Retailer J.C. Penney this morning finds itself in hot water with Google, which means shoppers using Google to find a wide variety of goods are going to be much less likely to find them at J.C. Penney.
In short, according to a story in Saturday's New York Times, J.C. Penney's search engine optimization contractor littered the Internet with thousands of links pointing from low-quality Web sites back to J.C. Penney's Web site. Such dodgy search engine optimization practices are expressly forbidden by Google but nonetheless prove irresistible to the unscrupulous because, as was the case here, they can produce dramatic results.
The Times story describes how J.C. Penney benefited:
The company bested millions of sites - and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for "skinny jeans," "home decor," "comforter sets," "furniture" and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic ("tablecloths") to the strangely specific ("grommet top curtains").
This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in "Samsonite carry on luggage," for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite.com.
Google says it had caught J.C. Penney gaming the system previously, but failed to keep close enough tabs on the company to prevent this recurrence.
The newspaper elicited this breathtakingly disingenuous statement from a J.C. Penney spokeswoman:
"J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies. We are working to have the links taken down."
Not involved, yet J.C. Penney immediately fired its search contractor, SearchDex.
Deep into the story, the Times raises a question that some, including European antitrust regulators, ask often: Does being a big paid advertiser with Google, such as J.C. Penney, win one favor when it comes to Google's non-paid search results and/or lenient treatment if and when you're caught gaming the system? Google says absolutely not:
Asked if Penney received any breaks because of the money it has spent on ads, (Google anti-spam guru Matt) Cutts said, "I'll give a categorical denial." He then made an impassioned case for Google's commitment to separating the money side of the business from the search side. The former has zero influence on the latter, he said.
Still there are those putting as much of the blame on Google as J.C. Penney, witness this headline from the San Francisco Chronicle: "Google Let JC Penney Spam Search Results For Months."
Vanessa Fox, who formerly worked at Google policing these types of schemes, adds her perspective - and advice to other would-be Google gamers - in a post on Search Engine Land.
When I caution companies against tactics that violate the guidelines, they sometimes say that I'm being a goody goody or as an ex-Googler simply have strong allegiance to Google. Some tell me that they have an obligation to use all of the tools available to them to gain an audience and revenue. But the truth is just that I've seen too many analytics reports with traffic down and to the right. And I feel my obligation is to help companies build sustainable audiences and revenue.
Building a long term search strategy that adheres to the search engine guidelines may mean that it takes longer before you start seeing traffic from search engines, but that traffic is not at risking of drying up at any moment.
J.C. Penney is about to learn how much ignoring that advice can cost.