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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.



 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.


 9:42 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

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

Just what I was thinking Edward ... my guess is that they'll probably blame it on some un-named Indian outsourcer


 9:51 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

I would say that these types of things unfolding in public can lead to lawsuits. Public Relations of all three companies are now damaged. Some will hate Google, some will hate JC Penny and others will hate the New York Times. All of this could have been prevented if Matt would have told the Times to file a spam report the way the rest of us do and taken care of things quietly in the background. As an investor in two of the three companies I am very unhappy because I can see some lawsuits getting filed soon and that right there effects profit and dividends paid to investors. If I were Mr. Cutt's boss right now I would have fired him for letting this play out in public.


 9:55 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

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)

Sorry, but I disagree. If you want to be in Google's house, you play by Google's rules.

I don't know if you have children, but for the point I am trying to make, lets say that you do.

Do you let your children run amok ? Or do you give them a set of "do's and dont's"

I give my kids rules. If they disobey them, they get punished. If they don't like it... there's the door.

The kids could say "but next door allow their kids to do xyz" But that is next door, not here.

In the world of the search engines, you play by their rules. They are completely fair and nothing that I can see would cause any honest person to be scared.

And if you don't like it, then find a search engine that doesn't mind.

IMO, Google did the right thing.


 10:00 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

trinorthlighting - G is probably OK, as they appear to have made the manual penalty only after receiving conclusive proof that there were paid links (I think NYT provided a tape of a blogger saying that he had the link to JCPenny on his site because he was part of TNX, a paid link service).

Paid links are against G's TOS, everyone knows this, and everyone knows that they have the right to penalise you if you get caught.

However, if the penalty had merely been applied because there was an embarassing article in the NYT that said, "these links look a bit spammy", then yes, a lawsuit would fly if a penalty had been applied on such flimsy grounds.

Incidentally, this is why G tries to deal with things via algo. The algo is neutral and applies to all sites. People can't accuse them of penalising sites "because they want to force them to use Adwords" or whatever the conspiracy du jour is, as adwords spend is not a variable in the algo, as any patent will tell (and they should be able to prove that to an investigator too).


 10:10 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Does anyone know what year Google added 'paid links' to their TOS and Webmaster guidelines? I'm fairly certain it wasn't always there.


 10:16 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

talismon - don't know, but the issue of paid links was certainly discussed in detail by G and others in conferences in 2008 (it was a hot issue at the time). Perhaps before 2008 people would not have known, and perhaps newbies just starting out now don't know, but the webmasters for JC Penny over Christmas 2010 would certainly have known.


 10:18 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Incidently, I just checked the source code of that NYT article - and they've helpfully given JC Penney a do-follow link, on the first page of an article that's being linked to all over the web! What a lucky stoke for JC Penney!

I notice that the SEO experts they brought in to do the analysis for them also got a do follow link.


 10:25 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

It looks like Google is penalizing JCPenney on branded searches.

I'm not seeing that right now - except possibly for cases where "Penney" is correctly spelled but the "JC" is not included in the query.

All of this could have been prevented if Matt would have told the Times to file a spam report

I'm pretty sure that the Times would have printed this story whether Matt Cutts commented or not. They contacted him after they did all the research - probably as a professional courtesy and to offer a chance to do up front damage control. Also note that the Times contact corporate Google ans "Google promptly set up an interview with Matt Cutts."


 11:09 pm on Feb 13, 2011 (gmt 0)

Sorry, but I disagree. If you want to be in Google's house, you play by Google's rules.

I agree 100%.


Seven. 4 Boys, 3 Girls... Most have grown now... but they tested the rules every day! :-)

At some point, a few them realized they no longer needed mommy and daddy to feed them anymore as well, but they still came by and exploited every free meal they could get!

I still say Good for JCP... they exploited a weakness in a behemoth that controls 65% of all internet traffic. They got caught... which sucks for them, but I don't see Google shutting down their paid advertising? Just do a search for their store name, the adwords ad is the #1 result, as are the top 5 organic.



 12:33 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

This just confirms my position that when it comes to fighting spam, Google ain't that smart.

It took no effort at all using on-line tools to discover why Penny's was ranking high for so many keywords. And they can't do this with an algorithm?

I like his response that it's hard to stay ahead of the spammers. What the what? This is not some new elaborate scheme - this is basic black hat stuff that's been going on forever.

Google needs some new leadership in the anti-spam dept. I'd fire MC Monday morning.



 1:01 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

I just got a hold of an exploited site where they were doing SEO with hundreds of files in a folder (not JCPenney). This seems to be a big business. It's unfortunate for people who are doing things honestly.

@dvduval Your right.. one of my web sites was recently exploited with that same method. Hundreds/thousands of folders with links to sites.

They all appeared .ru, .it foreign domains.. but it is big business. Bugs the hell of me. Will likely become mainstream like alot of other "techniques" have over the years.


 1:09 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

That sounds like parasite hosting - which definitely IS illegal and also a big problem. It doesn't look like JCP was involved with anything that dark.


 1:52 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Had it been someone at WebmasterWorld or some other experienced SEO who questioned the serps, well that I could see.

Could have been that one of our fellow forum posters was doing some backlink research, saw the spammy backlins for JCP, and then dropped a dim to the New York Times. Reporters work on tips from "whistle blowers" all the time.

If you are google, why not just sign up for that link buying service, and then get as many links as possible to a bogus site. Then you could eventually search for links to that bogus site and deduce that all the pages that link to that site are carrying paid links. Then devalue the link juice from those sites.

(I believe the article said that link broker keeps the sites anonymous, so they couldn't just see a list of web publishers and devalue those publishers.)


 1:54 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

And all is not lost for JCP's natural search. I am sure they probably still rank #1 for "cheap polyester dresses that itch like HeII"


 2:38 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Could have been that one of our fellow forum posters was doing some backlink research, saw the spammy backlins for JCP, and then dropped a dim to the New York Times

Actually, I just found out that one SEO did do a blog post on Feb 2nd about how these exact searches were being manipulated, but she didn't mention the JCP name. Maybe the Times reads her blog...

I am sure they probably still rank #1 for "cheap polyester dresses that itch like HeII"

Or maybe "paid links" now.


 2:53 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Penalties are not permanent. They will be back by next holiday season. No skin off their backs.


 3:29 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Just goes to show how much Google has really done over the years. Sure the little players will find it somewhat difficult in getting a paid link strategy off the ground to a certain degree, but when it comes to established brands and large authorities, it's unlikely they will get slapped unless it's done manually.


 4:00 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

I see some sites in my niche, ranking very well on these types of abandoned blog links, with very short titles, very similar to each other. Could be the same SEO firm, and it will be interesting to see the trickle-down effect. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this type of backlink practice (abandoned sites/blogs) was discussed here recently [webmasterworld.com...]


 4:04 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

It's some sort of blog spamming tool, I would say. Here in Australia, one of our competitors is doing the same exact thing -- abandoned blog links. It's all very much the same which is leading me to believe that some blog spamming tool is going under the radar.


 5:12 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Nuthin - I'm in Australia too and was looking at a very similar situation in the tourism industry with an abandoned blog just an hour ago.


 6:03 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

So what are the takeaways from all this?

1) A moderate* amount of Spammy / paid links (the article cited a little over 2,000) did work quite well for getting the number 1 or 2 position in the SERPs on HIGHLY competitive keywords.

2) Even after the recent algorithm change, those results would only drop a few spots (I think the article said the average JCP SERP was knocked down to between #4 and #5 after the Algo change).

3) Google is not particularly good at detecting spammy / paid links, even on sites that they have already penalized or were determined to be in violation of the Terms of Service.

4) The -50 penalty is not a myth.

Anything else?

*NOTE: I said moderate because 2,000 back links is not that much considering that a lot of spam software can generate 30K back links A MONTH or more (way more, if you have the resources, such as a dedicated server and the cash to pay for lists of sties).


 6:10 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Google is not particularly good at detecting spammy / paid links,

Perhaps that should read "Google is STILL not particularly good ..."

Although it may be ... as a previous poster said ... that Google is being a little cautious with the changes they made earlier this month and they may unleash the beast now that they have been embarrassed.


 6:38 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

NYT should have run the article through some good search expert. The article claims "dresses" are searched 11.4 million times a month, per Google keyword tool and deduced how many visitors would have reached JCP through that phrase. But that is the broad match. Exact match makes it only 246,000, way below what it has estimated.


 6:45 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Would it be really that hard for Google to simply follow the pattern that (If x site gets x amount of links with the anchor text "keyword" in a "x" period if time, the threshold is met and there-fore a filter applies?")

I would have thought by now Googlebot should be able to follow patterns like the above equation. To what extent a filter needs to come into play.. is the question.


 7:01 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

If x site gets x amount of links with the anchor text "keyword" in a "x" period if time

There are instances where this broad-brush approach should not be used. Such as an upcoming sporting event. The official website usually gets hoards of links with almost same anchor in a short span of time. Contrary to filtering that site out, it has to be placed at No.1 position.


 7:13 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Yeah I know it would be extreme and would have to be alot more complex than that, it's why I don't envy their job -- as finding the balance isn't an easy one with the such huge reliance on the weight of links in Google's algorithm.

In my my dream world, I simply wouldn't weight blog and/or "article" links. ;)

Now back to the real world.


 7:44 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

and would have to be alot more complex than that

But your example makes the point that a huge spike in activity to a particular site should at least trigger a review, without having to be told about it via the New York Times. It begs the question: How many similar examples does Google miss because some third party is not letting them know?



 8:56 am on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

They might have been penalised by Google, but they still rank very well in Bing for some of those terms which I tried.


 12:43 pm on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

After all of this, I think folks know where to go now to report spam since the link doesn't work in Google. Now you can use the NYT Report Spam procedure. Much more effective and definitely a lot more fun.


 3:29 pm on Feb 14, 2011 (gmt 0)


Was just going to say something exactly to this point. In order to get big issues addressed by Google, maybe we all need to start lobbying NYT and other major periodicals to write more articles about specific problems and examples. Get your PR teams ready!

This 158 message thread spans 6 pages: < < 158 ( 1 2 [3] 4 5 6 > >
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