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Did JC Penney dupe Google's search engine?

Did JC Penney dupe Google's search engine?

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JC Penney may have resorted to underhanded tactics to have their web site rank higher in Google's search results.

JC Penney may have resorted to underhanded tactics to have their web site rank higher in Google's search results, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

The newspaper asked Doug Pierce, an online search expert at Blue Fountain Media, to investigate why the company was consistently scoring a top ranking for generic terms like "furniture" and "skinny jeans" over other more relevant retail sites. His probe found that someone had paid to have thousands of links, which lead back to JC Penney's web site, published on numerous web sites that appeared to serve no other purpose than to carry out the scheme. This strategy helped JC Penney shoot up the page rankings since Google's search algorithm views every link back to the company site as bolstering the site's relevancy to the linked terms or phrases.

While such actions aren't illegal and JC Penney has denied any responsibility in the matter, Google does consider them to be a form of cheating, or in hipper tech terms, "black-hatting" and has taken corrective action. In a matter if a couple of hours, the retailer's ranking for the search term "living room furniture" plummeted from number one to 68.

A couple weeks ago, I suggested that algorithms may no longer be effective now that content farms and spam sites are using what they know about search engines to produce sites with low quality content tailored just to appear high up in search results. Google likely made matters worse when it decided to divulge elements of the top-secret algorithm they figured would encourage the type of search engine optimization that increased a web site's relevance to certain search terms. The algorithm's preference for sites that boasted a lot of linkbacks for a given search term was one these components the company detailed openly.

At the time, it was a move that seemed not only harmless, but should ultimately help to deliver better results for the user. But now, as a way of protecting the quality of their results, the search giant is forced to police the sketchy practices of spammers, content farms and some pretty large companies who are well-equipped to exploit this information for the purpose of rigging online searches. The article describes the manner in which Google has laid the smack down on companies who skated the rules:

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.”

Despite Google's willingness to dole out some pretty harsh punishment, the report insinuates that there is a possibility that Google allowed JC Penney to continue its linking scheme unabated for months because the retailer so happens to be one of their high-profile advertising clients. Matt Cutts, Google's principle search engineer, has "categorically denied" any such allegation and points out that his team is also working on search engine tweaks that would better detect black-hat techniques.

Here's what he told the New York Times:

“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.”

Fair enough. But if Google is content to play sheriff, should we simply accept navigating the internet as if it were the wild west?

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure