10 Things You Should Have Learnt from the JC Penney SEO Fiasco

by rishil on February 15, 2011

JC Penny

You are probably bored reading about the JC Penney Fiasco. I know I was for a little while. But I couldn’t ignore this opportunity – it isn’t often that you get to see a Brand SEO campaign that is nearly burnt to the ground because of dodgy link building practices. You want a case study? Well it’s all in there. Intrigue, suspicion, politics, dirty PR, etc etc.

With such a high profile shame and name in SEO, what have you learnt? If you didn’t walk away with the following 10 learnings, you have wasted this wonderful educational opportunity.

a)Link Farms Are Still Well

Doug Pierce, the SEO responsible for highlighting the poor SEO practices by JC Penney ran quite a detailed analysis of backlinks.  After careful consideration, a number of these have come from the TNX network:

“The link came through a Web site, TNX.net, which pays Mr. Camichel with TNX points, which he then trades for links that drive traffic to his other sites, like cookingutensils.net. He earns money when people visit that site and click on the ads. He could also, he said, get cash from TNX. Currently, Cocaman is home to 403 links, all of them placed there by TNX on behalf of clients.”

We saw that this strategy gave JC Penney a massive boost. We saw that the traffic and revenue potential of the keywords it was targeting. We also know that this link net would probably have carried on until it was caught by a manual review – and that algorithmically it’s not easy to spot a link farm, if done well (and in instances even if done badly).  For an over view of TNX, see this post.

b) Anchor Text Links Still Rule

This one is simple. In most cases many SEOs are going down the path of “Anchor Text is Dying”.  It may be being degraded a bit in its value for ranking, however as this VERY recent example showed, the volume of anchor text still works.

c) Off Topic Links Hold Value

We are often told that the context of the area where we acquire links is extremely important. That the site, the age etc should be relevant to the linked to destination.  The JC Penney scenario blew this out of the water. Is relevancy that important? For a sustainable strategy, absolutely. To pass human review, it’s a must. But for a quick win? Not so much.

As Search Engine Land puts it:

“Doug Pierce, who worked with New York Times to uncover what was happening with J.C. Penney … that the site had a LOT of links pointing to it. From peculiar sites. With very descriptive anchor text.” (emphasis mine).

d) The Art of Booster Linking

Do you know what a booster linking strategy is? No? You should. This is the biggest lesson to those who haven’t run high scale brand and seasonal SEO campaigns. It has been the Gray Hat  practice of a number of large brands to “acquire” volumes of links just before any large trading season. Normally this is put into place 3-4 weeks before and should ideally be eradicated almost immediately the end of the season, to avoid detection.

Branko Rihtman ran some of the URLs through Majestic SEO‘s link reporting tool and found that it appears that links were acquired in two bursts that coincided with the holiday seasons at the end of 2009 and 2010.

Booster Links for JC Penny

Booster Links for JC Penny

SEL showed us with the help of Branko (or @Neyne on twitter) when these links went up. Unfortunately they didn’t come down quick enough, to quote a Couple of Dave Naylor Tweets:

“they took a risk( calculated I hope), boost ranking for the holidays, they should have pulled the links down 2 weeks ago”

“…did you see the links? they were at best booster links, short term gains but long term NONOs”

Does this strategy work? I have seen proof that it does. And now with the JC Penney issue, You can all see it in action.

e) The Need For In house SEOs

JC Penney has categorically denied the knowledge of the existence of paid links. They refuse to admit that they were aware what their SEO agency was doing to get them such stellar results. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it highlights why all brands need an inhouse SEO to ask these relevant questions, even if they have an agency that does the SEO work. A real SEO would have spotted the bad linking practice and questioned it.  The least they can do, as Econsultancy puts it, is to use some basic free tools to make sure that their strategies are on track.

As Doug puts it:

“Actually, it’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “This whole thing just blew me away. Especially for such a major brand. You’d think they would have people around them that would know better.”

f) The Need For Contracts

So let’s assume that JC Penney are in fact LYING. Let’s assume that they KNEW what was going on.  Where does that leave us? With one SEO agency that did as they were told, maybe even highlighted the dangers, and who now may have to shut down after such a visible destruction of their reputation.

“J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,”

Assuming that the above quote is false, then the agency should have something in writing, an email, a contract, a mutually agreed disclaimer highlighting the dangers of these bad links. If they did, then they could make a massive come back – proving that they did what their client ask. So protect yourself if a client asks for dodgy practices, despite being warned.

g) Google New Link Spam Algo

Interesting to me was a specific comment on the NYT piece and tweet from Matt Cutts.

“David Segal of the NYT discusses some blackhat SEO: http://goo.gl/RdnTi Google’s algorithms had started to work; manual action also taken.”

So the first part is the Google Algorithm “starting” to work. What were these algos? Considering that from what I have been reading, google has been concentrating on low quality Spammy sites, as well as maybe looking at content farms, what is this “new” algo that is looking at Spammy links? To highlight the NYT comment:

“He noted, too, that before The Times presented evidence of the paid links to JCPenney.com, Google had just begun to roll out an algorithm change that had a negative effect on Penney’s search results. (The tweak affected “how we trust links,” Mr. Cutts said, declining to elaborate.)”

So a new link detection algo. Maybe not strong enough to capture links like JC Penney’s in one sweep (hence the need for manual action) but a new spam link detection algo, which I don’t recall reading anywhere else about.

h) Google Manual Movements

The same tweet above also confirms Manual Action by the google Spam team.

This shouldn’t be news to you. Shouldn’t be news to any one. There have been countless stories about manual penalization, and recently, via googles “Bing Bait” fiasco, that these movements can happen upward or downward. Does anyone else need proof that Google can, and does manually influence organic results?

i) Negative Spammy SEO  / j) Killing Competitors with PR

I have bunched these two learnings together because they work well togther. For years google says that Spammy links cannot hurt your site. Anyone who believes this must be insane. How does google determine via the algo WHO placed the Spammy link?

Matt Cutts on Spam Links

Matt Cutts on Spam Links

Lets assume, just for a second, that neither JC Penney nor their SEO agency were at fault here – someone used TNX to buy those links, and then leak the story out to the NYT, what would the result be?  To quote neyne:

Dear @jcpennys, one of your competitors just did a hit job on you by the means of NYT article. A smart hit job at that.

And to summarize this joint strategy? Well Skitzzo puts it well:

How to Kill Competitors Rankings:

  1. Buy spammy links to their site
  2. Get media to embarrass G about the spam
  3. Profit!

Finally – You may want to see Alan’s Post on JC Penney Has Bigger problems than paid links as well as JC Penneys Official Relpy  regarding the Fiasco.

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Yousaf Sekander February 15, 2011 at 10:31 am


Wasn’t the spam detection algorithm hinted at by Matt Cutts at PubCon 2010?


rishil February 15, 2011 at 10:47 am

I looked a number of the pubcon coverage pieces, and I cant spot any mention of an algo (http://searchengineland.com/key-takeaways-from-googles-matt-cutts-talk-at-pubcon-55457) however the only interesting piece maybe related is:

“Google will be building a new paid link tool to block only the paid links on a page and let the other links, that are not paid, pass link juice.”


William Vicary February 15, 2011 at 10:54 am

There is no way Google can realistically implement something like that, thats all just PR spin imo. If a newspaper takes payment for an advertorial and leaves a link within the article, as long as it isn’t marked as an advert how is Google going to realistically tell the difference – nonsense PR fluff to feed the followers.


Yousaf Sekander February 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

That’s probably it.


Moosa Hemani February 15, 2011 at 11:45 am

If buying links can hurt your competitors rankings… (I surly believe they do!) so Rishil do you think Google is not smart enough to properly understand the link buying system? and link buying (what people use instead of natural process to get link backs to their website) can also help one improve there rankings? if done smartly…??

and if yes then this brings hundreds of question in my mind…


Paul North February 15, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Is there not a middle ground though? Say Google fine tune the algo to identify spammy sites and then simply discount the links. That makes them a waste of money for the people paying for them and they will not help their rankings. It also means anyone trying to hurt their competitors by placing spammy links won’t get anywhere either.

So, it will only be a “punishment” for sites that have gained their current rankings using these links because all the value will disappear and the rankings will drop.


Jordan February 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Very good point. There’s literally no way of knowing if a link was paid for or not. The only thing Google can do is devalue the link, which would technically be a “penalty” if they had increased in rankings due to that link. Thus a drop in rankings – which without knowing if Google devalued the link or not would appear as a penalty. Maybe Google’s definition of “penalty” when it comes to paid links is different than everyone thinks.


Brent Nau February 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I agree Rishi, Link Farms are still alive. Seen competitor use a link network with tremendous results. Most of the links are placed in blog rolls or within the content on highly-spun PLR articles. The Link Boosting concept is interesting and really have not read anything publicly about this strategy.


Le Juge SEO February 15, 2011 at 5:27 pm

So true,

Jc Penney “affair” has brought us back a few years ago. This is sad to notice that “Link farms” and Off topic links still holds that much. Same thing about the “bombing” (point b). As per JC penney not knowing what their SEO agency was doing … well I honnestly doubt it and if so it shows their guys are quite incompetent


Simon February 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I agree with all the points here. Everytime I think the Google algo is getting more and more sophisticated, this case just takes you back to the view that the ‘old’ methods still work..


John S. Britsios (Webnauts) February 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm

I do not believe that it was done algorithmically, which I still do believe it would be possible at a certain extent.

There are enough of cases where big brands have been screwed up in the organic search being penalized, cleaned up their mess, and then very soon got back into the organic search results and ranked well.

The history proved that Google treats popular brands different when they are hit from organic ranking penalties and also for recovering from them. Such brands tend to recover from penalties much quicker than average small business sites.

What’s next? Lets sit back and observe how those brands will rank at the next holiday season. Then we can tell for sure if Google can deal with such cases algorithmically or not.


WG Hubris February 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm

I came to some of the same (albeit in a more cynical manner) conclusions. (If anyone is curious I wrote about it here: http://besthubris.com/computers-internet/search/ny-times-exposes-more-google-spam/) In my mind this shows that link counting is no longer (and hasn’t been for a while) a useful way to rank websites. I don’t have the answer as to what would work better, but discovering what it is should be priority number 1 over at Google.


Depesh February 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Rishi I’ve bought lots of spammy links and pointed them to your site, I’m taking bloggers out one by one…. ;-)


Lee Colbran February 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Great post Rishi, there is so much misinformation that comes from the ‘King of Spin’ Matt Cutts, that I am seriously beginning to wonder if he is the love child of Alastair Campbell!

The question for me is are we entering an online world of anarchy where open season prevails with a mass world wide torching of sites.


rishil February 16, 2011 at 10:53 am

I think as competition becmes more ruthless, and players start ignoring Gentlemen’s agreements of not disclosing, then yes. You will see more and more of this.


Felix February 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

Best comment on the J.C.Penney debate since I started reading about it!

My personal learning from the J.C. Penney scandal:

- The algo is still hella stupid.
- The media is still hella stupid but also dangerous (we had a similar thing in germany lately)
- If you don’t have a big brand you could damage and know how to keep a low profile: Go for it!
- Buying links from the right sources is still king since it minimizes potential exposure to the public (The german scandal was triggered by a blogger who leaked a keyword list)
A good linkbuilder shouldn’t generalize (black hat, white hat, organic, bought bla, bla, bla)… he tests, thinks and calculates risks to run the best campaign he can. Anyone who doesn’t think out of the white hat box is not looking at the big picture..


Nick Wilsdon February 16, 2011 at 10:42 am

Great summary Rishi. Only point I’d contend is that all brands should have in inhouse SEO.

Like you, I think it would be sensible but my cynical side wonders if Google has made it too easy to pass the buck onto the agency. How many times have we seen this same cycle – get caught – fire the agency – return the rankings after a couple of weeks? It could be argued that Google has given brands a get-out-of-jail card there, which they would loose with qualified inhouse SEOs.

I understand that there are a lot of bottom-feeders in this industry and it’s fair to apply this exception to companies lower on the scale. However for large brands, Google should play harder and push them to hire these people. Lets see how long Google keeps JC Penney in the dog house shall we?


rishil February 16, 2011 at 10:46 am

I totally get where you are coming from Nick – but, I guess that piece of advice was for more “legitimate” brands who DONT want to run any dodgy tactics.

Getting an in house SEO to oversee would save them a lot of issues. In a recent example, I helped one brand get rid of 100’s of paid widget links – which were placed by their SEO agency – the brand didnt realise the risk, and I dont believe that the agency explained it – and even if they did, I doubt that the brand understood it.


Jasmine A. Davis February 17, 2011 at 5:42 pm

This just highlights the need for SEO firms to stay highly ethical and above-board.


mike corso February 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Google says “Spammy links cannot hurt your site”…this seems to be the most controversial statement presented above.

Also, reading that JC Penney didn’t know what was going on is like believing Wall St and banks didn’t anticipate the mortgage crisis.

Finally, I like John B’s comment: “Lets sit back and observe how those brands will rank at the next holiday season. Then we can tell for sure if Google can deal with such cases algorithmically or not.” I don’t think we have to wait 9 mos for that.
NB – Stop Link Dropping
Link and promo message deleted


mike March 11, 2011 at 4:19 am

#11: Conflict of Interests do not matter (see Doug’s site and who he works for).


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