I just see a lot of red flags from this whole episode.
1. Google says they never manually manipulate the ranks (for better or worse), but this just seems like a false statement (but maybe not, read on). If they manually de-value a sites rankings, there is no reason to think they dont manually increase the value of a client who spends 7 figures+ a month on adwords. We don't know if they manually dinked JCP as many state in this wonderful thread.
2. (see #4 before responding) This is soooo bringing back the google bombing potential. Albeit on a small scale. As some have said. Lets find someone ranking higher than us, send them all these "black hat" links then report them to the "spam police". Of course all companies will deny authorizing these types of links (just like JCP did) but hey, now your site will get manually dinked. Even though, as stated in #1, we are told rankings aren't manually adjusted.
3. The "we are really that good" scenario - Perhaps google did NOT manually dink JCP. Perhaps they are really that good and their new algorithm lowered JCP on it's own. It's a plausible scenario.
4. Now let us assume #3 is accurate and its truly an automated algorithm that has adjusted JCPs rankings. If one was to study the way JCP went from the pole position to 50+ on average, we could in theory apply these same type of links to a competitor and let the algorithm auto-magically lower our competitors rankings. Right?
5. FEAR -- Google loves loves loves this nyt article. They want all site owners to be quaking in their boots. But lets face it, most of the top ranking sites are BS web2.0 landing pages, or EMD's, and the like blasted to kingdom come with "black hat" back links even after this is done. They were yesterday, last week, last month, last year and so on.
And they will be tomorrow right next to the big SEO wallet sites buying links.