J.C. Penney caught gaming Google

Retailer sees search rankings go down after being busted

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If you're into search engine optimization intrigue, check out this article in Saturday's New York Times about how retailer J.C. Penney for months used "black hat" SEO techniques to rig Google search results in hits favor -- and how it got caught.

(Also see: Microsoft-Nokia: A marriage of mobile mediocrities)

The retailer -- or the SEO firm it hired and subsequently fired -- engaged in the SEO-gaming practices of link buying and link trading, which can improve a site's Google search rankings. It's a practice, however, that Google says it prohibits.

But only if it knows about it. J.C. Penney for months was turning up as the No. 1 search result for words such as "dresses," "area rugs," "bedding" and many more, including through the lucrative holiday season. And that's in large part because it was gaming Google by paying to have "JCPenney.com" linked from seemingly random sites. From David Segal's NYT article:

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.

Well, Google did figure out J.C. Penney was engaging in link abuse and immediately punished the company with lower rankings on searches. How much Google actually punished the retailer is subject to some debate, though, because Penney -- a major Google advertiser, spending $2.46 million a month on search ads -- hasn't exactly been banned from Google's search results.

Sure, it dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 for searches on "comforter sets," Segal writes, and from No. 1 to No. 10 for "sweater dresses." And yes, the top two return slots get more than 50 percent of clicks, so that's a good hit to the retailer's search visibility. But it's still not the same as disappearing from the results, and it sounds like Penney was going all Enron on the system.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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