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You So Naughty, JCPenney

Linking farming doesn’t pay (in the long run at least). JCPenney, along with whoever read Sunday’s business section of the Times just learned this the hard way. Incredibly long story marginally shorter, JCPenney had been enjoying top Search returns for valuable words like bedding and dresses among others for months. JCPenney may have good bedding, dresses, living room furniture and area rugs but first place on Google for all of that, that had better be some pretty damn good bedding. That bedding had better come with something attractive with whom to use that bedding – are we on the same page now? It’s a valuable thing, a high return, not to mention number one, on things people routinely search for and buy.

Or more likely the product of link farming. One thing search engines including Google like about your website is if other websites of a similar nature have links to your site. I believe we do that. And it’s cool with Google, makes for a better web I suppose if one site links to other relevant sites, people surf further, get ranked higher, whatever – but the music’s over if Google catches you crossing the line.

Crossing the line is defined as having a bunch of web pages scattered about that were artificially generated with the sole intention of tricking Google’s search ranking into thinking you have a popular website that’s relevant to area rugs, bedding and dresses because all the random sites, for example, mention those words, maybe have pictures named we_sell_this_dress_among_others.jpg but are otherwise useless in terms of being a place for anyone to want to visit. These sites offer no utility to the world beyond polluting a search engine to skew results in the direction of the scum dumb and low enough to think they could get away with it.

And when Google catches you, you and your company are effed in the A and they eject you into the world wide black hole. You’re gone. In a few weeks you’ll probably be off Bing too. Lights out bitch, no more free happy stream of Google referral traffic for you and good luck giving out your URL on your own. Yeah, hope that business card and that late night TV spot works out for you, dirty link farmer.

In 2006, Google announced that it had caught BMW using a black-hat strategy to bolster the company’s German Web site, That site was temporarily given what the BBC at the time called “the death penalty,” stating that it was “removed from search results.”

JCPenney’s website was discovered to be on the receiving end of an elaborate and vast link farming operation with sites in the thousands, tactfully composed pages. JCPenney says they don’t know nothin’ about no link farming yet is taking down the bogus sites. When I heard about this I thought no company of that size would be stupid enough to engage in link farming on that scale, it’s just search suicide. It’s easier to imagine that this was an elaborate frame job but given the resources that would go into those results, number one on such terms for several months, there are more cost effective ways to hurt your competition. It would be pretty damn innovative if that were the case.

More likely that it was a somewhat innocent mistake that got carried away as JCPenney did employ some sort of search engine optimization firm, so if the left hand not keeping close tabs on the right is of any worth perhaps Google will see that as mitigating.

But not today. Try searching those terms to see if jcpenney comes up anywhere and you’ll give up before you find anything.’s got bedding at the moment, victoriassecret interestingly has dresses. No more soup for you, JCPenney. So naughty.

But what the hell, Google, how do they get away with this for not a few days but several months? Don’t know what a link farm looks like yet? I didn’t run the numbers but that sounds like millions of dollars they intercepted from the likes of Victoria’s Secret, the true queen of dresses. I’m good enough computers to think I know that this type of thing on the tech side is a lot more discoverable and preventable than what’s been revealed by JCPenney’s demonstration.

While JCPenney may or may not be really guilty instead of pretty guilty of jive hussiness, what is clear is that this was a stunning failure on Google’s part to police their search engine. That this went under the radar for so long, even taking into consideration what Google’s whining about, that they fight spam in all directions with only 24K employees up against 200 million domains, no Google, that’s inexcusable. The worst part of it, from where I’m sitting, is that a whole lot of would-not-have-otherwise-been link farmers are now thinking the risks are much lower so game on and are congratulating themselves for subscribing to the New York Times.

Google, get yourself some more red flags and make sure you watch to see if they get raised. Several months? That said don’t go easy on JCPenney just because you’re embarrassed (you should be embarrassed). Give them the BMW treatment or add BMW to the list of companies to whom you owe apologies.

Doug Simmons