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Black Hat SEO caughtNY Times broke a story about black hat SEO techniques that J.C. Penney employed to boost their rankings over the holiday season. For months, their pages were consistently ranking very high for not very relevant terms, like "home decor", "skinny jeans", "furniture", etc.

NY Times asked Doug Pierce from Blue Fountain Media to investigate the sudden ranking spike. The investigation uncovered that SearchDex - the SEO agency that J.C. Penney hired - used black hat SEO techniquest to boost the rankings for the holiday season. Simply put, they were buying links.

I have a theory on what actually happend. Here it is.

What happened? - My Theory

The SEO community weighed in on the subject, of course. SEO Audit expert Alan Bleiweiss analyzed J.C.Penney's website and concludes that J.C. Penney have bigger problems than paid links. Vanessa Fox covers the technical aspect of the link scheme on Search Engine Land website.

As professional SEOs, we know black hat SEO moves when we see them. Was J.C.Penney unaware of what was happening to their site, as they claim? I don't think so.

To quote the NY Times article,

There was considerable pressure from investors for Penney to deliver strong holiday results.

Here is what I think happened. J.C.Penney needed a revenue boost from web sales. Knowing full well that white hat SEO strategies are long term, uphill battle for world domination, they were looking for quick wins to appease their investors. They calculated the risk, weighed the options, and found an SEO company who was willing to do whatever it takes to give J.C.Penney what they wanted - boost in revenue.

What happened next? J.C.Penney got their incredible rankings for all kinds of terms just in time for the holiday season. Did they boost their revenue? You bet! Even though I cannot look at their analytics, it is not that hard to conclude that their sales increased because of their high rankings. Mission accomplished. And I am in complete agreement with a fellow SEO Jill Whalen who said in her comments, "And had the NYT not outed them publicly, it would have likely helped them for pretty much ever." Google is catching up to spam tactics, but not quickly enough, for the obvious reasons.

What are the outcomes?

  1. The main outcome, in my opinion, is that J.C.Penney accomplished their main goal - increase revenue from the website. The tactics they chose are unethical, in my opinion, but when all parties agree to cheat, there is no one to blame but themselves.
  2. Thanks to NY Times, the cheaters got caught. But they were prepared for it. That's why they hired an outside company to execute the dirty tactics, so they can fire them in the end, pretend they knew nothing about the tactics and shrug. It is calculated play.
  3. Who knew of SearcDex before the article? I bet, very few people. Now all of us not only heard of them, but we know exactly what they are capable of. And so do other customers who would like a "repeat performance" to reap the profits from organic search. SearchDex not only got free publicity, but a valuable testimonial as well. No wonder, they took the risk and were ready to get fired if their strategy blew up in their face.


The question is, was it worth it? I bet, it was for all the parties involved, except, maybe, Google. J.C.Penney accomplished their goal. SearchDex got instantly famous for being wicked. And Google got a smudge of egg on the face, which it promptly wiped out by manually fixing search results.

Another takeaway is that black hat techniques will continue. The reason they work is because they are hard to detect. Google has a lot of work to do and they know it.

And finally, in my personal opinion, no big brand is going to hire an SEO noob and hand them their website. SearchDex just contributed to the pressure that every professional SEO feels from their clients: are you willing to do whatever it takes? What is that invisible ethical SEO line that we walk every day? Will you be willing to cross it for a chunk of change?

This is my conspiracy theory about what happened. What's yours?

UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2011)
Hugo Guzman puts an interesting twist to the story and discusses NYT SEO problems. Pretty ironic, huh? I am in complete agreement with Hugo - take SEO seriously, make it a long term goal and don't fail to execute.