Pretend for a moment that you are Google’s search engine. Someone types the word “dresses” and hits enter. What will be the very first result?
There are, of course, a lot of possibilities. Macy’s comes to mind. Maybe a specialty chain, like J. Crew or the Gap. Perhaps a Wikipedia entry on the history of hemlines.
O.K., how about the word “bedding”? Bed Bath & Beyond seems a candidate. Or Wal-Mart, or perhaps the bedding section of Amazon.com.
“Area rugs”? Crate & Barrel is a possibility. Home Depot, too, and Sears, Pier 1 or any of those Web sites with “area rug” in the name, like arearugs.com.
You could imagine a dozen contenders for each of these searches. But in the last several months, one name turned up, with uncanny regularity, in the No. 1 spot for each and every term:
J. C. Penney.
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.
With more than 1,100 stores and $17.8 billion in total revenue in 2010, Penney is certainly a major player in American retailing. But Google’s stated goal is to sift through every corner of the Internet and find the most important, relevant Web sites.
Does the collective wisdom of the Web really say that Penney has the most essential site when it comes to dresses? And bedding? And area rugs? And dozens of other words and phrases?
The New York Times asked an expert in online search, Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media in New York, to study this question, as well as Penney’s astoundingly strong search-term performance in recent months. What he found suggests that the digital age’s most mundane act, the Google search, often represents layer upon layer of intrigue. And the intrigue starts in the sprawling, subterranean world of “black hat” optimization, the dark art of raising the profile of a Web site with methods that Google considers tantamount to cheating.
Despite the cowboy outlaw connotations, black-hat services are not illegal, but trafficking in them risks the wrath of Google. The company draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and “white hat” approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site’s visibility. Penney’s results were derived from methods on the wrong side of that line, says Mr. Pierce. He described the optimization as the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen.
“Actually, it’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “This whole thing just blew me away. Especially for such a major brand. You’d think they would have people around them that would know better.”
TO understand the strategy that kept J. C. Penney in the pole position for so many searches, you need to know how Web sites rise to the top of Google’s results. We’re talking, to be clear, about the “organic” results — in other words, the ones that are not paid advertisements. In deriving organic results, Google’s algorithm takes into account dozens of criteria, many of which the company will not discuss.
But it has described one crucial factor in detail: links from one site to another.
If you own a Web site, for instance, about Chinese cooking, your site’s Google ranking will improve as other sites link to it. The more links to your site, especially those from other Chinese cooking-related sites, the higher your ranking. In a way, what Google is measuring is your site’s popularity by polling the best-informed online fans of Chinese cooking and counting their links to your site as votes of approval.
But even links that have nothing to do with Chinese cooking can bolster your profile if your site is barnacled with enough of them. And here’s where the strategy that aided Penney comes in. Someone paid to have thousands of links placed on hundreds of sites scattered around the Web, all of which lead directly to JCPenney.com.
Who is that someone? A spokeswoman for J. C. Penney, Darcie Brossart, says it was not Penney.
“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,” Ms. Brossart wrote in an e-mail. She added, “We are working to have the links taken down.”
The links do not bear any fingerprints, but nothing else about them was particularly subtle. Using an online tool called Open Site Explorer, Mr. Pierce found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses,” “evening dresses,” “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.” Click on any of these phrases on any of these 2,015 pages, and you are bounced directly to the main page for dresses on JCPenney.com.
Some of the 2,015 pages are on sites related, at least nominally, to clothing. But most are not. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were tacked to the bottom of a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. “Evening dresses” appeared on a site called casino-focus.com. “Cocktail dresses” showed up on bulgariapropertyportal.com. ”Casual dresses” was on a site called elistofbanks.com. “Semi-formal dresses” was pasted, rather incongruously, on usclettermen.org.
There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.
Some of these sites seem all but abandoned, except for the links. The greeting at myflhomebuyer.com sounds like the saddest fortune cookie ever: “Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”
When you read the enormous list of sites with Penney links, the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.
Exploiting those hovels for links is a Google no-no. The company’s guidelines warn against using tricks to improve search engine rankings, including what it refers to as “link schemes.” The penalty for getting caught is a pair of virtual concrete shoes: the company sinks in Google’s results.
Often drastically. In 2006, Google announced that it had caught BMW using a black-hat strategy to bolster the company’s German Web site, BMW.de. That site was temporarily given what the BBC at the time called “the death penalty,” stating that it was “removed from search results.”
BMW acknowledged that it had set up “doorway pages,” which exist just to attract search engines and then redirect traffic to a different site. The company at the time said it had no intention of deceiving users, adding “if Google says all doorway pages are illegal, we have to take this into consideration.”
J. C. Penney, it seems, will not suffer the same fate. But starting Wednesday, it was the subject of what Google calls “corrective action.”
Last week, The Times sent Google the evidence it had collected about the links to JCPenney.com. Google promptly set up an interview with Matt Cutts, the head of the Webspam team at Google, and a man whose every speech, blog post and Twitter update is parsed like papal encyclicals by players in the search engine world.
“I can confirm that this violates our guidelines,” said Mr. Cutts during an hourlong interview on Wednesday, after looking at a list of paid links to JCPenney.com.
He said Google had detected previous guidelines violations related to JCPenney.com on three occasions, most recently last November. Each time, steps were taken that reduced Penney’s search results — Mr. Cutts avoids the word “punished” — but Google did not later “circle back” to the company to see if it was still breaking the rules, he said.
He and his team had missed this recent campaign of paid links, which he said had been up and running for the last three to four months.
“Do I wish our system had detected things sooner? I do,” he said. “But given the one billion queries that Google handles each day, I think we do an amazing job.”
Mr. Cutts sounded remarkably upbeat and unperturbed during this conversation, which was a surprise given that we were discussing a large, sustained effort to snooker his employer. Asked about his zenlike calm, he said the company strives not to act out of anger. You get the sense that Mr. Cutts and his colleagues are acutely aware of the singular power they wield as judge, jury and appeals panel, and they’re eager to project an air of maturity and judiciousness.
That said, he added, “I don’t think I could do my job well if in some sense I was not offended by things that were bad for Google users.”
“Am I happy this happened?” he later asked. “Absolutely not. Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.”
And the company did. On Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a “manual action” against Penney, essentially demotions specifically aimed at the company.
At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”
Two hours later, it was at No. 71.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”
By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.
In other words, one moment Penney was the most visible online destination for living room furniture in the country.
The next it was essentially buried.
PENNEY reacted to this instant reversal of fortune by, among other things, firing its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex. Executives there did not return e-mail or phone calls.
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