New York Times exposes JC Penney and the seedy underbelly of SEO

For the past several months, JC Penney was inexplicably at the top of the Google search results for everything from dresses to area rugs. Let that percolate for a bit. JC Penney? Really?

Well, it turns out that JC Penney either knowingly or unknowingly through a third party, gamed the Google search engine to the tune of tens of millions of extra hits a month for the past three to four months. There’s no telling how many of those hits translated into online sales. But you’ve got to figure the retailer got a major boost during the holiday shopping season from its undeserved search engine rankings. The New York Times’ David Segal dishes the dirt on JC Penney’s foray into black hat SEO in “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.”

The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of

JC Penney is apparently paying the price. Google’s punitive action includes pushing the brand deep down into the nether regions of its search results.

The link farming tactics revealed by the NYT have been going on for years. What’s perhaps more disturbing is that it took the NYT to blow the whistle on JC Penney. Where were Google’s safeguards? We’re talking large-scale manipulation of search rankings.

Did Google turn a blind eye? Or is its internal security system so lax that it could let such a massive black hat operation go on for months?