J.C. Penney Incurs Google SEO ‘Action’; How to Protect Your Own Company

Search-engine-optimization agencies often play a vital role in ecommerce sites, where winning and converting organic searches to sales directly impacts the e-tailer’s bottom line. But how far should a company trust an SEO agency to act on its behalf? The SEO community erupted this weekend after The New York Times published “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search,” an expose on retailer J.C. Penney’s paid link campaign.

The reporter worked with an independent SEO firm, Blue Fountain Media, to unearth the reason J.C. Penney ranked highly in Google for many valuable search phrases like “area rugs” and “dresses.” Their search quickly uncovered thousands of links from topically unrelated and in some cases abandoned sites. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, pronounced the tactic, on Twitter, “blackhat” and stated that “manual action” had been taken to lower Penney’s rankings.

Who Is Responsible?

To be clear, it doesn’t appear that Google has banned J.C. Penney, because Penney continues to rank for searches that contain its own brand. Instead, the links that violated Google’s webspam guidelines have been devalued, which removed Penney’s advantage in the rankings and lowered to a more algorithmically accurate level.

It’s possible that an additional penalty was applied with that manual action, given Google’s presumed file on Penney’s previous brushes with guideline violations.

A Penney’s spokesperson said the company was “not involved with or aware of” this link building campaign, and that they — employees of the company — are working to have the links removed. Penney also fired its SEO agency, SearchDex, which hasn’t yet commented on the matter. Penney loses rankings, traffic and revenue, and SearchDex loses a big-name client and the revenue it brought in.

There has been no proof as yet that SearchDex was responsible for the paid link campaign, just as there is no proof that someone inside Penney didn’t initiate the campaign. It’s theoretically possible that a competitor paid for the campaign to “frame” Penney or SearchDex. But it’s unlikely that someone would pay thousands of dollars over a period of months to generate a campaign of this scale as a frame.

In the grand scheme of things, the answer to the question of whom to blame is irrelevant, unless you’re J.C. Penney or SearchDex. The important question for other merchants is, “How can I prevent this from happening to my business?”

3 Steps to Protect Your Company

First, always practice ethical SEO, link-building campaigns and paid links. Make this abundantly clear to whoever manages SEO and link building. With so many people bombarded by email spam and banner ads promising amazing SEO benefits and thousands of links for a single low price, who’s to say someone in the organization won’t act on it thinking they’re doing good?

Second, if the SEO experts are in-house, ensure that they communicate their strategies to management. Typically, paid link schemes like these require budget. Examine any links proposed for SEO benefit carefully, especially if they come with a price tag. Now that most directories have lost their power, there are fewer and fewer completely ethical sources of links that require payment.

Third, if the SEO expert is an external consultant, make 100 percent certain that the consultant is clear on the company’s SEO and link building guidelines. If the consultant is prone to wearing “black hats,” this admonition won’t stop him. But it sets the stage for focusing on ethical SEO strategies and taking corrective action if unethical actions come to light. In addition, ensure that one person bears the responsibility for managing the SEO consultant, even if multiple people in the company are involved with the SEO efforts. Appointing one person with this oversight responsibility, even if he or she also has to wear other hats, ensures that it won’t fall through the cracks. That SEO manager needs to actively manage the SEO consultant. Check into the strategies, poke into the research and data, peek into the sites recommended for link building, and scrutinize additional budget requests. This management is critical to ensuring that a company’s SEO resources are well spent.

Use Webmaster Tools, Too

What else could J.C. Penney have done to identify the issue before The New York Times did? Regular data collection and analysis could have uncovered the existence of the paid links. At least once a month, task someone with downloading data from Google, Yahoo! and Bing webmaster tools, in addition to the usual SEO data from the company’s analytics package. Webmaster tool data is not archived, and will not be available for analysis unless it is collected regularly. For example, if J.C. Penney had analyzed its Google Webmaster Tools link and anchor text data month-to-month, it may have seen an increase in the number of links and a suspicious consistency of anchor text. For companies the size of Penney, it’s impossible to track the changes to every page. But then again, black hat techniques aren’t usually bothered with unimportant pages and phrases. Monitor the pages and phrases that matter most to the company’s bottom line, and sleep soundly at night.


Think long and hard before giving an SEO firm carte blanche to implement SEO changes on a site or build links without oversight. No successful business would hire an ad agency to create and publish a campaign without close management. No successful business would outsource IT, hosting or customer service without close management. SEO requires the same management and oversight.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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