Google demotes JC Penney in results after NYT exposé of SEO shenanigans

When you think of dresses, rugs, Samsonite luggage, skinny jeans or sweater dresses, does mall and former catalog retailer J.C. Penney spring to mind?

Although the national chain was never unknown or struggling for visibility, the store’s e-commerce site (JCP.com) performed ever better than one might expect as far as ranking for popular shopping search terms- so well, in fact, that it caught the eye of an investigative reporter for the New York Times. And what ensued lead Penney to fire its search optimization firm SearchDex, and saw the site “demoted” by the search engine giant to several degrees across many topics after some less than above board ranking tactics were exposed in the piece. (An expert on search engine rankings consulted for the article called Penney’s campaign the “most ambitious attempt” at manipulating Google’s results he’d ever seen.)

Among tactics described in the lengthy exposé is the practice of burying links on low-profile sites around the internet, tricking Google into seeing a relevant reference where none exists and building false trust, the NYT explained:

Some of the 2,015 pages are on [random other] sites related, at least nominally, to clothing. But most are not. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were tacked to the bottom of a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. “Evening dresses” appeared on a site called casino-focus.com. “Cocktail dresses” showed up on bulgariapropertyportal.com. “Casual dresses” was on a site called elistofbanks.com. “Semi-formal dresses” was pasted, rather incongruously, on usclettermen.org… There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.

Matt Cutts, who leads up the Google team that roots out and vociferously publicly frowns upon this sort of thing, confirmed to the Times that Penney had violated clear guidelines decreed by Google on manipulating rankings in such a way. It was Cutts that indicated the company would take “strong corrective action” against Penney.

Darcie Brossart, vice-president of corporate communications at JC Penney, commented on the debacle after Penney was pushed back “manually” (giggidy!) in Google’s results for many search terms. Brossart said:

“The characterization of JC Penney in the New York Times article is misleading and unwarranted… JC Penney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted. To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google’s guidelines.”

With the recent news about Google’s crackdown on content farms and this public evisceration of a very well-known retailer, do you think the search engine giant stands a chance cleaning up its results to produce more relevant query answers? Does finding out a company uses such tactics impact your view of the company as a whole? Do you, like Forbes, think the CEO of JC Penney needs to apologize for the actions undertaken on the company’s behalf, even if they didn’t know the strategy was iffy?