The JCPenney Situation Is A Symptom Of A Bigger Disease

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve certainly heard about this JCPenney SEO debacle. But I think it’s worth mentioning that while this issue revealed itself through some sketchy SEO, the issue here really isn’t about SEO at all, and it’s not limited to JCP at all. The links that JCP and their search firm went about gathering were the symptom, not the disease.

Yesterday, my company released a response to our friends, summarizing our thoughts (I’ll put a link at the end of this post, but I’ll summarize the response here). In it, we discuss that there are two issues here.

One is the tactical issue of cheating, which, of course, has been covered in great detail.

The second issue isn’t getting as much attention, and it’s philosophical in nature. Companies are still looking for the easy and cheap way of accomplishing their goals, rather than actually taking the time to understand what the market wants and delivering fantastic site and customer experiences.

What is truly amazing about this situation, and others like it, is that we don’t look at why Google is placing such disproportionate weight on links, particularly in this case, when so many of the links are of poor quality.

Even when Google’s algorithm caught JCP with its face covered in cake and icing, the resulting shift downward in rankings (as described in the NYT article) was pretty meager, especially when compared with the effect after human intervention.

Of course, links are tremendously important to search rankings, and all of the brilliant readers of Search Engine Land understand that.

However, what we have here is a situation where JCP as well as many other brands / retailers, have a complete void of assistive and rich content to accompany their site experiences, and that lack of content is what requires search engines to look off the site for signals that this site and these pages are even worth considering.

The sad part is that in the physical stores, you can interact with salespeople. These people will talk to you about what bedding will look good in your home. They will help you dress for your first day at the new job. They will tell you what the bulleted list of product features on a steaming iron actually does for you and your clothes.

What these salespeople don’t do (in most cases) is just blab out some marketing language about each product and have a call to action on their foreheads.

The even more unfortunate part of all of this is that there were tremendous resources (in people and money) poured into link development and gaming Google (which continues to happen at thousands of companies who are seeking “the easy way”).

All of those resources could have been put into researching what users were looking for in search, what users were doing on the site (and not doing), and creating a brilliant site experience with relevant content to satisfy all of those external search and on-site hopes and dreams.

Doing this would have naturally separated JCP from its competitors who were not willing to invest in creating a genuinely great site experience or developing the same content on their site.

Brands Are Missing Big Opportunities

Today, most commerce sites look more like self-serve warehouses (albeit very pretty warehouses) than real stores with helpful salespeople. Brands tend to approach the real-world experience with customers in a very human way: they ask questions, learn what people want, and know that by giving them a good customer experience, they will succeed in the sale.

Online, however, these same brands turn into scientists, devoid of this same warmth and care for the customers’ needs, instead focusing on how many walls in their mouse maze need to be electrified and where they need to relocate the cheese to get more mice to their meal. Or worse yet, they just dump 10,000 mice into the maze, knowing that at least a few won’t get shocked, die from exhaustion, or jump out of the maze entirely (scientifically known as “mouse bounce rate”).

The issue is that companies are looking for quick wins with no effort. And they’re looking for these wins to build loyalty, brand affinity, conversion rates, and all of the sorts of things that “quick wins” actually do completely the opposite of.

Usability is not the practice of making people do something. It’s the practice of studying what people want to do and making their experience better. Consider what would happen if the usability of the air conditioner in your car were to make you choose a temperature that Ford thought you should want. You’d probably hate your whole car.

I’d urge us to collectively think about what a future where we truly deliver great experiences to our audiences looks like. Does that sound like something Google would want to rank highly? Does that sound like something that would garner word of mouth? Does it sound like it would have greater conversion, greater loyalty, greater customer lifetime value? It does to me.

Today, I can only list a dozen or so brands off the top of my head who I feel really care about me. And I pull my wallet out for them more than anyone else, I recommend them, I invest in them. I can list a thousand brands who I feel will cut any corner to do it the easy way, knowing I’m a captive or forced audience, or just knowing they have another bucket of mice they can dump into the maze.

There’s a reason for this ratio. But I think it’s a terrible one, because nobody in the short list I mentioned first is struggling for cash flow.

Truly analyze your audience; look at them as human beings, not mice. Pretend they are right there in front of you. How can you give them something truly better? Google is dying to rank that experience first, because Google wins when the user wins.

More reading:

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

Related Topics: Brand Aid | Channel: SEO | Google | Google: SEO


About The Author: is the Director of Client Performance at Search Discovery, an Atlanta-based search marketing and web analytics agency. Evan is a fierce believer in the power of web analytics and the impact it can have on the performance (and lovability) of web sites. Evan also writes a web analytics blog called Atlanta Analytics and can be found as @evanlapointe on twitter.

Connect with the author via: Email


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • timkilroy

    Content is king, and the growth of linking as informative as to relevancy and authority came out of the search engines having a hard time understanding the meaning of content. That opened the door to link spam.

    And everyone in the industry knows that it works. But only the bottom of the retail food chain would accept undeserved traffic. The transactional revenue certainly isn’t worth the ding to your brand. JCP is a really unusual case because a) their link spammers were VERY good, and b) JCP had relevancy for most, if not all of the categories that they dominated.

    So, why did the link spam win? Primarily because those merchants that have a targeted, truly authentic position in the discussion allowed a spammer to win. In order to win, content needs to position you to win. The effective retailer uses content to drive ahead its position in not only SERPs, but the consumer mindset. Good quality content makes you part of the discussion. And JCP, while relevant, did not have the authentic voice to own all of those conversations. But they were able to win because few merchants and marketers had the foresight to demand to own the conversation.

  • Victor Tuszing

    Very good point of view, obviously we all hard workers are cheated by these companies! I do not understand why Google doesn’t put few weight in links and more in the content’s quality?! However, this issue isn’t new and probably will continue without a serious approach from Google’s side…

  • Marcus C

    The reason link spam continues is because it is rewarded by Google. Spammers have a better than average chance of escaping Google’s wrath. They will change when Google changes.

    For many us it is tough to discuss SEO with a potential client when they have a competitor with a lame site that ranks well due to link spam. Google doesn’t make it easy to sell a content program and link strategy to a client when their competitor doesn’t need it because they buy paid links from offshore sweat shops at 30% of the cost I would charge.

    It is easy to say that a client needs better content, but until Google enforces that it’s just idle talk.

  • Jaan Kanellis

    “Brands Are Missing Big Opportunities”

    Because they don’t like change or simply won’t listen to common SEO knowledge. Look at the URL structure, meta tag info and internal linking on their site. This is SEO 101 stuff they are doing wrong.

  • George Michie

    Terrific and thought-provoking post, Evan. As I see it the problem is two-fold: first, it is VERY difficult (maybe impossible?) to algorithmically differentiate good content from bad content on a given subject. Links were supposed to be a proxy for separating the wheat from the chaff, but then we have to determine the value of the linking sites and on it goes; second, it’s much harder to be exceptionally good, and offer a truly unique experience than it is to cheat and simply throw money at a problem.

  • seth@trafficsmack

    Excellent article. I would LOVE to see more ethics put back into all marketing. When people / companies cheat and win, they will keep on cheating until they get caught.

    Our job as marketers should be to work fairly and responsibly for our clients, and foster long term relationships versus looking for the easiest possible path (read short term solutions).

  • groundhog24

    I have no doubt that google can ferret out virtually any scheme to improve a web site’s rating. It shouldn’t be all that difficult with google’s various techniques for mining information from sources which they alone have complete access to. Some sadly mistaken companies and individuals might see these different techniques as private enterprise in action.
    I also have no doubt that they will shake up J.C. Penney. I am less confident that they will use such a major customer as an example by actually removing them from the google search engine. That would likely be reserved for a minor member of no actual relevance if lost.
    Another more skeptical person, certainly not moi, might think that the mentioned news article is as much an unpaid warning (think threat) and free advertisement for google as it is front page news. The article would appear to that cynical person as a warning to the general public under the guise of an interesting news article. I can’t see where it would be of much value to bring this up with the news web page where this news article appears which is google news. I guess that I would tell that skeptical person to just buck up and keep her-his nose clean. You wouldn’t want to run afoul of Google’s private laws (think imperial decrees). The designation laws seems apt since google can mete out a more or less fatal penalty all by its’ own volition via its’ arbitrary definitions and self prescribed arbitrary penalties without benefit of the courts which are provided by our government.
    To some, a company which provides linkage to over a trillion websites would not be seen as an entity which should be allowed to make up rules and penalties which they would never have any intention of applying evenly or fairly and which they could never apply evenly or fairly due to the webpage owners being from every conceivable point on the globe thus falling under the auspices of the many different countries in which they reside. Power unchallenged probably feels good, very good.
    Do I think that I am safe from google? No I do not, not in the least. Actually I don’t expect to see this opinion see the light of day on this site. If this opinion does show up here don’t expect this line of thought to be treated very well since everyone commenting on this news article seems to be deriving their separate incomes from some faction of this mega-business.

  • tatermarketing@twitter

    I agree with you and we have truly tried very hard to focus our time on the user, not Google over the last 6 months. While conversion rates have risen, Our ranking have sunk!

    Google may want to rank better sites higher but they don’t have the ability to.

    So, Google is the real culprit sapping resource that could be used to create better websites.

  • Web Rock Stars

    I shop online, read online, do banking and finances online, pretty much everything online. But Google will never know my favorite websites because I don’t link to them.

    I fully agree that Google is putting way too much focus on links time to get away from links. If Google algorithm goes away from links and puts less focus on them and other signals and factors, then it wont have to worry about link spam.

  • Ian Williams

    I think this is part of the greater distinction between sales and marketing. Marketing is about identifying and then meeting the needs of your customer, thereby developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

    The vast majority of search/digital marketers I’ve met have previous little knowledge of marketing, and operate far more from a ‘sales’ type of mindset, doing whatever is required to make the numbers add up, irrespective of benefit to the customer.

  • David Knockton

    The human experience of buying from a salesperson in a store who understands your needs with warmth and care is what the canny consumers do first. They then go online and try and find it cheaper.

    If I already know what I want to buy then I want a site that delivers it quickly, at the cheapest price, with the fastest delivery, that I can find on my first Google search query.

    Those sites are normally the ones that are fully optimised for receiving and converting my kind of high volume search traffic.

  • blackballonline

    Here Here and Well done. JCP chose to farm out (with or without oversight) their Brand and rep. Do you think they’d hire folks off the street to work their cash registers? No! But that’s what happened here. On a larger scale Google was blackened by this as well; this story cuts to the core of the user search experience. Yes, I’m sure I heard about that somewhere before.

  • Evan LaPointe

    Too true. But we know that Google’s ultimate desire IS to be able to interpret sites at this level, and inch by inch, they’re getting there. We do see sites with more and better content being rewarded, but maybe not proportionately, as you rightly say.

    I’m sorry to hear that! Obviously, you should be rewarded for doing the right thing by the user. But remember it’s not just a matter of making better interfaces, but truly fleshing out relevant and informative content. So hopefully that will improve rankings, and keep your conversion rate rising like it has!


    I agree with the process you describe. People do it all the time. But I don’t think what we’re talking about here has to get in the way of fast sites that get to the point quickly, any more than planting beautiful hedges along your driveway makes your driveway longer. Good content just further legitimizes the site for people like you, maybe even steering you better into a high-value product or service that the salesperson wasn’t able to articulate. And for people who are higher-funnel than you, the sites will be much easier for Google to credit and for users to learn from. That’s the hope!

  • Jeff Simon

    ” . . . These people will talk to you about what bedding will look good in your home. They will help you dress for your first day at the new job. They will tell you what the bulleted list of product features on a steaming iron actually does for you and your clothes.”

    Spoken like someone who hasn’t patronized JC Penney. The philosophical problem you speak of . . . not identifying the needs of customers is not web-borne. . .

    It’s part of the dna of JCP. They are a commody, transaction-oriented market. They don’t aspire to anything higher, regardless of what heart-strings their branding may pull.

    The the 80/20 Rule says this is the true for all other companies attempting to game search engines.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide