Just three months after it was downgraded as a penalty for alleged 'black hat' link-building techniques, US department store J.C. Penney has recovered its organic search visibility on Google. 

How the retailer achieved this provides a good example of how Google penalties work.

If you don’t know the story, J.C. Penney was ‘outed’ in a high profile article in The New York times for having a large number of paid for inbound links on its site, a practice which Google shuns.

At the time Google downgraded the store's visibility so that many of its keywords lost their rankings in Google’s results pages. And our Organic Performance Index (which is used to measure search visibility) recorded a dramatic drop in visibility for the site as a result.

But as the chart below shows, our data indicates that J.C. Penney has been able to rebound from this hit so that it has now regained a significant portion of that lost visibility.

J C Penney shows us how to recover from a Google penalty

And when we looked at the history of some of the stores’ important keywords, we found they have got their former rankings back to exactly where they were before. This can be seen very clearly when you look at the development of the keyword “jewelry” (US spelling):

 J C Penney keword recovery - jewelry

How did the department store manage this?

Well it’s unlikely that accepted SEO techniques would have worked to restore its visibility so quickly. So let’s be clear on this. We don’t think J.C. Penney is getting special treatment here - Google would hurt its own credibility if it was. 

The store more than likely got the penalty lifted and its rankings back under the condition that it works according to Google’s webmaster rules going forward. One could call it a probation period.

We have observed this happening for algorithm penalties before: after a couple of weeks or months the penalty has been taken back, at least partially.

Is this a good thing and should J.C. Penney get its rankings back? Well, for the keyword samples where we looked at the ranking history and at the content, yes. And obviously, J.C.Penney is a well known department store.

Interestingly Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, uploaded a useful video here  in which he explains a little about how Google penalties work and the process by which they might be lifted.


Published 25 May, 2011 by Horst Joepen

Horst Joepen is CEO of Searchmetrics and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (7)

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Ingram Sanders

Surely if the backlinking strategies used to achieve those high rankings were black hat, their impact on any future rankings should be cancelled.

However, it appears that the ban has simply been lifted and all the previous 'Google juice' has been reinstated.

If this is the case, does this really act as a deterrent for anyone wanting to implement a black hat strategy?

If however, J.C. Penney have managed to reinstate themselves at the top of the rankings with effective and 'allowed' SEO strategies, well done them and it would be interesting if anyone could share how they managed this!

about 7 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

"We don’t think J.C. Penney is getting special treatment here - Google would hurt its own credibility if it was."

I have to agree with you on that one. After such a public fall from grace, if J.C. Penney were to get special treatment, Google would be next in line for the firing squad. It is a very substantial jump up after such a devastating fall. I would be interested to find out what they've been doing to recoup their losses.

about 7 years ago



"If this is the case, does this really act as a deterrent for anyone wanting to implement a black hat strategy?"
Ingram, I'm with you on that one. It seems like just a slap on the hand to me. Black hat should be treated the same for all players. If every little website that fell from grace because of black hat techniques got a probation period, Google would be tied up for the next thousand years acting as a probation officer.
J.C.Penney should have had to earn their place back. as anyone else would.

about 7 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

The message seems clear then: paid links help your rankings until a national newspaper grasses you up to Google. Then they don't help for a bit. Then they do again.

about 7 years ago

Matthias Zeitler

Matthias Zeitler, CEO at MarkTheGlobe, Inc.

Very confusing policy on paid links.

So the same keywords that were banned earlier are visible now again, even though they probably have the same links as before.

about 7 years ago



The article doesn't explain the heading. So how did JC Penny recover from there link buying penalty? It's apparent it was nothing they did for sure, other than Plausible deniability. It would be impossible 1)to acquire enough backlinks naturally to gain back there rankings, and 2)if Google discounted those previous links to still have site authority to gain any rankings still. So as far as I can see Google holds no credibility here. If they discounted paid links from Penny they'd still be in the gutter, and BooHoo for them saying they knew nothing about the paid links. Weak argument here for Penny and Google.

about 7 years ago


Horst Joepen, CEO at Searchmetrics

Looking at the various sources of data it would appear that JC Penney have been actively deleting and adding no-follow links to many of their backlinks. Deleting these backlinks that may have “hurt” their rankings would have helped them comply with Google webmaster guidelines and may have contributed to the relaxing of the ban.

about 7 years ago

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