JCPenney’s SEO No-No – How You Can Avoid a Similar Fate

JCPenney recently made headlines with the penalization it received from Google based on some suspect search engine optimization (SEO) approaches.

The Story

The New York Times recently published an article on “Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets,” which explored JCPenney’s suspicious search domination over the holiday season, and its eventual ranking demise due to Google’s reaction to its seemingly spam-like activities.

The New York Times gathered evidence to show that JCPenney had been engaged in under-handed SEO tactics including the placement of thousands of irrelevant links on irrelevant websites.

The spam team at Google investigated and JCPenney was penalized for its SEO approaches by being dropped in the rankings from the first page to the sixth or seventh page.

The Problem – What Went Wrong?

Search engines like Google assess the quality and relevance of a website for a given keyword based on a myriad of factors. Google’s number one goal is to provide a good user experience that keeps users coming back. They want the site with the most relevant content for a given keyword to come up at the top of the search engine results. Of the many factors its algorithm uses to make this assessment, the inbound links pointing into a website is arguably one of the most important.

All other things equal, the more links you have pointing to your website using your target keyword in the “anchor text” (hyperlink), the higher you will rank on that keyword.

That said, not all links are created equal, and not all approaches to acquiring inbound links are considered legitimate.

Google looks negatively upon links from sites that are irrelevant or that have poor authority (judged partially by PageRank). Having a link to a retail site that sells home goods from a site about cars is not considered relevant and in fact could be detrimental. Having a link from a site that is made up solely of links to other sites (commonly referred to as “link farms”) also can do damage to your site’s reputation. Google also gets suspicious when the number of links pointing to a site increase dramatically in a short period of time. Garnering thousands of links in one month when a site typically only acquires 10 to 20 in a typical month could suggest that some type of link “scheme” is underway. Finally, using “doorway” pages or mirrored sites that are designed specifically for the search engines (and not your users) is also something that Google frowns upon.

Essentially, any activities that do not appear to be authentic in nature, that are solely designed to manipulate search engine rankings, and/or that do not benefit the user will eventually be raised as a red flag by Google. Any of these suspicious or sneaky activities are often referred to as “spam” or “black-hat SEO” and will typically be penalized by Google with a reduction in rankings or – in extreme circumstances – a removal from the indexes all together.

JCPenney’s approaches exhibited many of the “suspicious” behaviors outlined above, which created the red flag for Google:

  1. Drastic uptake of links in a short period of time.
  2. Links from irrelevant sites and link spamming.
  3. Use of a mirrored site hosted on a proxy server instead of the main JCPenney domain.

What Can We Learn From This?

In SEO, patience is everything. Anything that appears to be a “quick win” is likely going to be detrimental in the long run. It takes time to achieve quality, relevant links, and to sustain rankings over time.

Suggestions for your SEO strategy:

  • Put your users first – if it’s not right for the users, it’s not right for the search engines.
  • Focus on creating high value, relevant content and a compelling user experience, and other sites will naturally link to you.
  • Make link building an ongoing activity, not something you do once a year.
  • Focus on quality over quantity. A few links from trusted sources will go much further than hundreds of links of smaller, less relevant sites.
  • Use paid search to quickly bolster your presence during key periods such as back-to-school or the holiday season.
  • Plan your SEO efforts well in advance so that the impact comes into effect over time versus rushing to make progress in a short period.
  • Select specific keywords for each main section or page of your site, versus choosing broad, all-encompassing keywords.

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