New York Times exposes JC Penney’s Google search secrets

Ever wondered how to get your name out there, right at the top of Google’s “organic” search rankings (as opposed to sponsored sites)? A big American retailer achieved just that. But now JC Penney’s ratings have come tumbling down after a newspaper looked into the matter.

JC Penney has more than 1100 stores across America - a big company but a fraction the size of, for example, Walmart with around 4000 stores.

Yet you would never guess that if you had started Googling over the Christmas season for various household goods and items of apparel.

When someone typed the word “dresses” and hit enter, or “bedding” or “area rugs”, The Times reported, it was possible to imagine dozens of contenders for the top spot. “But in the last several months, one name turned up, with uncanny regularity, in the No. 1 spot for each and every term: JC Penney,” said the Times.

Searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor”, “comforter sets”, “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases produced similar results. This “striking performance” went on for months, noted the paper, right through the Christmas shopping season. Even when the item was “Samsonite carry on luggage”, Penney was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite’s own website.

The New York Times asked an expert in online search, Doug Pierce, to study Penney’s “astoundingly strong“ performance.

His verdict: it was the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he had ever seen.

“Actually, it’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “This whole thing just blew me away, especially for such a major brand. You’d think they would have people around them that would know better.”

So what accounted for JC Penney’s rise to the top? One crucial factor is links from one site to another.

The Times explained: “If you own a website, for instance, about Chinese cooking, your site’s Google ranking will improve as other sites link to it. The more links to your site, especially those from other Chinese cooking-related sites, the higher your ranking.”

But even links that have nothing to do with Chinese cooking can raise your profile. The Times says bluntly: ”Someone paid to have thousands of links placed on hundreds of sites scattered around the Web, all of which lead directly to JC Penney.”

A spokeswoman for the company, Darcie Brossart, said it was not Penney.

“JC Penney did not authorise, 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.”

Mr. Pierce found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses”, “evening dresses”, “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.” Click on any one and you were taken directly to Penney’s main page for dresses.

Many of the sites with links were not even related to clothing. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were at the bottom of a site “Cocktail dresses” showed up on ”

Starting last Wednesday, JC Penney was the subject of what Google calls “corrective action.”

Matt Cutts, the head of the Webspam team at Google, said: “I can confirm that this violates our guidelines.” He said Google had three times previously detected guidelines violations related to, and steps were taken that reduced Penney’s search results - but he and his team had missed this recent campaign of paid links.

Last Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a “manual action” against Penney.

The Times recorded:

At 7pm US Eastern time on Wednesday, JC Penney was still the No 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage”. Two hours later, it was at No 71.

At 7pm on Wednesday, Penney was No 1 in searches for “living room furniture”. By 9pm, it had sunk to No 68.

Penney has fired its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex. Executives there did not return email or phone calls from the Times.

Penney said it was disappointed that Google had reduced its rankings due to this matter, “but we will continue to work actively to retain our high natural search position,” said Miss Brossart.

Experts, however, say Penney might have got substantial rewards from the paid links. Daniel Ruby of Chitika, an online advertising network of 100,000 sites, in a study last May found that, on average, 34 percent of Google’s traffic went to the No 1 result, about twice the percentage that went to No 2.

The Times headlined its report on Sunday “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search”. Well, they are secret no more.

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