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The phrase 'black hat SEO' probably conjures up images of shady, fly-by-night operators doing anything they can to game Google. It probably doesn't conjure up images of large, established companies and respected retailers.

But common wisdom about black hat SEO isn't necessarily accurate. Case in point: J.C. Penney, a major retailer that has been in business for more than 100 years, was just busted for what appears to be a paid link scheme concocted by a third party SEO vendor.

The scheme became public in one of the most visible ways possible: a New York Times story. The consequences were felt quickly: a reportedly harsh penalty issued by Google. While it's unclear how long the penalty will last (J.C Penney says it's seeking to have the bad links removed and will certainly submit a reconsideration request to Google), it's pretty clear that the retailer didn't receive any preferential treatment from Google simply because it's a well-known brand.

In J.C. Penney's story, there's a really important lesson for everyone: when it comes to something as important as SEO, "outsource it and forget about it" is not an option. SEO is simply far too important to treat as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind undertaking.

While it's easy to wonder how Google missed J.C. Penney's paid backlinks (and continues to miss the paid links of other online retailers), the bigger question is how J.C. Penney apparently missed them too.

Assuming that the company was truly unaware of its vendor's alleged scheme, one can only conclude that J.C. Penney wasn't paying attention to what its vendor was up to. Had it been monitoring its search traffic, rankings and backlinks, it almost certainly would have noticed that something was amiss. After all, it was apparently ranking higher for some names of companies whose products it sells than those companies themselves!

Given the scope of the apparent scheme, J.C. Penney should pin the blame for its black eye primarily on itself. But J.C. Penney is hardly the only company that this could happen to. A lot of businesses, from mom-and-pop operations to multinational corporations, rely on outside vendors to manage the bulk of their SEO. And for good reason: most of these businesses aren't search engine marketing experts, and even if they have internal resources with knowledge or expertise, it's fairly uncommon to encounter a company with its own internal army of SEOs. Outsourcing to some extent is still by and large the rule.

That's not necessarily a bad thing -- provided the risks of outsourcing are mitigated. Simple things, such as requiring vendors to formally document and report what they're doing, can go a long way. A "trust but verify" approach goes even further, ensuring that what a vendor tells you it's doing is really what it is doing.

Simply put, there's absolutely no reason why SEO vendors should be allowed to operate in an opaque or completely autonomous manner. No techniques, strategies or 'tricks' should be considered too 'secret' for a vendor to share with clients.

Of course, what this means is that companies will, at the very least, need marketing employees who know a decent amount about SEO to be playing an active role in their SEO efforts, from the selection of third party vendors to the management of the relationship.

In the case of J.C. Penney, free and low-cost tools like Open Site Explorer, which the New York Times used to uncover the paid links pointing to jcpenney.com, could have been used to perform audits which would have probably revealed early on that something was amiss.

At the end of the day, J.C. Penney's SEO blow-up serves as a reminder that there's no such thing as cruise control when it comes to marketing a business. That is especially true when it comes to SEO, where a third party vendor looking for a shortcut can cause a bloody mess.

Photo credit: Hitchster via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 February, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2394 more posts from this author

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Gareth Dix

I don't really agree, yes JC Penny are ultimately responsible for what their agencies are doing, however there may be a distinct lack of knowledge from the client side of things that means even if the agency was explaining how they were doing the SEO they may not even have known that it was wrong. Unless the agency responsible had said to them "We're looking at using these techniques which will work but is bad practice and will eventually get us penalised by google" and the client signed that off I don't think any kind of audit into their agency (unless it was via another agency and that brings up all other sorts of issues with different agenda's etc) would have stopped them from doing this. I guess I should sit on the other side of the fence and say that JC Penny should have a team of people specialised in digital that look after management of digital projects (after all that's ultimately what all internal client side digital people want) but this isn't always possible.

I fail to see why so much emphasis and blame has been put down to JC Penny but at the same time I don't see the SEO agency's name taking any responsibility in all this when ultimately it was their actions that caused the problem in the first place. As they were responsible for taking the risk maybe they should share some of the consequences of bad PR?

over 5 years ago

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Marcus Miller

There is an important lesson to be learned here for small and large businesses alike. You may outsource your SEO but you must ensure you have a full understanding of what is being done and the risks involved.

Equally, the SEO agencies must provide complete visibility of the opportunities and risks in any such scheme.

Ultimately, the responsibility is with J.C. Penny to understand what is being done in their name and it is them alone that will shoulder the fallout.

J.C. Penny - here is a link to the the the Google reconsideration request form: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/reconsideration

;o)

over 5 years ago

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Carl Webber

Google missed J.C. Penney's paid backlinks tactics. Google tends to close its eyes on partner sites (Google Display Network) and Advertisers doing blatant Black Hat SEO. myvouchercodes.co.uk and its owner Mark Pearson are doing this tactic a lot and Google says nothing because this Media owner is bringing The display network a LOT of impressions. Google has to monitor this situation !

over 5 years ago

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Anonymous

It's highly unlikely that a retailer of this size would have been in the dark about this activity. If you look at the backlink profiles of many retailers you will see a similar phenomenon. IMHO, JCP have been stitched up by a competitor or a disgruntled insider.

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Gareth - J C Penney makes $1bn in profit on revenue of more than $18bn. There's absolutely no excuse for it not employing somebody who knows SEO inside out, or, for investing in in-house training for staff and managers.

@Carl - Google definitely doesn't turn a blind eye to sites in the display network, and has been known to penalise advertisers harshly for infringements (arguably not for long enough, but still... the likes of BMW have been banned).

@Anonymous - Not so, it only depends on whether or not they were looking. Certainly it's possible for a competitor to sabotage a firm's SEO rankings via dubious link-buying, but the scale of this campaign suggests that quite a lot of budget has been allocated to it. The bigger the effort, the bigger the footprint. Looks more like black or grey hat activity, whether knowingly or not. Some firms will do the grey hat stuff to coincide with peak seasonal times as a temporary boost in rankings may be more than worth it, regardless of a possible ban e.g. after the holiday season has been and gone. A ban in February isn't as bad as a ban in November/December.

over 5 years ago

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Andy Heaps, Operations Director at Epiphany

There are 3 things that stood out in all of this for me:

1) Google is still nowhere near where it wants, needs, and claims to be in terms of paid link detection. Links from spam networks such as TNX should be those that are noticed most easily (algorithmically) and acted upon immediately. If they can’t detect blatant paid links / networks, they must be a hell of a way off accurately detecting more subtle paid links. Matt Cutts’ responses appeared to be ones of embarrassment and acceptance that Google aren’t quite where they make out to be in detecting paid links.

2) Regardless of whether they have just been stitched up by a competitor the floodgates have just been very publically opened to mass, easy, cheap negative SEO. It has just become very clear that impacting competitors’ rankings, even if they are one of the biggest names in the industry, is possible and really not that difficult. Considering Google continually claim that your competitors can’t harm your rankings the potential here is quite a worry.

3) @chris – I completely agree – they have no excuse for not employing somebody internally who understands SEO. JC Penney provided a response to the whole debacle yesterday, published over at http://searchmarketingwisdom.com/2011/02/jcpenney-responds-to-nyt-and-google/. Even their official response screams of a company who has nobody that ‘gets’ SEO and link building so in that respect they’ve potentially been exposed to this possibility for a while.

Of course this could all just be one hugely ambitious piece of linkbait, in which case A+ :)

over 5 years ago

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John Kaiser

Interesting development, thats for sure. I wonder what blackhat methods could have possibly affected search rankings so much. They basically could have outranked anyone on the internet they wanted. Scary to imagine such powerful tatics exist, makes you wonder who else is using them. If JC Penny wasn't such a big retailer I wonder if they would have even got caught.

over 5 years ago

Ian Harris

Ian Harris, CEO at Search LaboratorySmall Business Multi-user

SEO agencies should tell clients what they are doing and provide lists of links built. We do. What other service would you employ and not know what you are buying.

Agencies need to get more transparent about this. If your agency won't tell you what they are doing for their money and will not give you lists of links built, then chances are, they too are making obvious link purchases that are putting you at risk.

over 5 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

I don't think they've been "stitched up" by a competitor at all. They've bought links, the links worked and they got top rankings. Now the links don't work and they've dropped out of the rankings.

I do think a competitor or someone who didn't like to see them cheating the system like this has blown the whistle and arranged for this to happen. Getting the attention of someone at the NY Times was impressive.

I'd would say the message going out here is that if you're a brand of national interest and you use these tactics: beware. If you're not going to hit the mainstream press, you'll probably get away with this for a while because Google aren't up to speed at detecting paid links yet.

over 5 years ago

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Anonymous

It's naive to think that JCP were outsourcing all of their SEO work, without any visibility of what was being carried out.

The point I was making was that whoever brought this to the attention of the New York Times clearly had a reason for doing so.

I think the main point to take away from this is that Google's algorithm has to change, as the continued reliance on anchor links to establish relevance will always be subject to abuse.

over 5 years ago

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Tom Atkinson

Don't forget Google put a penalty on Google Japan once for buying links. :)

over 5 years ago

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Ben

I am usually a fan of using some blackhat/greyhat linkbuilding techniques offsite just because they don't hurt your sites (links get devalued rather than an outright longstanding penalty).

If you are going to use low quality spammy links at least insulate the brand by link laundering them through some off-site properties. Though no one would have guessed they would have an epic callout by the NYT, protecting your client's brand should always be a top priority.

What really bothers me is that whom ever purchased the links could have done things whitehat/greyhat for nearly the same price. Such as take advantage of article directories (ezines) and distribution sites (a little more effort, but low quality links from rss distribution will stack up). Use a homegrown blog network or use a 3rd party vendors to distribute content. Heck, even a link wheel would have been good.

For the season of giving they could have donated clothing/bedding/etc to organizations willing to link to them (sponsoring not "buying" for those who think its different).

You've got a mega-brand that could afford to do things whitehat, but either through ignorance, stupidity, or a misplaced sense of trust, chose a different path. Imagine the brand building generosity they could have shown during the holiday season that would have collected links.

Now that I think about it. This may also be a failure of their integrated marketing. If their internal marketing department is not communicating with their seo venders/web devs, their pr dept and their digital media dept (get links from video sites people - create mini JCP commercials for each dept and distribute them all over, fan/consumer homemade commercials via contests etc, Who wouldn't want to show off their 'skinny jeans' ). The white hat "brand building" strategies just weren't there. How sad is that.

over 5 years ago

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Upgrade Software

I am pretty new to the whole idea of SEO. When I first started to research link building and SEO I was amazed how large and accomplished this industry had become. The internet seemed to glow with the boasts and claims of SEO professionals and marketing geniuses, however the deeper I looked the more I began to notice the emergence of link building charlatans, SEO snake oil salesman, and down-right money hungry chance takers. Now chance takers are chance takers regardless of what industry they fall under, however industries with less transparency will always be more attractive to those sniffing out loop holes to apply their particular brand of exploitation. SEO seems to be one of those industries, there is too much ground for the chance takers to move upon, too many corners to hide in, and way too much ignorance on the part of the employers of purported SEO professionals. Transparency in this industry is what is required otherwise SEO snakes will continue to writhe in amongst us and slowly dismantle the trust of employers and consumers. In hindsight maybe a slow dismantling of trust is what is required for people to take an interest and for an effective transparent resolution to arise .

over 5 years ago

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Brandon Hopkins

Do you really think that J.C. Penney didn't realize, or do you think they didn't care. I would suspect that they were generating revenue and didn't really care where the sales came from.

over 5 years ago

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