90 Days Later, J.C. Penney Regains Its Google Rankings

table-linens

J.C. Penney appears to be back in Google’s good graces after a 90-day penalty that removed the retailer from appearing prominently in Google’s search results for both short- and long-tail phrases.

The company has regained first- and second-page rankings on a number of terms that were mentioned in a New York Times exposé of Penney’s search rankings and the tactics used to get them — tactics that violated Google’s guidelines.

Two recent reports offer visual evidence of J.C. Penney’s return to Google’s good graces:

jcp-seoclarity

First, SEO Clarity says it’s been tracking more than 2,000 JCP-related keywords. As you see on the chart above, the company jumped from 24 keywords in Google’s top ten on May 10th to 899 keywords in the top ten. (See the green line.) The chart also shows JCP increasing its number of Top 3 and Top Position keywords.

jcp-searchmetrics

Second, Searchmetrics shared a chart last week showing J.C. Penney’s return to visibility in their proprietary “Organic Performance Index.”

J.C. Penney’s Keywords & Rankings

The New York Times article specifically listed close to a dozen keywords on which J.C. Penney had been ranking before they contacted Google and showed Google what they were planning to write about. The article points out, for example, that JCP ranked No. 1 for “Samsonite carry on luggage” — ahead of the official Samsonite website — then dropped to No. 71 when Google applied its penalty. Likewise, JCP dropped from No. 1 to No. 68 for the phrase “living room furniture.”

But, after doing Google searches this morning for all of the phrases mentioned in the Times’ article, the search results seem to confirm the reports above. Here’s a look at current rankings for the terms that the Times mentioned:

Back on Page 1: “skinny jeans,” “comforter sets,” “table cloths,” “grommet top curtains,” “samsonite carry on luggage,” and “living room furniture”

Back on Page 2: “dresses,” “bedding,” and “area rugs”

It’s not all wine-and-roses yet for JCP, though. Based on my searching, the company hasn’t cracked the top 50 yet for “furniture” — one of the terms that the Times said JCP was “at or near the top in searches.”

What Did J.C. Penney Do?

As the Times reported back in February, J.C. Penney immediately fired its search marketing firm, SearchDex. JCP also said it would work to remove the paid links that violated Google’s guidelines. Indeed, all of the links that the Times listed are now gone.

But, SEO Clarity’s report also mentions that J.C. Penney is in the process of rewriting all of its URLs. Older, short URLs — like this one, http://www.jcpenney.com/products/Cga30839.jsp, for “skinny jeans” — now redirect to JCP’s home page. The new URL for “skinny jeans” is much longer and not so SEO-friendly:

http://www.jcpenney.com/jcp/XGN.aspx?DeptID=70656&CatID=71641&SO=0&Ne=29+3+1011+593+8+1031+586+18+904+833+949 &shopperType=G&N=4294953666+4294951278&Nao=0&PSO=0&x5view=1 &CmCatId=70656|71641&SelDim=1011~

Coincidentally, all of JCP’s regained rankings continue to show the older, shorter URLs:

skinny-jeans

That seems to suggest that J.C. Penney hasn’t regained its search visibility based on Google recrawling its content and any automated changes, but instead based on the lifting of JCP’s manual penalty.

And it was just a couple months ago that Google officially explained how and when ranking penalties are removed — including the fact that manual penalties are often put in place for a fixed length of time.

In J.C. Penney’s case, it looks like that penalty was 90 days. We contacted Google for comment and/or confirmation that JCP’s penalty had been lifted, but got no reply.

UPDATE, May 25: During a live webchat, Google’s Matt Cutts confirmed that J.C. Penney’s penalty was lifted after 90 days. See our full story here.

J.C. Penney store image via Flickr user “vanherdehaage”, used under Creative Commons license.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Link Building: General | Link Building: Paid Links | SEO: Spamming | Top News

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • dstiehr

    wow, I can’t decide what is more frustrating: that they made their way to the top initially through the use of such obvious link-buying, or the fact that they now have a strong position with a poorly-written title tag and a poorly-written URL that takes the user to an irrelevant page upon click-through. you’d think there’d be a fresh crawl after the penalty was lifted that would have devalued a result like this.

  • http://www.jongo-webagentur.de D.J.T.

    Hope Google will answer your question to them. Interesting thing. With a 90day penality it seems they got manually back to the results cause of improving the things the turned wrong. Will be interesting.

  • Matt McGee

    It looks like this is a completely manual return — the penalty was 90 days, it’s over, and now they’re back. That’s why it still shows the old URLs.

    So, when the next round of crawling and indexing happens, I would suspect that these rankings will disappear again due to the URL change, lack of inbound links, and other regular SEO factors.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    The penalty really didn’t matter. JC Penney’s online sales earnings for the 1st quarter increased 6.6% over 1st quarter 2010.

  • http://www.jaankanellis.com Jaan Kanellis

    Why would they “hire” someone to build out brand new URLs like that? Why new URLs to begin with?

  • http://www.ikonetic.net Chas Blackford

    A compete.com traffic comparison versus Gap and Macy’s doesn’t show that their traffic took any big hit post Google penalty. The post-holidays.dip mirrors their competitors.
    http://siteanalytics.compete.com/jcpenney.com+gap.com+macys.com/

  • http://www.strongwords.ca Jim Huinink

    Is this a matter of getting off easy because you’re famous (like, say, Paris Hilton)? Or does every penalized site that outright flaunts Google’s policy get the same period of “time out” (as Matt Cutts has called it)?

  • Matt McGee

    Jaan – I’m not 100% positive, but I believe the short URLs were part and parcel from the SearchDex platform/methodology, so when they fired SearchDex, the platform went away, too. But again, I’m not 100% positive on that.

  • http://www.epiphanysolutions.co.uk/blog/author/malcolm-slade Malcolm Slade

    Nice post Matt in that it again shows evidence of this 90 day penalty. I spoke with Maile Ohye from Google a while back after a conference about the sheer range of penalties available to Google from page to domain to keyword and the whole 90, 180 etc.

    It would seem that JCPenney have used their 90 day window to address the source of the issue (let’s face it they couldn’t do much more than fire their agency and attempt to remove the dodgy links) and Google has forgiven them.

    I like you am waiting to see what happens once those new URLs get indexed. I am predicting a “bye bye” to rankings unless they can do some redirecting and overall tiding. The new URL’s are shocking.

    Would have been nice to see the impact of the new URLs being indexed first but I guess we can’t have everything.

    Love you work

    Malcolm Slade
    SEO Project Manager
    Epiphany Solutions Limited.

  • Ian Howells

    @Michael Martinez – You’re talking about a top-line increase, right? They may have paid 25% more for those sales vs Q1 2010 and taken a substantial net loss year over year.

    @Jim Huinink – I’ve seen sites in the past get hit with penalties that lasted exactly 90 days, and they were *far* from famous. It’s pretty standard procedure to have a site penalty be for a defined period of time, especially if the penalty was connected to off-site issues instead of content stuffing, cloaking, etc.

    @Matt – Good article. I can anecdotally confirm your explanation of the shirt URLs leaving when SearchDex got fired. Naturally I can’t say with 100% certainty, but the URL masking is part of what SearchDex does, so it stands to reason their termination is the reason behind it.

  • http://webmd.com roseberry

    Hey Matt – Not so sure you’ll see these URLs disappear immediately (at least without some intervention). Looks like before they set up all the redirects to the home page, they disallowed crawling to all /products/ pages in their robots.txt. So GoogleBot isn’t crawling to see the 301s and dropping them from the index – so now they keep on getting traffic. And that’s why all the titles/descriptions disappeared. If they didn’t have this disallow set I don’t think they would’ve gotten any of the rankings back for these pages. Brilliant! (though I’m sure this wasn’t done intentionally)

    # robots.txt file for http://www.jcpenney.com

    User-agent: *
    Disallow: /products/

  • Matt McGee

    Interesting – nice find there on the robots.txt.

  • http://www.sallymellinger.com SallyMellinger

    It’d be interesting to see a blog post about how the JCPenney rocked the SOPs of SEO agencies out there. How are SEO agencies catering to the fears of big corporate clients? Are most corporation bring SEO in house now in order to have better control? Just curious…

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    @Ian Howells: “You’re talking about a top-line increase, right? ”

    No. I’m talking about their reported net Internet sales increase. Any costs have already been factored out. They grew their sales year-over-year AND their profit.

    With respect to the impact on JC Penney’s revenue, the Google penalty was a non-issue. And, in fact, investors appear to have understood that as the penalty did not adversely affect the stock price.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/mikegracen Mike Gracen

    I’m curious to know if/how much Penney increased their Adwords monthly spend during the 90 day penalty period.

  • SEO 33

    Very wrong signal to search insdustry removing the penalty so fast, I was in this week telling my company about J.C Penney Penalty in order to deter my bosses from buying links to find a short cut instead of a long term strategy.

  • http://www.andrew-bernhardt.com/ Andrew Bernhardt

    I’m really surprised to see that they aren’t redirecting the urls to their newer versions. Pretty dumb. And you would think they would have proper SEO support after all of the linking issues. The redirect issues are going to affect their rankings soon. Redirecting them all to the home works but does not seem like the best option to retain the gained rankings.

  • Kumail Hemani

    Amazing Article!

    I think Google didn’t remove the penalty on JC Penny, may be they had removed the paid links and all the stuff which violates the Google guidelines

  • http://gregorystringer.wordpress.com Grannelle

    I find it interesting that the word “penalty” seems to be used by almost everyone except the guy that imposed it.

    Even more intriguing that JC P has long been a heavily invested advertiser w/ Big G, even before the debacle, and I have to wonder if 90 days would be all the “penalty” the average joe would receive for the magnitude of egregiousness commited. If not, does this then cast dispersions on the fairness of such “penalties”?

  • http://www.highrankings.com/seoservicestwitter Jill Whalen

    Google is ridiculous.

    They’re ranking pages for highly competitive keywords, which are robots.txt’d out, redirected and have thousands of spammy links pointing to them.

    How much worse could they be?

  • http://www.highrankings.com/seoservicestwitter Jill Whalen

    Matt Cutts just said on his live #askmatt show that these pages just haven’t worked there way out of the system yet. But I’m not sure that really makes sense. Why did they just start showing up again?

  • http://www.highrankings.com/seoservicestwitter Jill Whalen

    Okay, now Matt just confirmed that the penalty has been lifted.

  • Ian Howells

    @Jill As a shot in the dark, I’d guess they found their way back because they were never “out” at an logarithmic level. Totally manual penalty, applied at either the domain or page level. Once that lifts, it goes back to the algo-defined results which have them more or less as strong as ever.

    Also, the fact that robots.txt blocked and non-existent pages rank well brings up a point about on-page SEO. If you’ve got the domain authority and the links, you can get anything – even a blocked redirect – to rank in Google. After a certain level, on-page SEO can (almost) be totally disregarded.

    Also, the idea that they weren’t “worked out of the system” because they weren’t crawled is total BS. If they weren’t crawled since being blocked/redirected then Google would still be displaying the old Title/Description tags in the SERP result. They have to have been crawled for the SERP to look the way that it did in the above screenshot.

    @Michael Martinez – Got it, thanks for clarifying. Still, though – we’ve no way of saying where those sales came from. That could be a big testament to their PPC team, email team, display team, etc. That level of increased effort in other areas + their old rankings would have meant even more revenue. They made up the SEO gap, but that certainly doesn’t mean it “didn’t matter”. Simply missed revenue vs. lost revenue.

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