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What Small Businesses Can Learn From J.C. Penney's SEO Mistakes

Happy Valentines Day!

Happy Valentine's Day dear reader! I love you very much for being here to read this. I hope your day is filled with chocolate and special people! If you shopped for a Valentine's present for someone you love a few weeks back, chances are you were faced with a J.C. Penney's organic search result. If you procrastinated, chances are you found someone else.

Why is this you ask? No, Cupid didn't decide to play favorites for early shoppers and open up the search results to everyone in the last few days. Rather, J.C. Penney used some frowned upon tactics to game the Google-Monster into ranking it's pages higher for a ton of relevant and very difficult search terms.

As first reported by the NY Times, J.C. Penney was ranking in the organic search results (not the sponsored ads) in the 1st position for several highly competitive terms such as:

  • dresses
  • area rugs
  • Samsonite carry on luggage
  • skinning jeans
  • home decor
  • comforter sets
  • furniture
  • tablecloths

This is obviously just a small number of the enormous list of very generic keywords that they were ranking 1st in Google for. In examining the list, let's look at 'Samsonite carry on luggage'. This phrase should be impossible for JC Penney to rank for. It has the brand name of Samsonite in it. The Samsonite website still ranked 2nd to J.C. Penney's site. What's more, the content on the J.C. Penney site about Samsonite carry on luggage is lackluster: http://goo.gl/aAv65

An actual luggage company or Samsonite themselves would be a much more relative result for a user than the J.C. Penney website. This brings up the question...

What Did J.C. Penney Do To Game Google?

As we've discussed in the past and continue to explain to prospects and clients, Google uses over 200 'signals' in their algorithm to determine who ranks where. Looking back at what we've already discussed above, J.C. Penney doesn't have great content on these keywords/phrases. The results were to the actual J.C. Penney website domain, so they weren't sending users to a keyword-rich domain name. The page titles for products like the Samsonite Control 21" Carry-On Upright aren't that stellar. What does this leave us with from the few known algorithm signals that Google uses?

Inbound Links

When it comes to inbound links for a website, we try to stress quality over quantity for our small business clients. While it is well known that Google does qualify the link source to see if the links are relevant and in the same subject matter, a site can be ranked higher if the volume of inbound links (even from completely unrelated sites) is high enough.

This is precisely how J.C. Penney gamed the system. Through their now fired SEO firm, SearchDex, they created hundreds (maybe thousands?) of phony websites and garnered an enormous number of inbound links to their site. Some examples:

Hopefully, in examining the list of keywords and websites above, you see that the keywords/phrases have zero relevance to the website they appear on. These links provide little, if any value to your SEO. Again, unless you have 100s or 1,000s of sites linking to you with those keywords, like J.C. Penney did.

Google Really Doesn't Like Cheaters...

Google has always said that their main goal is to provide the most relevant results possible to their users' queries. Stunts like these impair Google's ability to do that. Therefore, they don't like it. After finding out about these antics, Google swiftly took steps to remove J.C. Penney from the first page of Google and in many cases buried their site 70+ pages deep in the search results. They need to earn page 1-position-1 ranking through accepted SEO practices, not by gaming the system.

Denial Is So Obvious

While J.C. Penney is placing sole blame on their former SEO consultant, and claiming never to have authorized these sites and the links, it is quite a far-fetched story. We'll see how things play out in the coming weeks, but honestly, it's a pretty tuff sell to convince anyone that no one at J.C. Penney knew of this linking strategy. At the end of the day, J.C. Penney paid for these links and sites to be created by paying their consultant.

As A Small Business, Here's Your Takeaway

All of the amazing offers you get from SEO firms need to be reviewed and approved. Ultimately, taking shortcuts or trying to take advantage of what seems like silver bullet solutions to ranking well in Google will ultimately get you banned or buried in the engine. You may succeed for a short period of time, but sooner or later Google's Web Spam Team will catch you and the negative impact will far outweigh any temporary successes you had.

Web marketing firms like protocol 80, play by the rules and help our clients achieve lasting, and effective SEO results. After all, SEO is still one of the highest ROI investments a site owner can make. Good SEO is not an overnight process (unfortunately). It takes a lot of hard work and discipline. We pride ourselves on providing these services with integrity.