When American searchers were looking for holiday items from home décor and dresses to comforter sets and gifts, one name kept popping up again and again: retailer JCPenney managed to top the list in countless categories from “area rugs” to “grommet topped curtains.” The department store even out-Samsonited Samsonite. Searchers looking for “Samsonite carryon luggage” saw JCPenney make the list ahead of the manufacturer itself. While the retailer did see over $17 billion in revenue in 2010, it seemed odd that it should top the list of such a wide range of search terms. It was found that the company, whether knowingly or not, engaged in blackhat techniques to achieve these remarkable results.
After the New York Times initiated an investigation into these stellar results, it was found that the company, or their hired SEO company, had paid to have thousands of links put into scores of websites. All of these links pointed to JCPenney.com.
Links are, to be sure, a great SEO strategy – if they are legitimately used and offer the site visitor something of value. JC Penney, for instance inserted the keyword “black dresses” and a link to a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. One might ask what the two of these have in common. Nothing! And that’s what makes links like these blackhat.
JC Penney spokesperson Darcie Brossart says, “JC Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you (NYT) sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies. We are working to have the links taken down.”
This was not the first time, though, that JC Penney has run afoul of Google, and they have been given a good talking-to before by the search giant. Matt Cutts and his team, however, took more drastic action against the retailer. According to the New York Times, JC Penney went from having the top spot for “Samsonite carry on luggage” to being number 71. Other search terms yielded similar results.
JC Penney has since fired its SEO company, but the retailer does present a valuable cautionary tale. Your SEO campaign can’t exist outside of your purview; many companies do engage in blackhat techniques which, while not technically illegal, can penalize a site with Google and other search engines. Cutting corners may work, but when you do get caught, you can literally watch your site disappear from the SERPs. It takes a long time to climb back up, if that is even possible.