New York Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google

Today, the New York Times published an article about a search engine optimization investigation of  J.C. Penney. Perplexed by how well did in unpaid (organic) search results for practically everything the retailer sold, they asked someone familiar with the world of search engine optimization (SEO) to look into it a bit more. The investigation found that thousands of seemingly unrelated web sites (many that seemed to contain only links) were linking to the J.C. Penney web site. And most of those links had really descriptive anchor text. It was almost like someone had arranged for all of those links in order to get better rankings in Google.

The New York Times presented their findings to Google. Googler Matt Cutts, head of webspam, confirmed that the tactics violated the Google webmaster guidelines and shortly after, the J.C. Penney web site was nowhere to found for the queries they had previously ranked number one for. Matt tweeted that “Google’s algorithms had started to work; manual action also taken”.

Matt Cutts: JC Penney

J.C. Penney, when contacted by the New York Times, said that they didn’t know anything about the links and promptly fired their SEO firm, SearchDex.

So where did J.C. Penney go wrong? Why did they do it? What have they lost? And how do they get it back? Read on to learn more and make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

“Link Schemes” and the Google Webmaster Guidelines

The web is big. Like more than a trillion pages big. When a searcher types a couple of words into the search box, Google has to be able to sort through all the pages on the web and show the searcher the ones that are the most relevant to the search, as well as the most useful. That’s a tough challenge. Google uses hundreds of signals to figure this out in an automated way. Historically, the link graph has factored fairly heavily into these relevance and value algorithms.

Google was launched on a foundation of PageRank: the idea that people link to things they like and find valuable, so a page with a lot of links to it is probably more useful than a page without very many links. How people link comes into play too. If a bunch of links to a page use the anchor text “watch the latest episode of Glee online”, then it’s reasonable to assume that the page being linked to has a video of the TV show Glee. (Note: Google has evolved well beyond this simplistic explanation as the web itself has evolved.)

Over time, as site owners realized how valuable it was to rank well in Google search results, some began hatching “link schemes”. Rather than just hope people find our content valuable enough to link to and raise awareness of the content through traditional marketing techniques, how about we just make a deal and agree to link to each other? We both get links with the anchor text of queries we want to rank for and everyone’s happy!

Everyone, that is, except Google. And searchers. Because these types of back room deals break the PageRank algorithm, which was based on a link equating to someone finding the content valuable. With a link exchange, the link simply equates to a deal being made. Less useful results could rise to the top, causing the search results to be of lower quality.

Hence, the Google webmaster guidelines, which at their core say this: our algorithms are meant to surface the best possible results to searchers. If you try to manipulate those algorithms, we might lower your site’s rankings or take your site out of our index entirely.

Matt Cutts manages a very large team dedicated to finding violations to the guidelines and then refining the algorithms to catch them in a wide swath as well as manually remove sites or lower their rankings.

Paid Links

What if you want a bunch of links to get to the top of the rankings quickly but you don’t want to link back (maybe because you think exchanging links would be too obvious to Google and you’d get caught or because you don’t want your site to lose credibility with visitors by linking to a bunch of random, irrelevant sites)? Why not just buy links? Note that buying links for PageRank purposes is very different from buying online advertising. Advertising links generally include code that cause them to be seen differently by search engines so that they’re not counted like editorial links would be. As you might imagine, Google doesn’t like links purchased for PageRank manipulation any more than they like link exchanges.

You can read more about both of these kinds of links directly from Google:

Why Do Organizations Purposely Violate the Guidelines?

If all of this artificial linking is against the Google webmaster guidelines and could get a site removed from the index, wouldn’t sites that rely on unpaid search traffic be very careful that they adhere to the guidelines? You would think. And most do.

But some companies think they can outsmart Google. They think they won’t get caught. They see that it works for competitors. They try it and it works for them too. So they say think well, the guidelines say not to do it, but it works! I’m getting more traffic and sales than ever! Why would I stop?

In other cases (as seems to be the case with J.C. Penney), a company hires the wrong search engine optimization firm — one that that engage in tactics that violate the guidelines (and guidelines involving linking are only a small part). Firms that implement these types of tactics want to show the client results quickly. Most of them think they won’t get caught. A few of the more unscrupulous ones don’t care. They figure they’ll collect their money and move on. If the site in question gets burned later, that won’t impact the SEO firm.

High search rankings for targeted queries can be very valuable to companies. We at Search Engine Land talked to the New York Times reporter who wrote this story while he was researching just how valuable a number one ranking really is. It’s impossible to pin that down exactly, but it’s certainly the case that most of us use search engines for product research and many of us make those purchases online. A recent PEW Internet study found that 88% of online Americans who make over $75,000 a year conduct online product research and 81% purchase products and services online. Google released some data just before the holidays that indicated that nearly 90% of consumers research online. Many of them then buy online, whereas others then buy at a store.

Google Retail Advertising Blog Stats

Undoubtedly, J.C. Penney found that ranking well for so many queries over the holiday season helped them with both online and offline sales. A spokesperson downplayed this, saying that just seven percent of traffic to the site comes from unpaid search results. But between online sales and online research that drove buyers into the stores, it’s likely all of this visibility was indeed valuable.

The trouble is that generally, these tactics don’t work forever. And if you’re basing your business on them, you’re building on a shaky foundation that could cause things to come crashing down at any moment.

What Happened with J.C. Penney?

Doug Pierce, who worked with New York Times to uncover what was happening with J.C. Penney (and wrote about his experience) found that the site had a LOT of links pointing to it. From peculiar sites. With very descriptive anchor text. You can see this for yourself using free online tools. Take, for instance, a search for [comforter sets]. Bing still ranks J.C. Penney as the second unpaid result:

Bing Comforter Set SERP

Yahoo Site Explorer shows that 774 pages link to that URL:

Yahoo Site Explorer: Comforter

Music teams? Piano players for hire? Car modification? Why would those sites link to a J.C. Penney page listing comforter sets for sale? Open Site Explorer shows that the anchor text from these random pages is amazingly descriptive:

Open Site Explorer

The likeliest answer here is that someone (J.C. Penney possibly suspects their SEO firm, since they quickly fired them) bought into a paid link network. (J.C. Penney said they would work to get these links removed and indeed many of them are already.)

Branko Rihtman ran some of the URLs through Majestic SEO‘s link reporting tool and found that it appears that links were acquired in two bursts that coincided with the holiday seasons at the end of 2009 and 2010. (This graph aligns with the statement from Matt Cutts that the recent paid links campaign seems to have been running for the last three to four months.) Below are trends of new links (from pages and domains) to that comforter sets page just before the 2009 and 2010 holiday seasons.

Comforter Sets: Majestic SEO

What Is the Impact?

Doug Pierce said it was “the most ambitious attempt [of link spamming he's] ever heard of”.  Sadly, it’s not the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of. When I worked at Google managing Webmaster Central (where the webmaster guidelines reside), I saw this kind of thing all of the time. And I saw the impact it had first hand. Now that I’m no longer at Google, I regularly field emails and phone calls from companies, large and small, panicked because they’ve lost their major source of revenue due to lost rankings in Google. More than one company has told me they’d have to close down entirely if they weren’t able to get their traffic from Google back (and a site can’t always get its rankings back). I showed the following slide at a keynote I gave recently, showing the impact it can have on a site’s traffic to violate the guidelines:


When I caution companies against tactics that violate the guidelines, they sometimes say that I’m being a goody goody or as an ex-Googler simply have strong allegiance to Google. Some tell me that they have an obligation to use all of the tools available to them to gain an audience and revenue. But the truth is just that I’ve seen too many analytics reports with traffic down and to the right. And I feel my obligation is to help  companies build sustainable audiences and revenue.

Building a long term search strategy that adheres to the search engine guidelines may mean that it takes longer before you start seeing traffic from search engines, but that traffic is not at risking of drying up at any moment.

What If This Happens to You?

The best scenario is not to go down the path of manipulating search engine algorithms, but instead focus on solid search acquisition principles (building a site search engines can access, creating content your audience wants, raising awareness of that content…). Take care when hiring a search engine optimization firm. You want a firm who will work with you to improve your site and content. If the firm says you don’t need to be involved or won’t give you specifics on how they work, be wary. (Google has some tips on hiring an SEO firm.)

But it still can be tough. SearchDex devotes an entire page of their site to their adherence to the webmaster guidelines, including a statement that “SearchDex does not support link scheme architectures”. (To be clear, I have no knowledge on whether or not they were involved with the placement of the links.)

But if you find that you’ve lost your search traffic and that a likely cause is a violation of the webmaster guidelines, the first thing you should do is fix everything. Review your site and make sure nothing suspicious remains. Then log into Google Webmaster Tools and file a reconsideration request. (Note, if you have a Webmaster Tools account, Google may let you know when they’ve found violations on your site and give you a chance to fix them.) In the request form, explain everything that happened and how you fixed it. Google will manually review the situation and if they find that everything is cleaned up, they may let you back in.

What’s Going to  Happen to

They’ve started cleaning up the links so as long as no other problems remain (Doug Pierce, who helped the New York Times with the investigation noted at least two other issues that will need to be fixed), the following will likely happen:

  • Any lowered rankings due to algorithmic factors will likely continue as these algorithms find these kinds of links and ensuring they aren’t sending value signals. Matt Cutts told the New York Times that this change impacted how Google trusts links.
  • Any manual actions that have lowered their rankings will likely be manually be removed once everything is cleaned up.

The New York Times article points out that Google has been public about action they’ve taken due to violations guidelines before. In 2006, Matt Cutts posted on his blog about removal of That site was removed entirely from Google, but once BMW fixed things, they were let back in.

Does this mean that will start ranking number one for all of those searches again? Probably not. For instance, the New York Times article notes that the site was number one for [samsonsite carry on luggage] and has dropped to 78. It was number one in part due to all of those links. It’s 78 due to Google’s action. Its “real” ranking is somewhere in between and that’s likely where it will end up once the smoke clears.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

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


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • Jeff Yablon

    Vanessa, that was a great piece, talking about a (very!) real problem.

    Allow me to share a story:

    Last spring, I did a test on an SEO technique that I hypothesized Google might not be able to find. I did it on my own web site; I would never do such a thing on client’s site.

    The short of it is that I embedded a 6×9 pixel transparent graphic on one page on my web site. That’s exactly the size of one text character, and by putting it in-line in place of about a dozen characters I was able to create a dozen invisible graphics that needed names. So I named them in a way that was designed to attract traffic.

    It took about three months, and then Google found the trick. And all ranking for ANYTHING on my site went into the toilet. I mean, for real; not only did all ranking disappear, but I run filters that look across the web for mentions of certain phrases, and even though those phrases continued to be used in new writing on our site, Google wouldn’t see them at all. I mean, TOTAL site-non-grata status.

    We removed the graphics and their tags. We apologized to Google. After 90 days they put us back in the index.

    As I said, I’d never do this with a client; the test was (mostly) a test, and I injected myself with what turned out to be poison. But unscrupulous SEO types do it on client sites all the time . . . making those among us who are clean look dirty.

    Sad, sad story.

  • brentnau

    I noticed that JCPennys was in a large Paid link buying mode back in early 2010. Why does it take a NYT article for Google to do something. Apparently there is a huge flaw in the algorithm for this to be going on for almost two years without any reprecusions to until now. Same thing with the eye wear company at the end of last year.

  • http://JamestheJust JamestheJust

    With Penney’s being as large a firm as they are, you would expect 100′s of links to a given page (Amazon, anyone?), so surely quantity of links is a moot point.

    Trying to distill the entire analysis here, correct me if I’m wrong, but relevance seems to be the big deal?

    Also: ranking #1 for targeted terms – who wouldn’t expect Penney’s or another company to optimize their links and promote their site? That’s just business. I can’t blame them for that (optimizing their anchors).

    Nor can I blame them for promoting their site by hiring an SEO firm. Solid piece, Vanessa, just trying to understand the fine line. Again, it seems to boil down to relevance – I can’t see that optimizing anchor texts goes against the grain of “do no evil.”

    Then again, I found the piece because Matt Cutts Tweeted it. Nuff said, I guess. :)

  • Vanessa Fox

    James, how does one go about optimizing anchor text when those links reside on sites one doesn’t own?

    The ways to do this that do adhere to the webmaster guidelines include things like: titling your pages with words you’d like people to use when they link to you.

    But buying the links so that you control exactly what that anchor text is does not adhere to the webmaster guidelines. There’s no fine line here. Getting links by paying for them or being involved in link exchanges is against the guidelines.

  • http://JamestheJust JamestheJust

    Fair enough, Vanessa, and thanks for the definition. I’m wondering two things at this point:

    1) Why does the story appear before an ad to “Text Link Ads” (not in your control, but ironic considering)?

    2) Would there be a difference if Penney’s had a ton of web 2.0 sites, articles on the FFA sites, etc. – and they did optimize that way?

    Does the payment of the link make the difference, because they could theoretically do the same thing for free, leveraging the free for alls. I’m curious, not challenging your suppositions, btw.

    [Guess who needs to read the Webmaster rules...? :) ]

  • Brian Young

    What I want to know is how they’re even certain that it was SearchDex’s doing. JCP is a huge site, and anyone could potentially link to them. In fact, before Google updated it TOS and algorithm, it was blackhat SEOs prerogative to send spammy links to a site with the purpose of getting it de-indexed. Who’s to say that this wasn’t the case here?

    Granted, probable cause is enough to warrant that it might as well have been SD’s doing. A website that large doesn’t seem like it could possibly get the attention to detail of a smaller one. But as James mentioned, this could have been done without the purchasing of links. I do want to know why this case makes it different, and why for a fact Google specifically did this when their own TOS says links will not harm your SERPs.

  • Vanessa Fox

    The key thing to links that adhere to the webmaster guidelines is that they are editorially given. It’s not payment specifically — it’s anything other than someone deciding independently to link to a page.

    It’s not against the guidelines to link from one site you own to another site you own. But sites that a company owns tend to be treated like internal links are — which is that having descriptive anchor text is great, but it’s not as a strong a signal as anchor text from someone who isn’t associated with you

  • Vanessa Fox


    Google typically doesn’t take strong action like this just based on paid links alone. When they find paid links, they’ll mostly just devalue them. They’ll only take additional action if they’re really confident that the site is engaging in spammy activity. In this case, they were pretty sure. See Doug’s blog post for more on this:

    Doorway pages were registered by the SEO firm as far as back as 2007 and the jcp pages themselves had spammy elements on them.

    And this case isn’t different. Google takes action on sites large and small all the time. It’s just not normally in the NY Times.

  • Brian Young

    Thanks for the clarification Vanessa. I must have missed the part about the doorway page registration.

  • Jeremy Rupke

    Great read, and also no surprise. If I were heading the SEO for a big company I would focus more on a good online presence with the people who shop at the store and online. Think of the millions of people who shop at J.C Penny, now start thinking of ways to have them link to your content with contests and promotions. All those links from twitter, blogs and facebook would help the pages rank higher and also be seen as referrals from real people. Manipulating one search engine can get you into big trouble, but there isn’t anything wrong with thinking of creative ways to get thousands of honest links from people who love your company.

  • Top Country Songs

    Hi Vanessa,

    Many at home marketers like to use article directories for backlinking. I am talking about Ezine, Article Alley, Buzzle, Postrunner from the The Keyword Academy, etc…

    How do you think Google reacts to these type of backlinks. Matt Cutts always talks about natural backlinks from quality content, but always sidesteps the backlinks from article directories question. Of course there are plenty of black hat link farms set up for backlinking, and JC Penny was obviously using them, but this type of story scares I.M.’ers That are using legit article directories for there backlinking.

  • Jill Whalen

    I must be invisible.

    I pointed this same thing out a few weeks ago in my article “Google (and Bing) Love Anchor Text Spam and was basically ignored.

    Vanessa, I even pointed it out to you and you gave the pat answer on your radio show that Google will catch that sort of thing eventually.

    No they don’t and they wouldn’t.

    Why does it take the NYT to call them out publicly for them to take action? I purposely didn’t name any names (maybe I should have) because I didn’t want a law suit on my hands. Is that what it takes? Call out a company by name?

    The thing is, while JCPenny’s spam was certainly the most egregious because it was from porn sites and all kinds of other crap, the other sites that show up for the same queries are also doing some fishy things as well. What is Google (and Bing) going to do about that? Do they even have the capacity to do anything?

    I don’t think the NYT can just keep outing sites in order to get the search engines to fix their very broken algos. They, in my opinion, need to scale down the weighting of anchor text as that’s the main thing being spammed these days, imo.

  • Vanessa Fox

    Jill, it wasn’t a pat answer. Yes, I’ve also seen link spam with exact match anchor text working for a number of queries. Yes, it frustrates me. Yes, I wish Google’s spam detection algorithms were catching more of it.

    But I also believe what I wrote in the article and what I said on the show. Google does generally catch these things eventually. Believe me, that this stuff gets through frustrates the Google spam team more than it frustrates me and you. They are actively working on it. Will all of it get caught? Maybe not. Will most of it get caught? I think so.

    To say this sort of things never gets caught unless a major media outlet points it out isn’t true at all. This kind of thing gets caught all the time (both manually and algorithmically). I talk to site owners every week who have had their rankings demoted.

    But it can take time. The web is really big. In order to catch this kind of thing in a scalable way, it’s not useful to just play wack-a-mole, looking for individual sites. It’s more effective to work on algorithms that take a bunch of this out at once. A bunch of passionate and smart engineers are *always* working on this.

  • Top Country Songs

    Hi Vanessa,

    So you are not a big fan of using article directories for backlinks?

    Do you consider using Ezine Articles for backlinking Spam?

  • Jill Whalen

    Okay, I’ll change my comment from “never” to “almost never” gets caught.

    Honestly, and sadly, I think link spamming is just too insidious for it to be filtered out at the moment. Since a good majority of sites who do SEO are using this technique, it would probably screw up the search results way too much if the search engines actually did stop counting it.

    The norm for a huge portion of SEO companies is to do some sort of anchor text spamming. But only because it works so well. Beyond JCPenny, the other sites showing up for the search queries (like what I mentioned in my article) are also doing some form of anchor text link spamming.

    Why do they still show up.

    My theory is that the search engines just don’t consider it to be spam. And they didn’t consider JCPenny’s to be spam either. They just got between a rock and a hard place and had to react.

  • JPsmith

    \Almost never\ indeed. Most big name retail sites are still getting away with this and many other similar strategies. There’s even one that has loads of hidden text on its main pages for terms such as \living room furniture\. Surely thats an easy one for you.

    Google’s got a lot of work to do these days.

  • Lilly

    So where exactly is the line for companies that engage in link building activities?

    We know paid links are bad – what about paying for link building? Is that wrong?

    Things like article syndication? Directory submission? Manual link requests? Commenting in forums?

  • Tom Petryshen

    I find it difficult to believe that no one at JC Penny was aware of the agency’s actions. It’s mind blowing to believe that such a large company that spends millions monthly on SEM and significant sums on SEO were oblivious to the work involved.

    From a crisis control standpoint, JC Penny management now need to take action internally to determine where their internal process fell down and ensure they have policies in place to minimise risk in the future.

  • Chris

    I think it often comes to the point of how and why links are being built. I offer a course for new webmasters that deals with several ways to legitimately build links. Google has had a tenuous relationship with directories since it’s inception. Directories offer a service to their customers of pointing out great websites that might not otherwise be found.

    These links can be “bought” but most directories offer nominal fees only if you wish your site to be reviewed for listing more quickly or to be a featured listing placing it higher on it’s category page. From what I’ve seen Google has made several major changes over the last decade attempting to adjust the value of links from these sites as some are high quality, human edited where others are essentially link farms.

    One of the steps I teach new webmasters is to ensure they use these directories correctly and not to dump out tons of directory listings at once so that they can slowly grow their site popularity naturally. In the Alpha testing phase of the course R&D we played a lot with these concepts and had several test sites pushed to page one of Google only to have them disappear without a trace in anywhere from a few days to a few months. The “safely” marketed site is the only one that survived the testing during the Alpha phase.

    My opinion, paid links such as directory listings are fine but abusing any form of advertising or link building should lower the value of that form of link for the offending site.

    Chris Moore – Armor-IT SEO

    Keep up the good work Vanessa, you started a great thread today, I’ll be back

  • DaisySEO

    It is so unbelievable that No one in the Agency ever realized the kind of Black Hat techniques being used

  • Danny Sullivan

    JamesTheJust, the Text Link Ad here is one of several ads that appear in rotation in our right hand column. The ads are sold by our ad department. The editorial content we produced is independent of that. Similarly, if you search on Google for “buying links,” you’ll see plenty of ads for buying links despite this being against Google’s guidelines. Its own “editorial” section is separate from its ad section.

    Suffice to say, the Search Engine Land editorial staff would generally warn anyone against buying paid links. Some of us would say never do it — buying links is just wrong. Some of us would say buying links may violate Google’s guidelines, but ultimately, it’s up to each site owner to decide what they want to do (Google’s wrong isn’t necessarily what everyone agrees to be wrong.”

    Personally, I recommend against buying links, primarily because it’s a risky behavior that can potentially get you banned from Google. I also tend to view it as a sort of cheat into better rankings. However, there are some very long and complicated arguments that then erupt over what’s buying. If some big blogger links to someone because they got a nice gift, is that a bought link? If some big blogger links to a friend, was that a link that was actually earned? We’ve had arguments over this for years. They get tiresome.

    That’s why I tend to stick with the “risky behavior” warning. There’s no argument there. It is risky behavior. And any link broker that doesn’t warn about this is a big failure in my books (and every major link broker I’ve looked at consistently fails to warn — I might do a further write-up about this in the future. I’ve done so in the past). Similarly, any SEO firm that is buying links for a client without telling the client and clearly spelling out the risks also gets a big fail in my books.

    Of course, the bigger the brand, the less impact this will generate. JC Penney can’t be banned permanently by Google. They’ll lose some traffic from some tasty words. But they won’t disappear from the index entirely in the way some small site might get nuked.

    My bottom line is that Google is continuing to fight a losing battle on paid links. They aren’t going away. Google’s tries to turn nofollow into a weapon to deal with them, but that’s not going to help — and in some cases, nofollow is potentially harming search relevancy. The gray areas about what’s a “paid link” sometimes aren’t just people trying to put Google into a corner — they’re often reasonable objections. Google need to find a better way to tell if any link — regardless if its paid link — should get credit.

    That, by the way, is the Bing party link. Bing doesn’t penalize for paid links. You can buy them, if you want. They’ve repeatedly declined to say buying links alone is spamming. Instead, they say they only go after unearned links.

    Of course, they might not actually manage to do that. Meanwhile over at Google, despite all the “we can even find paid links people think are secret,” they didn’t catch them for this case. So I doubt the war on paid links is going to get any better.

  • mary4now

    I don’t completely understand how the jcpenneys-coupons site was a doorway…
    according to wikipedia:

    If a visitor clicks through to a typical doorway page from a search engine results page, in most cases they will be redirected with a fast Meta refresh command to another page. Other forms of redirection include use of Javascript and server side redirection, either through the .htaccess file or from the server configuration file.

    All the site had was links and it would make sense for a website which legitimately offers coupons for jcpenneys to have links to jcpenneys.

    If having a site which offers coupons which links to the site the coupons are for is wrong – I really really dont understand what’s going on. Would making the links on the site nofollow make them okay? or are merchants not allowed to offer coupons? or are they not allowed to offer coupons and link to their primary website at all?

  • andrewholladay

    While certainly an unfortunate story, this level of publicity is good for white hat SEOs. Its difficult to sell a service where, by knowing what NOT to do, an SEO firm can protect the current $10s of millions you are currently making off Google. The knowledge of knowing what NOT to do, is in many cases, arguably more valuable than the incremental growth an SEO firm might produce. Hard to charge hourly for NOT doing something.

  • Michael Martinez

    @mary4now: “I don’t completely understand how the jcpenneys-coupons site was a doorway…
    according to wikipedia:”

    Well, Wikipedia is a pretty rotten source of information on SEO topics. Doorway pages do NOT have to redirect in order to be doorway pages.

    When I read the article and looked at the coupon site, my first reaction was to ask why it should be deemed a doorway page.

    But the classic definition of a doorway page that *I* have held to is that its only purpose is to pass the visitor through to another site. In the case of the coupon site, that seems to be the only purpose of the blog articles. They don’t add any value to the discussion.

    Do coupons provide value to visitors? Sure, but the coupons were clearly placed as an excuse to hide the fact that the pages were passing anchor text and visitors to the JC Penney site.

    It’s a link-spam site AND a Doorway site.

  • Jim Rudnick


    agreed….and users of this kind of SEO tactics deserve what is handed out for using same, eh!



  • cataclysm1987

    The scariest thing about spam is that it works and is almost impossible to detect.

    If the links are entirely one way, how easy would it be to simply point these links at your competitors, then report them for link spamming?

    If Google makes it easy to ban me for link spamming, Google will also have to make it easy to allow me to get YOU banned for link spamming.

    Then all I have to do is build shady link farms and attack your site with black hat links and say you’re the one responsible.

    Lather, rinse, repeat until all my competitors are gone and I am number 1.

    Google should focus more on ignoring these links than banning people for them.

    Ignoring them makes it difficult for the spammers to win in either situation. If you spend 100 dollars building thousands of complete garbage links then your rankings don’t move, you are getting hurt by wasting time and money.

    And if you spent that money pointing it at someone else’s site, you are wasting money again when it doesn’t change their rankings.

    Google will have to learn sooner or later that this is the only long term way to win with link spamming. Everything else will just result in massive Google bowling, which, by the way, is completely hilarious and entirely Google’s fault for allowing it to happen!!

  • gmtruckclub

    Thanks for more background on this story, I was wondering how the NY Times got interested in the story. My guess was that they got tipped off by a White hat competitor and that launched a way to embarras JCP and drop their SEO at the same time.

    I used to manage in-house SEO for Blockbuster, and SearchDex (and about 200 other SEO firms) approached me with this type of strategy, but never with the sheer volume of links from so many crappy PR1 sites.

  • RackNine

    The bottom line is that using Black Hat SEO to increase your rankings on search engines will ultimately achieve the opposite effect, maybe not immediately, but as soon as you get caught (and you will get caught eventually, harbor no doubts about it), your website will be immediately pushed down on the search results, or what’s even worse, blacklisted from search engines’ indexes.

  • Bill Scott

    Hi Vanessa ,
    How you doing?
    Yep amazing that those 1999 linking schemes work in 2011

    Did you read the comment by a former Searchdex employee? It is really no surprise fast sports cars and greed played a part ! here is the link

  • B-Double-U

    Here is my Next Question.

    When is Google going to take action against the the largest retailer ( for their blatant violations of Google guidelines? They take content and products from many different retailers out there and simply republish it in the Google Base Feeds. This is a black and white, blatant violation of their policy where it clearly states that:
    Affiliates, cataloged drop-shipping programs, and multi-level marketing The promotion of affiliate or pay-per-click links, products sold through a commission-based relationship, or sites that bulk list products fulfilled through drop-ship consolidators is not allowed. This includes item pages that are made up almost entirely of advertisements, or pages where advertisements obstruct the view of the submitted product. The promotion of multi-level marketing (MLM) business products is also not permitted, such as businesses that recruit members and offer them rewards for recruiting others and/or selling services
    Amazon clearly uses a commission based relationship. I would love to be able to do this and this is poised perfectly for a huge class action lawsuit. I wonder who’s light bulb is going to go off on this one ;)

  • Mabuzi

    This is quite easily done.
    I have a competitor that has created a industry related directory and uses all links from companies that register as back links. When you are larger than your competitor yet it has 10 000 more links than you, you do a little digging.

    The algorythm is definelty flawed as it took me 2 minutes to find this information.

  • hansakoch

    This only shows how much Link Buying actually WORKS and is hard to flag…

  • hansakoch

    Feels like the old Click Fraud days…

  • craigsmith33

    Great post!

    I personally think that Google is going to hurt their index with making these actions pubic in the long run, as this article has helped to promote the tactic of competitive link espionage.

    If all it takes is a “dirty” backlink profile to drop competitors in the rankings, then why wouldn’t high profile companies try and pry their competitors down in the indexes by linking to their domains via questionable tactics?

    Lets say a aggressive retailer sends an automated script/bot to try and spam sites with COMPETITOR links in the HTML.

    How could Google ever decipher the fact that that one link scheme is published within malicous intent from a competitor versus a shady effort to improve rankings?

    Its not possible. There is no solution. And now with this added visibility and more people likely to engage, I see this process getting worse. Link Spam 3.0

    Instead of the traditional link value algo, I see Google leaning on the social graph to decipher quality. People don’t pass crap to their friends.

    FB and Twitter links both are obviously “no-followed” today, meaning they don’t influence algorithms. I’m starting to think we wont be caring much about the no-follow tag in 3 years the way this is shaking out…

  • Steve Scott

    IN a way it is sort of cool to see a major player like JC Penney get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. but you have to wonder if anything would’ve really been done if New York Times had not exposed their SEO misconduct


    Anytime people are given the opportunity to cheat they cheat. Look at pro sports. It has a serious problem with rampant cheating. Sports and Google search involve lots of money. From performance enhancers to point rigging. They both have it. Remember the New England Patriots cheating scandal? People come with up new ways to cheat systems everyday that are designed to be unbeatable.

    In my opinion this is why some weaker keywords shouldn’t give links to much staying power. It would also even the playing field more for the little guys and create more competition. Filters are more bad then good when you got people cheating like this.

  • Fionn Downhill

    Oh I am so tired of it. I wrote about the Google spam in July 2010 when Graywolf did his test.
    We all know that you should not break Googles guidelines. But what happens when a site is breaking every rule in the book like for example, to hurt innocent companies and rank for branded terms using reports that are often false and slanderous. They have been outed on SEOMOZ and on Google’s own Webmaster forum and nothing gets done. So you have to get the NYT to write about it to get Google’s attention. I see then I will write to the NYT lets see if they take any notice.

  • breezotoo

    I have always felt that like the old management maxim – “you get what you measure” is the principle involved.

    Everybody tries to figure out Google’s algorithm and then works to meet their requirements.
    The more successful folks are the more Google wants to Slap them…
    Black Hat techniques are probably right on the money – hence Google outlaws them.

    I mostly find when I am doing a ‘real work’ on ‘interest ‘ search – its pure crud that tops the first 5 or even the first page on Google.

    So maybe Google’s 24,000 had better work harder or they’ll be working for a Black Hat!

  • Ryan Johnson

    Wouldn’t the next logical step be to see what kind of SEO work was done for these other clients? If it shows the JC Penny was the isolated incident and everything else was white hat wouldn’t that clue us in as to there is more behind this?

    I really think this couldn’t have played out any better for JC Penny… they capitalized on their results during the holiday peak season and now they pretty much got a get out of jail free card by “Blaming it on the SEO”

    Google made a token gesture with the manual, but in a couple months JC Penny will recover further ahead in SEO thanks to press on this…

    Let’s assume that I’m their SEO guy and they come to me and say their industry is in troubled waters and it’s pretty much painted as a do or die scenario. Well desperation gives way to desperate actions (maybe they didn’t even have to be all that desperate, just cunning instead) but in order to meet their needs I have to be a miracle worker of black hat proportions.

    They hired SearchDex some 3/4 yeas ago and now they black hat it?

    Well look at the economy and see that companies aren’t just biding for money and survival, but also market share. What better time to sucker punch a market?

    2007/8 about 3/4 years ago the economy tanks through the holiday season. Markets getting rough, time to start looking for higher ground.
    – SearchDex hired

    2008 things were a mess, market continued to decline. Any white hat efforts just wouldn’t meet the immediacy a company faces in such an environment.

    2008/2009 Holiday Season – Market hits rock bottom… but for the year of 2009 we saw recovery… half way through that year JC Penny’s competitor Nordstroms began to recovering generating quite a lead in the market place. JC Penny’s was losing market share to Nordstrom’s and that would have given JC Penny’s good reason to consider desperate measures.

    On the eve of 2010 Nordstrom’s stock had recovered to the level it was at 4 years before. However, JC Penny’s stock was only about half of their 2005 value…

    For these companies the first quarter was growth with JC Penny’s lagging behind. In the article it was noted that one of the paid links had shown up in April 2010 and as mentioned, black hat seo link schemes are usually best rolled out methodically over time. In either case, we can note that the acts of black hat happened no later than April 2010 and that the long game approach was methodical.

    2 years of holiday seasons plagued by economic doubt and another getting schooled by Nordstrom’s I’m willing to guess that that was the last straw, future be damned, we’ll beat Nordstrom online, or else…

    So I don’t think it was the money at all but the fact that retailers have their 1 big season each year for the holidays and JC Penny’s was in 3rd place to Macy’s and Nordstrom’s all of 2010. The motive was market share and there was more than enough reasons for JC Penny’s to go ahead with it. But really… blame it on the SEO? What an awesome exit strategy after you already cheated 2/3rds your way through the game and get to keep all the tickets.

    This story breaking did nothing to hurt JC Penny stock which on its own I think is incredibly telling about many things but it’s also interesting that JC Penny’s stock didn’t really go up until the 3rd quarter while their competitors were simply stagnant.

    They claim 6% of their business comes from organic traffic, but we all know the various ways in which Vanessa shows the internet playing a role in buyer behavior. So really they were gambling with 6% to make a run at market share.

    Did they effectively gain any? I don’t think so, they may have gotten money, but operations are what ultimately takes the pot. They lost rankings (their 6%) whatever, they lost their ill-advantaged SEO operation that’s an eye opener… that a company would have an operation set to run itself into the ground (Slumlord behavior).

    JC Penny’s isn’t like some contractor who has one of his son’s friends doing some optimizing for a little extra cash and having him spend some of it on links. JC Penny’s is a corporation with a very defined hierarchy that are paranoid about what they do not know.

    I have a hard time believing that not a single person approximate to that department within JC Penny’s or even anyone for that matter related to those people ever had the curiosity to learn a thing or two about backlinks and snoop a little.

    JC Penny’s has all the motive in the world, nothing to really lose, and was at the scene of the crime, not to mention a known associate of the ‘perp’.

    From a b2b PR standpoint doesn’t this set a precedent?

    I’ve always thought of Google a lot like the IRS… as far as gaming the system vs. doing your fair share (politics aside).

    1.) They both enforce a set of constantly changing rules
    2.) You break them you’re penalized by them where they take from you what you essentially ‘stole’ and then some i.e. steal rankings or stealing money from the government (again, politics aside)
    3.) They both don’t have the means to punish all of the violations… not by a long shot.
    4.) To make up for this they have to play the PR game to create the perception that they can and will.
    5.) IRS does this by targeting big fish because that will draw the most attention and they manage to recoup a higher dollar figure.

    But what, to me at least, it seems like is that Google really bunted this high profile opportunity. There’s this big fish, red handed, and instead of any real aftermath (“sorry, your quarterback is going to jail”) but instead (“we’re going to suspend your field goal kicker for the whole off season!”).

    If I was one of the companies on the client list of SearchDex all and knew exactly every black hat step that was taken I could just go to Google and play the “Blame it on the SEO” card, maybe that’ll make news if I can stoke the flame right.

    Heck as the first one to come forward if it turns out that SearchDex is entirely black hat would be awesome linkbait. Rest of my company isn’t tarnished, heck most people don’t even appreciate the real implications of cheating in SEO during the holidays, so no real stigma to it…

    We’d get a slap on wrist, send our field goal kicker to the “spa” for a few months and in time it’ll be just be another thing that happened.

    So for SearchDex’s 10-20 some odd clients they have this precedent until they get caught if they’re guilty. It’s like flag being thrown in football for offsides so your team gets to take a big shot down the field and if it’s picked off the penalty nulls it but if you score the touchdown the points are yours.

    But there are industries where it is cost effective for a business to slumlord it, to take that gamble, to have such a last resort to ride into the ground and fire off that last shot. If I was black hat, that would be my target market for clients because either way it’s a win-win for reasons that very much resemble those illustrated by the JC Penny case study.

  • Diseño Web, Video Producciones

    Great article, thnks for your blog, great sharing

  • Sell Car

    yes google’s algorithms started to work. we have noticed so many panda changes some are positive for are website and some are negative for are website.

  • cars australia

    Sometimes every profession needs some sort of entertainment!. I am glad I found your blog. 

  • cars australia

    Sometimes every profession needs some sort of entertainment!. I am glad I found your blog.

  • delinkbuilder

    Wow this is just the beginning I think, a lot of companies are doing this at the moment and I think it still works for a lot of them!

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