By now, many of you many have heard about J.C. Penney’s epic fail: their recent attempt to trick Google and claim search superiority on a number of phrases you wouldn’t normally associate with Penney’s — phrases like area rugs and skinny jeans.
The story goes like this. Over the course of several months, at the end of 2010 and moving into 2011, Penney’s started appearing at or near the top of searches for a variety of terms: everything from dresses to home décor. The trend was spotted by the New York Times, who asked online search expert Doug Pierce to investigate.
What Pierce uncovered was what’s called “black hat optimization”; in other words, cheating.
Essentially, J.C. Penny (and its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex) engaged in a massive effort to game Google’s search algorithms. Their method of choice? Creating thousands of links to JCPenney.com across hundreds of sites across the web. Most of the referring sites were little more than “link farms”—sites set up for the sole purpose of creating outbound links to other websites.
According to the Times:
“There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.
Some of these sites seem all but abandoned, except for the links… When you read the enormous list of sites … the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.”
After the Times revealed its information to Google in February, the search giant went all medieval. Within a span of 10 days, Penney’s average position for 59 search terms dropped from 1.3 to 52.
When we talked about this scam internally, here at Atomic, we were surprised that such a major retailer could make such a stupid mistake. Trying to game Google might get you some short-term increases in traffic, but you’re going to pay for it in the long run. You’ll pay with a loss of customer trust, and you’ll pay big time when Google drops the axe on your search results, as it did in this case.
Zach Hensler, our SEO guy, noted that one of Penney’s goofiest moves was loading links on sites with totally random subject matter—like putting links to dresses on websites about fishing. Google’s all about content and context—a disconnect like this raises a big red flag for them. Especially when they see it multiplied hundredfold on link farms across the internet.
The big lesson here? Be attuned to Google’s SEO approach, and for goodness sake, don’t try to outfox their engineers. Focus on your customers and what they need, and fill your site with that content. If you’re providing valuable material that people want to read and share, inbound links will come naturally. And your search will improve as a result, now and into the long term. Inbound links are valuable but they should come from quality sites of similar subject matter.
Want to learn more about the right way to improve your search results? Contact Atomic.