If David Segal’s brilliant report on The Dirty Little Secrets of Search left you with a thirst for the data behind the story, here are the black hat fingerprints that led me to discover the biggest SEO manipulation of Google by a public company yet uncovered.

Other Coverage:

Paid Links

Check the “dresses”, “furniture”, and “lingerie” link profiles on OpenSiteExplorer and see for yourself.
Dresses links pointing to jcpenney.com

How many generic, high-traffic keywords was JCPenney.com ranking for? Tens of thousands according to data from SEMRush. Here’s a sampling of what JCP was able to achieve:

Keyword Google (US) Position USA Monthly Search Volume
bedding 1 3,350,000
swimsuits 1 673,000
baby cribs 1 90,500
pearl earrings 1 60,500
diamond jewelry 2 60,500

Not all of JCP’s rankings could be attributed to paid links of course, but many were.

While SearchDex took down many of the links already, here is an example of the kind of pages links were coming from:

JCP Link was on Guide To Gadgets

In the footer, you would have found this:

JCPenney Paid Link in Footer

View the source and you’d see:

JCPenney Paid Link from TNX

JCPenney-coupons.com Doorway Page

Doorway pages are sites that rank well for chosen keywords that push visitors who land on them to another site. Traditionally, this meant an instant redirect, but search engines can easily detect this today. In the case of JCP, have a look at jcpenney-coupons.com
JCPenney Coupons Dooryway Page

This domain was registered back in May 2007 by Joey Burzynski, VP of Business Development & Organic Search Strategy at SearchDex. JCPenney-coupons.com ranks #1 in Google for “JCPenney coupons”, “JCPenney coupon codes”, “JCPenney free shipping”, and the like. The apparent purpose of this domain is to publish a blog post every month offering searchers of these terms a new JCP coupon.

My hypothesis is that the online sales team at JCPenney.com every month saw lots of people using various JCP coupons that were originally sent out to targeted customers, but which then spread virally around the web. To counteract the effect of so many coupons being used on the site, SearchDex registered jcpenney-coupons.com and worked to optimize the site for coupon keywords. Now that jcpenney-coupons.com was at the top of the results, they could control the coupon percentages so when people use coupons from #1 ranked jcpenney-coupons.com, they most likely used less valuable coupons than they could find elsewhere on the web deeper down in the results pages. This is essentially Online Reputation Management for coupons.

Furthermore, every link on jcpenney-coupons.com points you to go shop on jcpenney.com, thus a doorway page. JCPenney-coupons.com ranks in Google for “JCPenney coupons” with the sole purpose of getting you to shop on JCPenney.com.

Anchor link keyword stuffing

Every product page on JCPenney.com (see Dresses) has stuffed keywords and links. The button “Quality Values” seems so innocuous, but once you click it, it shows:
JCPenney Anchor Text Stuffing
Each of those unrelated words is a link to that respective category of products.

Now that the Story Broke

SearchDex Client Navigation Changed

  • Corsin Camichel, the “chatty 25-year-old I.T. security analyst in Switzerland” who accepted JCP paid links on his site, wrote on his blog (nofollowed :P), “I knew it was wrong. I knew I can get caught. But as so often, you tell yourself ‘nobody will notice’ and ‘oh that ain’t so bad, others do the same’. But I got caught and burned.” He publicly apologized to Matt Cutts in a tweet:
    Cocaman Apology Tweet to Matt Cutts
  • In regards to how much JCP knew of the tactics, here are some key parts of a job posting for a JCPenney “VP Digital Marketing Gifting Glad / CLAD job in Texas” (Google Cache)
    • “Maintains and oversees relationships with advertising/PR/SEO agencies”
    • “Works with agency to implement and track.”
  • Former SearchDex employee Mitch Friedman, who worked at the now-infamous agency 2005-2006, is the first person close to SearchDex to comment on the story (“this does not come as a surprise to me at all”, “greed played a very large part”).
  • Organic Performance Index of jcpenney.com

    Organic Performance Index of jcpenney.com (click for full size)

What Now?

I leave you with two questions to ponder:

  1. How can small businesses compete with large companies that have deep pockets for paid links?
  2. Do you think laws will be written or FTC action taken against paid links? (The FTC now says paid reviews online without disclosure are illegal)