JCPenney’s damaging link strategy: Why buying inbound links isn’t worth the risk.

by Andreas on February 15, 2011

With Google’s recent efforts to clean up the e-commerce playing field, even one of the big boys have been singled out for a trip to the principal’s office. Linking is one of those tricky minefields: you need to make it part of your strategy but it needs to be a natural effort. Like lifting reasonable weights three times a week instead of going on a steroids binge bench pressing triple your body weight.

Even the New York Times has become involved as an SEO commentator about www.jcpenney.com as can be seen Saturday’s article about “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search”. Who would have thought that the NYT would be analyzing the link strategy of JCPenney and uncover this major mishap for the retailer. And that some of our partners, clients, even my relatives and friends would contact me about “helping JCPenney fix the problem”. Just another indication that SEO has risen up to a public acceptance level that was unheard of five or six years ago.

Many of these rankings didn’t make that much sense. How, after all, could retailer with a massive horizontal product range rank better for “Samsonite carry on luggage” than the Samsonite site itself? It just didn’t make any sense. Instead of being the #1 result, now JCPenney comes up #73. The site can still be found in Google searches for its specific brand but even fail-safe branded product searches, such as “jc penney suitcases” which automatically will result in a top three ranking has been pushed far down the ranking ladder.

What are the details of the link scheme?

The site seems to have hundreds of inbound links that shouldn’t be there. At least not according to the Google Webmaster Guidelines on Link Schemes and Paid Links. Google ended up reading the article and as a direct result punished the retailer by manually removing or radically lowering most of the rankings. “Google’s spam cop, Matt Cutts, was not pleased about a campaign to make JCPenney.com seem more popular.”

You can read up on some of the juicy bits on the story in Searchengine Land “New York Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google“. Most fascinating is the comment elicited by JCPenney directly:

J.C. Penney, when contacted by the New York Times, said that they didn’t know anything about the links and promptly fired their SEO firm, SearchDex.

What might have happened here? There are a few options that come into play:

  1. The agency acted on its own without informing the client. This opens up a lot of questions around the client-vendor contractual relationship and resulting liability. Was an ethical approach to SEO not part of the agreement with JCPenney?
  2. The client knew what the agency was doing but tolerated it. I think this does happen a lot. “As long as the rankings are stellar, don’t ask where they come from” is not an unusual attitude when things are going well.
  3. The agency wasn’t actually involved in the questionable link strategy at all. It was undertaken by the client. I have seen this happen as well: the client hears about an exciting new method to cut through the workload of building links the traditional way and speeds things up by cutting corners. After some short-terms gains this strategy can cause long-term fallout that affect the clients income stream and the reputation of the agency.

This public visibility will yield more SEO accountability

My prediction is that more and more SEO clients will be checking in with their agencies to verify that their tactics are ethical and don’t collide with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, especially as these sorts of articles become more and more prevalent in mainstream media outlets.

Ultimately clients need to realize that they need to give their SEO agencies proper flexibility to achieve results incrementally over time. This means investing more time into researching high quality link partners with sites that add value to what you are doing instead of acquiring tens of thousands of trash links that are worthless to your prospects. This might also drive up the demand for competitive audits? That would be a welcomed side effect.

The bottom line: Perform a link audit today!

If you are using an outside service to build your inbound links or even if you are having this done by your internal team, this might be a good time to perform some link forensics of your own. You need to be sure that your inbound links are generally of good quality, relevant to the targeted pages and coming from sites that are not in the business of selling links.  In addition to our own tools we find SEOmoz’s Linkscape and Majestic SEO’s cliquehunter to be powerful tools for your inbound link strategy. Perform an audit today.

Andreas Mueller is the President/Founder of Bloofusion.

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