Penny’s Made Millions Tricking Google

Someone types the word “dresses” into Google and hits enter. What will be the very first result?

There are a lot of possibilities. Macy’s comes to mind. Maybe J. Crew or the Gap. Perhaps a Wikipedia entry on the history of hemlines.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Complete article via New York Times

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: