April 6, 2011
JC Penney Linking Scheme Uncovered
Apparently, linking schemes aren’t just something that small-time webmasters take part in to gain visibility for their fledgling companies. Although some might take exception to that description, the fact remains—linking schemes are often seen as the last resort (or first resort, depending on the color hat your webmaster wears) of small businesses looking to increase their visibility with search engines so that they can compete with the giants whose name recognition alone brings them masses of visitors. But according to a recent article in the New York Times, it’s not just small-time companies that take part in these tactics. In a piece of investigative journalism that harkens back to the good old days of hard-nosed reporting, the New York Times recently uncovered that JC Penney’s website was involved in a linking scheme of epic proportions. According to the article, there were over 2000 websites discovered that had absolutely nothing to do with JC Penney that had key phrases (such as “evening dresses” or “bedding” or “casual wear”) linking directly to Penney’s website. In some cases the phrases were even tacked on to the bottom of these seemingly random websites. The factors that figure into Google’s algorithms to determine where a website places in its search results is a big secret—but one factor that Google has revealed (mainly as a way of encouraging people to play fair) is the number of external websites linking to a given website. As a result of the thousands of random sites linking to JC Penney’s dotcom location, the company’s rankings flew sky high, even to the point where a Google search of the term “Samsonite luggage” brought up JC Penney’s website first, and Samsonite’s second. The fact that JC Penney was achieving such an incredibly high rate of success in their online visibility prompted suspicious minds at the New York Times to take a closer look. As anyone who’s aware of Google’s strong stance against linking schemes can imagine, the search engine giant was none too pleased about the news. Short of banning JC Penney from appearing in its internet search results (something that Google is well capable and willing of doing) measures have been taken which have seriously hurt JC Penney’s search engine rankings and could serve to level a serious blow to its online business. For as much attention as JC Penney is receiving for this gaffe of immense proportions, this actually isn’t the first time that a high profile company has been caught in the act of perpetrating a linking scheme. In 2006, Google temporarily banned BMW from showing up in its search results after having identified some black hat-type activity in relation to the car manufacturer’s German website. JC Penney has officially denied any knowledge about willingly manipulating the Google ranking systems, but their act of firing the consulting firm that they had relied on for all search engine issues indicates there’s probably more than enough blame to go around.