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NY Times Article on JC Penney Paid Links

 7:56 pm on Feb 12, 2011 (gmt 0)

The New York Times has quite an article about white hat and black hat SEO - entitled "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search."

It seems that all through the holiday season, Penney's website was at the top for all kinds of retail searches, including single keywords like "dresses". Given the amount of competition for all these keywords. something smelled funny to the Times. So they brought in an SEO consultant firm, and they found a large number of backlinks, strewn around thousands of nearly abandoned websites. It sounds like many of these were on abandoned sites - and possibly were parasite hosted, though that is not clear from the article.

Last week, The Times sent Google the evidence it had collected about the links to JCPenney.com. Google promptly set up an interview with Matt Cutts... "I can confirm that this violates our guidelines," said Mr. Cutts during an hourlong interview on Wednesday, after looking at a list of paid links to JCPenney.com...

On Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a "manual action" against Penney, essentially 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.


A Penney's spokesperson denied that they had authorized those links - and they fired their search consulting firm.



 5:33 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)


And don't forget there will be huge casualties from this algo change that are totally innocent. They don't read spam reports and don't act on them. It's all computer driven and we all suffer. they did not fix the jcpenney issue until someone intervened.

There are more articles coming of this I am sure. The specific example I have given of setting up a shell site with different keyword leads for the same item...testing and recording results and then filing countless spam reports where nothing gets done...even worse when they act manually as it only proves they NEED to have more manual reviewers or a better system.


 5:36 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

When you've got a name like JC Penny getting slapped on fifty phrases doesn't mean much. What's hot in keywords could change completely by next year. Plus they’re probably have rankings for a million terms. If they've gone back to the well before it shows penalizing the "big boys" doesn't mean much. Their execs will have lunch with Google execs and inform them they employ 150,000 and does Google want to hurt that. Didn’t the Presidents office send people out to Google a few years back to inform them to keep the economy humming?

Getting past Google’s filters, come on now.


 6:59 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

but they deserve all the heat they are getting as they were asleep this last year or two.

It has been said more than once at this venue that Google is in large part a prisoner of its allegiance to the central role of backlinks. What was a groundbreaking concept a decade ago is in 2011 a ball & chain around their ankle, so as TMS said, very smart people game the system and Google does its best to try to catch up, all the while piling more complexity onto the role of page rank/backlinks in the algo. And like any system that gets overly complex, it easily breaks. It's been broken a lot these past couple years, and we have no reason to expect that will change in the next couple.



 7:14 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

like any system that gets overly complex, it easily breaks

Bingo - that's exactly what I think has been going on, too.

Many years ago I was part of an in-house "knowledge base" search project for a big brand computer manufacturer. The initial launch of the knowledge base search was OK - but soon every division of the company wanted to see their information at the top of various searches. A note about scale might be in helpful here. This company was big enough to have a group of employees dedicated to standardizing font usage across all documents in the enterprise.

And so, even though this was only an internal, intranet search project, employees began spamming their own documents to the top. Corporate IT kept kludging more and more safeguards into the mix until the whole thing became quite unpredictable and, you might even say, unstable. It just got harder and harder to do simple searches that worked quite well when the project first launched.

So this is not uniquely a Google problem at all. As I learned back then, it happens on a much lower scale, too. This is why I agree with those engineers who keep saying "search is a hard problem". Information retrieval on its own is challenging enough. Put adversarial feedback into the system and you quickly get a real mess. Which we have ;(


 7:17 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

My first and only SEO contract was removing links like this for a Fortune 100 company that had a penalized site. It was so stupid of the former SEO company to do that. Big corporations can rank great without any spam links.


 7:45 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Three views on "complexity"...

"Expansion means complexity and complexity decay." ~ Parkinson's Third Law (C. Northcote Parkinson)

"I think complexity is mostly sort of crummy stuff that is there because it's too expensive to change the interface." ~ Jaron Lanier

"Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple." ~ Pete Seeger



 9:23 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I concluded that this wasn't news. Elsewhere you will have read that they spend $2.4M each month on AdWords and no matter what anyone says, if JCP stopped their ads, some AdWords sales manager somewhere would be calling the 'plex asking for help. It doesn't mean they'll get their #1 spots back, but they would have an acceptable path to the top again as if the paid links never happened.

Even when you are at a tenth or 20th of that spend level, your execs will suddenly find themselves attending events and swapping business cards with sales Googlers, so passing on a message to MC becomes easier.

For Google, this is just a normal outcome of dealing with paid links; the fact that a well-known brand was involved helps with publicity and the removal of practices that the SEO customer isn't aware of and would probably not approve if they knew the risk.

Incidentally, I registered at NYT (free) years ago and I assume it is still free if you register. It's definitely worth getting, since people are sharing NYT links all the time. I have not had any intrusive emails from them.


 10:59 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

@tedter and anyone interested.

I was thinking back to when google got rid of all the link benefit from logfiles and how easily that was for them. That was platform checking in part.

On the profile links - surely - if the following conditions are met - then 80% of forum profile spam would be dumped.

1. Identify Forum Platforms
2. In each one - find links and IF there is more than 1 post by the forum member - load the link to the target site link profile - mark this link with forum profile identifier. Otherwise discard link.
3. Thats the forums done.
4. Scan the link profile of a site
5. If % forum profile identified links is > (turnable dial) - dont pass juice.

Thats it.

Its a small job - which could be at least tested by them.


 11:27 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I wonder how many customers the search firm for JCP is going to get out of this. With that link to their site on page 2 of the NYT article, they've got to be sitting back laughing all the way to the bank.

[SEO] does not engage in or do business with companies that engage in any tactics that may cause a loss in effectiveness of search results, or in any methods that may cause a negative effect on search engine operations.

I had to laugh after reading JCP's search firm's website.

59 terms? Pffft, and that is newsworthy?

And how does NYT know that they were paid for by JCP? I could have easily pointed all those links at JCP and caused this. You could have too. ;)

Robert Charlton

 11:58 am on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I wonder how many customers the search firm for JCP is going to get out of this.

Funny, I was thinking that they might lose some customers because of this... though I can see how you might argue it the other way.

Seems to me that the article (which I think is extremely well done, particularly for a non-tech publication), is more likely to benefit the SEO consultant who did the detective work and the tools that he used, both of which are also linked to from the article.

I'm wondering in fact how the story was brought to the Times, and what, if any, self-interest might have been involved in bringing it to them (if that was its genesis). Couldn't ask for better product placement (at least for the guys with the magnifying glasses wearing the white Sherlock Holmes hats).


 12:45 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

And how does NYT know that they were paid for by JCP? I could have easily pointed all those links at JCP and caused this. You could have too. ;)

Maybe, but I doubt it. It was probably more than 59 terms, and they were pretty competitive terms and it was just before Christmas. Nobody in retail is gonna wanna give up their own holiday sales to sink a competitor. Plus... JCPenney? They're not all that much of a competitor anymore, compared to some. No, I don't think it was done to them, I think it was done (directly or indirectly) by them.

No, that SEO firm will probably gain customers once they read this quote:

... S.E.O. is a game, and if you’re not paying black hats, you are losing to rivals with fewer compunctions

Nobody wants to be *that* guy.


 1:07 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)


If you remember I had mentioned a few months back a other story was coming from the NYT and here it is. Damaging to have it written that an advertiser spending 25 million a year on ads can also have gotten away with two or three previous violations per googles word. I think that's the way it is being read by the average person and that was the intent of the story.

Now imagine a reporter being told the root problem is spam reports are ignored. They have specific examples of the types of spam I mentioned earlier:

Site A: Fast xyz brand product abc
Site B: Quick xyz brand product abc
Site C: Rapid xyz brand product abc

And google ranks them all even though the sites all use the same address, phone, chat tags and follow the same scheme. All that changes is the keyword used before 100k identical products. Clear violation of the wmgl. Now throw in that they have a by adspend.

To show how easy it is setup three identical sites with products using the same keyword driven spam. Make it as clear as possible these sites are all mirrors and even put right in the text you're doing this to spam. When all of them start to rank file 100 spam reports and wait a few weeks/months. Not only does nothing change but the algo update from 2/1 makes the spam even worse.

Rinse and repeat as I'm sure when google is fed the story they'll take manual action. But their detection failed again as it's always been geared towards single site epicenter logic.

If they actually read spam reports they'd be able to see these things and maybe tweak the algo. But they don't. You could create a number one spam site and report yourself and it would still be ignored. That's sad.


 1:23 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I wonder how many customers the search firm for JCP is going to get out of this. With that link to their site on page 2 of the NYT article, they've got to be sitting back laughing all the way to the bank.

Yep, and it just made a domain like usclettermen.org worth about 10 times more than it was. :)


 1:39 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Made me think (twice) about dropping a few links in the comment section there on the NYT.

I find it somewhat unbelievable that the NYT still leaves themselves wide open.

Always interesting to see what will happen next.


 1:54 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I find it somewhat unbelievable that the NYT still leaves themselves wide open. Always interesting to see what will happen next.

I'm sure there is someone, somewhere, saying "two can play at this game". I wonder what tactics lurk behind the NYT website's success? I'm sure we can find something? ;)

If you can't beat em - snitch on em.


 2:03 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

JC penny probably got loads of publicity from the article. its not like their product was being slammed -- just the way they promote the website (which wasn't illegal, or even immoral. all they did was fall foul of one company's rules -- google.)

i think the interesting thing about the article is not what JC Penny did, but that the New York Times seemed to blindly accept google's position that these links were "bad".

to me, what they did was no different to a brick and mortar shop leafleting the neighbourhood. but google (and other search engines) have successfully drummed it into everyone that paying for a mention on someone else's website is not advertising -- it's something that should be punished.


 2:25 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Come on now. You think leaflets are the same as someone purposefully manipulating a 3rd party ranking algorithim for monetary benefit?

That is a long shot. Buying ads across all the sites, yes, but keywod manipulation? Not the same. :-)


 2:25 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

If I were with either JCPenney or the SEO firm, my Monday morning post mortem would be pretty positive.

For JCPenney, it was a calculated risk and they won big. They got Christmas. I've worked in one form or other of catalog sales and/or ecommerce since I'm 15 years old. Don't underestimate holiday sales for a big retailer (versus the rest of the year) They very well could have figured it was worth it to go for the holiday spike; even if they got shot down afterward, they still have months and months to come back. (And if G warned them three times but they never got permanently slammed, they could well have thought they could get away with it endlessly)

The SEO firm got outed as the one that brought them the success. In our world, what they did was "black hat" but in the retail world, they gained a competitive edge for their client during the most crucial time of year. Of course JCP had to fire them - "on paper". There are lots of ways to disguise a relationship, though, and the cynic in me wouldn't be at all surprised if they still end up working together. After all, taking the public fall doesn't hurt them much either.

The only thing they probably didn't count on was the NYT article, but when all is said and done, it's Google with the egg on their face. So JCP may have a more difficult time next Christmas trying the same idea. ("Don't make Google look stupid") JCP might have to get a little more creative this year. Don't think they won't try.


 2:55 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

did anybody actually do the analysis this morning?

All I can find is what I call ghost links. 400K backlinks but most have none of the supposedly incriminating anchor text or backlinks.

using some other tools, I can see a bit more, but again, when going to the sites... surprise, there is no sign of links to jcp.

if this scam was so good that it actually worked, someone was also good enough to undo the links, without leaving much of a trace.

can't wait to read the real drill down.


 5:02 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I don't fault Google or their algo one bit in this incident. After all, JC Penny IS a good source for a "dresses" search and all the others mentioned. What page would the average person want to see for a "dresses" search?...a Wiki page on the history of dresses?

Additionally, what if JC Penny is telling the truth and THEY didn't buy the links?

If you were the SEO of one of JC Penny's competitors, how would YOU get Penny removed from all the top spots?

What if one of their major competitors had an SEO firm that got a little too cute and thought a great way to nail JC Penny would be to buy a bunch of links, then send an anonymous tip to the NYT on a possible great article subject? What if they did that knowing full well that it would entice Google into wiping out not only the bought links, but also lots of JC Penny's other naturally acquired links in the process, AND as a side benefit, stick JC Penny with a few million dollars worth of bad press in the NYT?

Consider this...

"The New York Times asked an expert in online search, Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media in New York, to study this question"

Gee, now why would the NYT do that out of the blue? Why would the NYT suspect something was wrong with JC Penny being returned for search terms like "dresses" or any of the other searches mentioned? I wouldn't.

How is it that a lowly NYT writer could click through a few serps and suspect something was wrong even though Google's algo and all their human evaluators didn't suspect a problem, keeping in mind that JC Penny was already on Google's radar since November?

Sounds like a set-up to me.


 5:23 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

...and it was just before Christmas. Nobody in retail is gonna wanna give up their own holiday sales to sink a competitor.

In most situations or disagreements, there's almost always a very short and concise point of view that will stop an argument in it's tracks. I know this thread is specifically about the link building practice in general and not so much about who implemented it. But, if I were a judge, and this was a trial, that statement would probably clear up any doubt about who is responsible for the links <gavel falls>.

There is no way a competitor can wipe out a long established company like JCP by some thing like this. One month from now this will have been forgotten. If it was some newly established mom and pop shop, yes maybe it could do some long-term damage, but certainly not JCP. Next Christmas season, it will be business as usual.


 5:27 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I thought that google just devalued those links by tweaking its algorithm.Was there any manual penalty imposted on JC Penny?

If it were, I would say it isn't proper as there is no way to conclude that they knowingly did the linking themselves.

It seems that the press these day are more interested in what is going wrong with the google engine.Why is this so? What are they achieving? Are these genuine attempts to help google improve their SERPS?


 5:41 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Something like this happened just a few months ago, thanks to a NYT article. [webmasterworld.com...]


 5:41 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

...and it was just before Christmas. Nobody in retail is gonna wanna give up their own holiday sales to sink a competitor.

<gavel falls>

We appeal...

The quote was...

“Internet sales through jcp.com posted strong growth in December, with significant increases in traffic and orders for the key holiday shopping periods of the week after Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas.”

She's referring to the jump in sales everyone gets during the holiday season, not necessarily the boost from bogus links. The bogus links could have been in place since right after LAST Christmas.


 5:53 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Interpret it as you want. But oddly enough my post wasn't in reply to yours -- I was actually writing it at the same time as you and when I posted it yours had just come in at the same time. I was just commenting on netmeg's observation. Still, reading your comment prior to mine, as well as your counter-argument now I stand by what I've said.


 6:07 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Yep, I understand.

The whole thing just seems a little fishy to me as to why the NYT would question the serps to begin with when Google didn't. It's not like the writer was typing in "dresses" and getting back casin0s and #*$! sites.

Had it been someone at WebmasterWorld or some other experienced SEO who questioned the serps, well that I could see. But, a NYT writer initially identifying a bogus pattern without outside assistance, that part I question.


 6:18 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

The SEO firm took down their client list, but it's still available in Google cache. Page title is "[FIRM_NAME] - Client Portfolio". Looks like they pulled all their clients' logo image files too, but thanks to their "ethical" SEO practices, the alt tags and the image filenames are still in place. Some big fish in there; this could get interesting.


 6:34 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

The whole thing just seems a little fishy to me as to why the NYT would question the serps to begin with when Google didn't.

I'm apt to consider that this was a setup. Was it aimed at JCP or were they just a pawn? Maybe the search firm was the targeted recipient of this sabotage campaign?

This will be interesting to watch unfold. I have a feeling that an official statement will come from the search firm and it will read something like this...

After a careful investigation we found one of our third party providers was performing this type of service without our permission. We have discontinued services with those responsible for this.

Happens all the time. Someone is going to take the fall. Who is it going to be?

This whole thing will be forgotten by the time this topic finds it way into the archives. Just like BMW and all the others. I forgot all about the BMW fiasco until it was brought up in the NYT article.

Now, back to the SEO firm in question. Why do you think they would remove their portfolio of clients? Is it possible this same practice is also at play with them? Or was it just a move to protect their clients' innocence?

Alt Attributes? Cache? If they were a smart SEO, they would have had NoArchive in place. Last thing you want is your client list in cache when something like this comes down the pike. Ya, nice job on the Alt Attributes. ;)

Now, if they are following this topic, the SEO firm in question, we should see the NoArchive element come into play here shortly. That's the only way that cache is going to get removed quickly.


 7:11 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

It is what it is... JCP or their marketing company exploited a gaping hole in Googles ranking system to capitalize on traffic during the busy shopping season. As webmasters, we should all be so lucky as to land those number 1 spots! It's called capitalism and creative marketing.

- They found a way to outperform the competion.
- They weighed the risk versus reward.
- They took advantage of it and profited nicely.

People talk about JCP cheating, breaking the rules, etc... Cheating who? Breaking who's rules? It was a smart business decision in my opinion. Their stockholders should be happy. Who cares if they arent found for "Sheets" or "Skinny Jeans"? As long as they do good for JC Penney... or sheets @ JCpenney, right?

Sure... Im not happy my own sites got bumped down also, since I do play by the rules Google has scared me into playing, but that was my choice. Google has ME scared of the risk. (FUD)

How do we all know they werent doing this for years, and it was one of these jinky and never-ending algo changes Google was doing throughout 2010 that just inadvertantly rewarded them? Seems I recall one of the algo changes leading toward the holidays was to focus on big brands... maybe it was just a "perfect storm" of years of marketing that had never worked before, combined with a google change that was meant to protect brands, and it worked out stupid-perfect for JCP.

My take... my opinion... whatever you call it.

As a US citizen, I'm more interested to see how long it takes the Gov't to step in, cry foul against JCP, and start regulating the search results based on the fact that they can be "that easily" manipulated, and the fact that Google can "that easily" manually adjust them to -xx positions. I think this all part of a bigger-picture-setup of some kind anyhow...

The NYT's didnt publish this to affect JCP, they probably want something done with Google and its power over the flow of web traffic and internet commerce!

Just my take... look at the title, JCP was only the example, Google and exposing the weaknesses and ease of manipulation of search is the target!


 7:15 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Why do you think they would remove their portfolio of clients? Is it possible this same practice is also at play with them? Or was it just a move to protect their clients' innocence?

Could be either one I guess.

The situation is probably just like the NYT says. JCP hired the Seo firm...the Seo firm planted the links...they both got caught...end of story. But, one would at least have to question how and why the NYT got wind of this story in the first place.

Did the NYT writer identify the bogus JCP ranking pattern on his own?
If not, WHO identified it for him?
What did that person have to gain by going to the trouble of contacting the NYT?
Did that person simply "identify" the problem or did that person help "create" the problem?

I'm just curious. (and I'm sure I'll never get the true answers ;) )


 9:40 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

It looks like Google is penalizing JCPenney on branded searches. I can't say for sure because I don't know how JCP ranked for the terms in question before this little incident, but it is not doing well now for the kind of branded searches for which it could be expected to show up at #1. Losing out on branded natural search is costly for a big-brand company.

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