The Dark Arts of Search Engine Optimization

Sunday’s edition of The New York Times featured a great story on search engine optimization.

The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, by David Segal, looks at an interesting phenomenon: J.C. Penney’s unusually high ranking on Google for words that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with it. Of course, J.C. Penney sells bedding, and dresses, and furniture, but it is not considered an industry leader in any of those fields. So why was it the highest ranking search result for all of those words and many others?

Image courtesy of The New York Times

Using a dicey strategy (that they haven’t owned up to–yet), there are links to J.C. Penney from all over the web. Links to your website from others increases your search results as Google interprets that as high relevance/influence, and as Segal noted, “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.”

But J.C. Penney has not received the ultimate online “death penalty:” complete removal from search results. Instead, Google promised “corrective action,” which Segal documented:

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.

Was it worth it, for J.C. Penney? Probably. Though this tarnished their reputation among those who care to understand SEO, or read the Times cover to cover, they like reaped great rewards using this strategy. Segal’s article notes that “A study last May by Daniel Ruby of Chitika, an online advertising network of 100,000 sites, found that, on average, 34 percent of Google’s traffic went to the No. 1 result, about twice the percentage that went to No. 2.”

Check out the article for a more in-depth look at the dark underbelly of SEO.

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