great read. Think of the millions of people who shop at J.C Penny, now start thinking of ways to have them link to your content with contests and promotions. All those links from twitter, blogs and Facebook would help the pages rank higher and also be seen as referrals from real people. Manipulating one search engine can get you into big trouble, but there isn’t anything wrong with thinking of creative ways to get thousands of honest links from people who love your company.

Outsourcing August 12, 2011 at 8:41 am

I still remember the day I read about the JCPenny issue. For me it started the Panda updates. Good thing user generated content and social media has taken the center stage for online marketing.

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