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This Is News? JC Penney and Link Farms

By - February 13, 2011

nytgoog.pngAs I read this NYT story on JC Penney’s black hat link farms, I felt like I was in a way back machine – I mean, five solid pages of copy about … old school low-rent link-spam sites? Really?

I dunno, if this is news, the news is getting stale. The never-ending battle between Google and link-buying outfits is as old as search itself. The story told in the Times’ piece sheds absolutely no new light on the tale, despite leading with lines like “the digital age’s most mundane act, the Google search, often represents layer upon layer of intrigue.”

I read the piece eagerly, expecting that it would turn up a smoking gun – proof that either someone at JC Penney knowingly paid black-hat search optimizers, or proof that someone at Google knowingly looked the other way as JC Penney, a major Google advertiser, employed these tactics. Either would have been big news.

But nope, nothing like that. Just yet another story about tactics that have been around forever, and rounds of denials that anyone knowingly did anything wrong. I do find it rather odd, given how unsophisticated the tactics were, that Google didn’t catch such an obvious and widespread link farming operation, but the Times’ didn’t push into that angle, essentially giving Google a pass (citing the “Web is really big” defense).

Sure, the web is really big, but that’s pretty much the reason Google is so valuable – it figured out a way to make the web come to heel. I am surprised that Google didn’t catch this story before the Times did. There was nothing particularly sophisticated in the approach JC Penney took to get highly ranked, and it’s certainly embarrassing for Google that, in essence, all JCP had to do was hire someone to populate a few thousand spam blogs to get the job done.

I’m going to guess that more than a few folks are feeling the wrath of Larry Page today. I’d sure love to read the memo he must have sent around….


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19 thoughts on “This Is News? JC Penney and Link Farms

  1. This is like a doping scandal in pro sports (I’m a cycling fan, but maybe you prefer baseball). You know there’s a pervasive culture where “everyone is doing it”, but we’re all still shocked when a big name goes down.

    I thought the NY Times story was excellent. You and I deal with search on a day-to-day basis, but this story was written with the general news audience in mind. Segal did an excellent job of making it approachable for the non-technical audience and crafting a compelling narrative. We should all be thrilled that the rest of the population can see our industry as intriguing.

    As someone who doesn’t cheat, I’m also glad to see the guilty punished, even though thousands of other are still flying under the radar. The PR fallout may cause as much damage as the loss of search revenue. Hopefully other big brand will take notice.

  2. I agree that this is a non-story. Same old tactics that have been used for 10+ years on the web.

    One quick comment on you post. You mention link-baiting, but this isn’t really link-baiting it’s link buying. In link-baiting you get more or less natural links by creating content specifically designed to get those links.

  3. John says:

    Javaun, well put. It was well done and you’re right, for a general news audience, it’s probably news. But it shouldn’t be – this story has been going on forever – exactly like the doping story. I just wish the Times had taken it to the next level and found a smoking gun.

  4. John says:

    Toivo you’re right, I should change the wording, and I will.

  5. John says:

    Sure, So much for Google’s tranparency and Matt Cutts of so called Google’s SPAM team :P

  6. Randall Rothenberg says:

    Totally disagree, John. The technology industry may understand link farming, but the general public is barely aware of it. Moreover, the piece is a snapshot of a
    larger cultural and economic phenomenon that, while fully public, is simply not well understood by average intelligent adults – the degree to which Google is a dominant force in the operations of companies, sectors, and economies, and the extent to which its mechanisms and decisions are neither natural nor fixed.

    Although this is self-evident to West Coast industry experts, I guarantee it’s a revelation, even to otherwise sophisticated retail analysts. This was David Segal’s second big takeout on the subject, and he’s come as close as any reporter I’ve seen to covering Google the way it should be covered – like a foreign correspondent covering a new country.

  7. Jordan says:

    I thought the article was well presented to a general public that is not familiar with some of the foundation work of basic SEO. Jc Penny was meant to be protrayed as the big bad corporation trying to buy their way to the top. Anybody can gladly do it, and Google will gladly take their money, it’s called Adwords.
    I’m surprised the ‘expert’ in online search that was asked about the SEO campaign, thought it was “The most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results he has ever seen”. Is this his first day in the SEO business? More ambitious attempts are happening daily for sites that are miniscule compared to that of JC Penny. At least the executive at JC Penny can honestly say the tactics used were against their ‘natural search’ policies as they would have no idea how to optimize an SEO Camapaign.
    It will be interesting as to how long JC Penny’s Google penalty will be for, and if they ever come back in the rankings. Maybe I should give JC Penny a call to aminister the Search Engine Marketing camapign.

  8. Steve SEO says:

    Hey, that’s some interesting info! I’m sure their not the only ones doing this…

  9. Considering all the work Google has on its hands, it’s bound to miss some suspicious web activity every now and then.

  10. dendy says:

    We should all be thrilled that the rest of the population can see our industry as intriguing.

  11. xirsi says:

    In link-baiting you get more or less natural links by creating content specifically designed to get those links.

  12. CFed says:

    Isn’t it a shame that Google’s ecosystem is one that’s hell-bent on destroying them? It’s so different from MSFT and now Facebook, where developers and Partners support and (to various degrees)share in the success.

  13. mrg says:

    sure, overall, same ol’ for anybody who reads here, but 2 things to consider -

    * repeated mention of ‘manual intervention’ on G’s behalf. Wasn’t the party line a few months ago.

    * in a broader sense, another very high exposure of G in a not-so-good light. That this piece was put forth in this spotlight; i gotta think there’s plenty more journo’s ready to take the sentiment and dig deeper.

  14. kirrey says:

    The technology industry may understand link farming, but the general public is barely aware of it.

  15. Dave says:

    So one thing I REALLY don’t get; Google assigns a lot of “signal value” to inbound links; but it assigns an extraordinary amount of value to “anchor-text rich” inbound links. That’s what was happening with all those high rankings JC Penney achieved on product keywords.

    In my estimation, this dwarfs any other signal. The funny thing is, if you think about keyword-dense text in anchor links, it should be a NEGATIVE signal. No one really links this way except spammers. It so so obvious, but something that Google seems to ignore, and I really cannot understand why. This goes all the way back to Google Bombs like “miserable failure”. I have not ever heard a satisfactory explanation for why the anchor text gets any signal value from Google.

  16. Michael says:

    Valid points, John. However, taking a slightly different angle, it’s hard to believe the folks at JC Penny had NO clue what their SEO firm was doing. That’s news in an of itself…

  17. Lee Baler says:

    Hey John, I get your point but like Javaun said, this article wasn’t for the expert in search. Even for my digital agency this is a big eye-opener. As more companies that are in the quick content game come into our offices, and I’m not going to mention names, we have to be aware these tactics are readily pervasive and what questions to ask to ensure it doesn’t happen for us. I can’t have my brand engaged in this type of activity and as such, my team needs to understand what happened and why the DEMAND for instant SEO elevation and quick traffic sometimes isn’t as innocuous as it can sound.

  18. John says:

    Thanks Lee, appreciate the frank insight…

  19. BZZT! Wrong use of the term “link farm”, John.

    A link farm is any group of Websites that all link to each other. Since JCP wasn’t linking to the spam sites, they were NOT participating in a link farm.