Falling Foul of Google: JC Penney

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Sophie Monks

Senior Social Specialist

The next case study in our series “Falling Foul of Google” is looking at the major US retailer, JC Penney and their skirmish with the search engine giant.

What is JC Penney?

JC Penney is a huge American department store, who has an extensive online shop to match their large physical ones. They are similar in popularity, size and products to John Lewis in the UK.

What did JC Penny do?

The New York Times noticed something a little strange about search results, noting that JC Penney was in the very top few that were picked out. Now considering this is such a massive retailer this could be expected for some of their items, but it appeared as though this was working for all of their products.

Doug Pierce was enlisted by the New York Times to investigate this, and what he found was staggering. JC Penny had paid to have thousands of links, placed across hundreds of sites, scattered around the four corners of the web. Not only that, but these links had very descriptive anchor text that aimed at a wide selection of their products, despite having nothing to do with the website the link came from.


Image: Search Engine Land

What was Google’s reaction?

After this information was presented to Google by the New York Times, Matt Cuts, head of webspam, tweeted:

This was followed, very shortly, by JC Penney disappearing from the front page of Google’s search results in places they previously ranked number one for. Google had penalised them for the use of black hat techniques that were manipulating the search results and giving them artificially high positions.

Where did JC Penney go wrong?

By buying in links and tailoring anchor text to be extremely detailed they were essentially using link schemes, and that’s a big no, no. Google states on their support site that they see link schemes as:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines


In doing this JC Penney were completely going against the guidelines, and so it was only really a matter of time before Google caught onto them. Buying in links helped to artificially raise their website’s PageRank, temporarily outsmarting Google’s algorithm.

Why did they do it? It got them exactly to where they wanted to be – at the top of Google, during one of the highest traffic periods in the year, which helped to drastically increase their sales. This visibility was incredibly valuable however, like we’ve seen, it doesn’t last forever and when Google knocks you back it can seriously damage your traffic.


Image: Vanessa Fox

What this unfair?

No, Google warns webmasters about what happens if they want to play fast and loose with their guidelines and JC Penney (or their SEO agency) thought they would take their chances. Do other companies try to manipulate the rules like this? Of course they do and if-and-when Google finds out then a similar punishment will be implemented.

It is possible to recover from this kind of penalty and it appears as though JC Penney have managed to remove all the links and get back in top few results for many key terms. If they had been ethical from the start with their SEO then this would never have been a cause for concern.

Don’t be next

Google’s guidelines are there for a reason, to benefit the searchers. Staying on the right side of the internet giant is important, which is why you need to make sure that you or your SEO agency are carrying out ethical optimisation.

At Liberty, we work in a completely transparent manner to ensure that you know how we are working on your website. To find out more information about the way we work or how we can help you get in touch today via the website.

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Sophie Monks

Senior Social Specialist

Sophie has over 6 years of experience in the social media and content space, working in both in-house organisations and agencies. She has worked with exciting established brands in her time such as Campari, Aperol Spritz, Oppo Ice Cream and PayPal Australia. She enjoys the content creation process – from mapping out the shot and…

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