The Data and Details Behind “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search”

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

How many generic, high-traffic keywords was 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 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 Dooryway Page

This domain was registered back in May 2007 by Joey Burzynski, VP of Business Development & Organic Search Strategy at SearchDex. 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 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 and worked to optimize the site for coupon keywords. Now that was at the top of the results, they could control the coupon percentages so when people use coupons from #1 ranked, 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 points you to go shop on, thus a doorway page. ranks in Google for “JCPenney coupons” with the sole purpose of getting you to shop on

Anchor link keyword stuffing

Every product page on (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

    Organic Performance Index of (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)


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  1. Nice job researching this.

    SearchDex may have removed their client list, but as of 9 am eastern on Sunday this is still the first story on their News page (

    JCPenney Signs With SearchDex for Unprecedented 4th Year of Service
    March 15, 2007

  2. Just another example of the fact that link counting is no longer a meaningful way to rank websites. Everyone is worried that Google is a one-trick pony when it comes to advertising when maybe what they should be worried about is that it is a one-trick pony when it comes to search rankings.

    If the company cannot figure out a more meaningful way to rank content than counting the number of incoming links a webpage has this type of thing will only get worse and more widespread.

  3. Excellent write up! Yes, how can the little guy compete with paid link schemes that Google seems helpless to fight against (without high-profile disclosures and manual mitigation)?

  4. JCP ought to re-hire their SEO firm and put them to work ‘helping out’ their competitors with paid links and other SEO nonsense. Then they could complain about how their competitors are gaming Google to the NY Times and get their competitors penalized and put on double secret probation by Google as well.

    With these manually applied high profile penalties Google is just asking for dirty tricks and maybe even government investigations.

  5. Good reporting! However, the question no one is pursuing is why Mr. Cutts didn’t followup on the three J.C. Penny violations his group discovered on their own? His excuse, citing the billions of queries that his group has to handle, is a lame non-sequitur. Fact: he had hard evidence of cheating. Fact: J.C. Penny spends a fortune on paid advertising. Question: did anyone on Mr. Cutts’ staff engage in a coverup?

  6. Great work Doug – It’s been a long time coming for the public to know about Black Hat SEO practices in the enterprise. What’s surprising is that Google knew about JCP all along, starting in the holiday season of 2009, and did little about it. Just goes to show how big fish get away with a slap on the wrist. I bet JCP’s rankings will be back on the bottom of the 1st page or on the 2nd page in less than 6 weeks.

  7. the purpose of a doorway page is to rank well for chosen keywords that push visitors who land on them to another site. Traditionally, this meant an instant redirect … except in this case there is no redirect so its a what? blog. stunning journalism.

  8. Government investigation? Don’t be ridiculous. There is nothing unethical about paid links. Since when did Google get the right to be the arbitrer of everything good on the Internet? What this shows if anything are the flaws in Google. And who’s to say that consumers weren’t as well served by JCP results as they would have been with any other? And, unless you’re Wikipedia, all SEO advantage is temporary. This may have been worth it for JCP.

  9. I too fail to see what’s so wrong with the JC Penney Coupons site. They created a site which distributes coupons, that seems like solid marketing. So the site only links to their website, but what other sites would it even make sense for them to link to?

    If a coupons page was hosted on their own domain, would there be any problem? Is the problem that they tried to make the site seem like it was not associated with them?

  10. I’ve been contacted by SEO firms in the UK acting on behalf of high-street retailers – including one major bank – offering to pay to have my sites host one of their “articles” with inclusive link. When I enquired more, they gave me details and a list of requirements that included not revealing anywhere on the page the name of the SEO company or that the page was being paid for. When I asked if that was okay with Google I heard nothing more. Looking up the SEO company’s client list it’s clear they’re doing the same thing for a number of famous high street companies.

  11. 1. How can small businesses compete with large companies that have deep pockets for paid links?

    I’d like to HOPE that simply “playing by the rules” would eventually pay off. But then, reality sets in…

    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)

    I seriously hope not, at least at this point in time. I feel as though Google has done a decent job thus far, at implementing a string of “controls” to protect search quality. The last thing we need is government involvement in something that really doesn’t concern it. Besides, they’ve broken pretty much everything they’ve touched so far… do we REALLY want them trying to “fix” the internet?

  12. JCP is not guilty of, nor should they be held accountable for anything! They are a for-profit company who did the only thing they should be doing… finding ways to make profit!

    The only thing they should regret is embarrassing Google… who will exact revenge for showcasing how their search results can be manipulated.

    In this case, they chose to exploit a long lasting and gaping hole in the mighty giant Google, who dictates what every webmaster or business owner needs to do if they wish to be seen by Google visitors, which as we know, is 65% or more of person who use the Internet. (People search Google, for Google)

    What if Google decides to say they will no longer shows homes that are painted blue on their maps page because it conflicts with their background? Should we run out and repaint our homes? No… we tell them to take a hike and make THEIR SYSTEM work better.

    The age of using backlinks as a ranking measure have long passed. They have been exploited for many years, and now… a big company has exploited them for profit. Good for JCP. Shame on Google for not protecting “their visitors” better…

    This is a HUGE slippery slope thats been opened up here and anyone who thinks this won’t result in search regulation of some kind, just isn’t looking through clear glasses. When we, as Webmasters, acknowledge that Google needs to be the defacto “keeper-of-the-web” aka “Internet Police” we just screwed ourselves even deeper into having search algo’s regulated by an out of control US Gov’t who feels they need to control steroid use in sports.

  13. @Jeff “Yes, how can the little guy compete with paid link schemes that Google seems helpless to fight against (without high-profile disclosures and manual mitigation)” Agreed! It seems that the only recourse that we have as webmasters, etc. is to trust that Google will follow up on leads like this, not brush them under the table, or worse, simply not have the staff to deal with these leads. Coming from someone who provided such a lead years ago and nothing has been done, shame on Google. Where are these human editors that we hear about? If we can’t trust them to ferret out these cases how can we trust in White-Hat SEO or Organic search?

  14. I agree with garydubbs and Linda. That JC Penney Coupons site is a blog with great coupon offerings for JC Penney shoppers.

    Should they link to Sears, Wal-Mart or Target? It’s a promotional domain that offers updated, sought-after content to JC Penney shoppers and potential shoppers.

    You are right in that it’s a tactic plucked right out of the Rep. Management playbook, but so long as they are offering good content that people want (which they are), what’s the problem?

    I have to repeat Linda’s question: Is the problem that the page wasn’t hosted on their own domain?

  15. @Doug – nice piece here and I muchly enjoyed how you added screenshots to help explain your points! There’s much furour over this whole JCP issue in the various online SEO community…and it’s good to see that many of us have opinions on same, eh!

    Oh, and yup, I blogged about same at my Canadian SEO blog too!



  16. Totally agree with the comments re: the overall weakness of google. The way they’re going about it, we’re going to be left with organic searches all pointing to wikipedia.

    They have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that the number of backlinks isn’t a measure of “quality”.

    There’s no two ways about it.

  17. Great post!

    I personally think that Google is going to hurt their index with these actions in the long run, as this article has helped to promote the tactic of competitive link espionage.

    If all it takes is a “dirty” backlink profile to drop competitors in the rankings, then why wouldn’t high profile companies try and pry their competitors down in the indexes by linking to their domains via questionable tactics?

    Lets say a aggressive retailer sends an automated script/bot to try and spam sites with COMPETITOR links in the HTML.

    How could Google ever decipher the fact that that one link scheme is published within malicous intent from a competitor versus a shady effort to improve rankings.

    Its not possible. There is no solution. And now with this added visibility and more people likely to engage, I see this process getting worse. Link Spam 3.0

    Instead of the traditional link value algo, I see Google leaning on the social graph to decipher quality. People don’t pass crap to their friends.

    FB and Twitter links both are “no-followed” today, meaning they don’t influence algorithms. I’m starting to think we wont be caring much about the no-follow tag in 3 years the way this is shaking out…

  18. If Google wants to hire me, I could identify 25 large organizations my first day on the job who are doing no less than what JCPenneys is doing in terms of paid linking. If they wanted to slap them all at once, it would stop the problem very quickly. Matt Cutts is disappointingly disingenuous and I don’t think Google wants to do anything about this. I’ve been dutifully sending them well-documented complaints for years via their “report paid linking” form, but nothing ever comes of it. I’m sure many of you have seen the same thing. Has anybody ever seen Google do anything in response to a complaint about a large company buying links?

  19. @ Richard –

    Yes, we’re also in the UK and I know for a fact that Thomas Cook do this all over the web.

    One of our customers has been paid to have a link reading “package holidays” on their website.

    I bet there are loads of them at it.

  20. I think paid links are a good part of SERP results. If a company can afford to buy links, then they obviously have a good product that produces profit to pay for paid links. You can’t go on for long paying for links if you return no profit from the product or service you are trying to sell. What I an trying to say is that companies that pay for links have a good product thus are a good result in the SERP’s!

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