By Sara Yin
Over the weekend the New York Times published a damning expose of how JC Penney allegedly gamed Google's page-ranking algorithm, which artificially made the retailer a top search result. On Monday, JC Penney fired back at both theNew York Times and Google for misrepresenting the company.
"The characterization of JC Penney in the New York Times article is misleading and unwarranted," wrote Darcie Brossart, vice-president of corporate communcations at JC Penney, in an e-mail.
Responding to Google's reaction of burying links to JCPenney.com in its search results, she added, "We have no record of ever having received a violation notification from Google before last week when the unauthorized links came to our attention. If we had, we would have worked quickly to remedy the situation, as we are doing now. Obviously, we are disappointed that Google has reduced our rankings."
The original story, "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search" by David Segal, details how JC Penney allegedly manipulated unpaid, organic search results to make itself the top listing for numerous generic terms like "dresses" and "area rugs." The New York Times hired a search engine optimization firm, Blue Fountain Media in New York, to show how this was done.
Using a well-known trick called "black hat" optimization, JC Penney's now-fired SEO firm SearchDex apparently created artificial websites that linked to JC Penney's site. The links helped push JC Penney pages to the top of Google search results; one known aspect behind Google's top-secret page-ranking algorithm is that the more times your website is linked, the higher up you rank in a search result.
Google told PCMag that even before Times reporter Segal contacted the search giant with the results of his investigation, it had already discovered the issue and changed its page-ranking algorithm after spotting suspicious activity from JC Penney and other companies. Google has an entire team, the Web Spam Team, devoted to detecting search-result spam and amending its page rank algorithm.
However, after looking at Segal's findings, Google concluded that JC Penney had also violated Google's Webmaster Guidelines. The company reacted by burying JC Penney's search results, and as the NYT notes, now when you search for something like "Samsonite carry on luggage" JC Penney is the 71st search result instead of the first.
"When someone is looking for information on Google, we want them to find the most relevant answers possible. Our search algorithm relies on more than 200 signals to help people find the answers they're looking for, and when websites violate our published webmaster guidelines to try and game the system, that's bad for users and we are willing to take manual corrective action," a Google spokesman said.
JC Penney denies involvement with the black hatting techniques of SearchDex.
"JC Penney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted. To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google's guidelines," Brossart wrote.