US retail giant J. C. Penney was punished by Google for using black hat SEO tactics to artificially inflate its search ranking for common keywords.
The revelation came as a result of an investigation by New York Times jounalists, who noticed during the holiday shopping season that J. C. Penney's website appeared as the top search result for generic terms such as dresses, bedding, furniture, area rugs and many others.
Not only that, but the website was also Google's first stop for more exact searches, even ones that contained brand names. For example, jcpenney.com appeared before samsonite.com in search results for "Samsonite carry on luggage."
The newspaper asked a search engine optimization (SEO) expert to look into the matter and he uncovered thousands of spam pages filled with hundreds of keywords and all linking back to the retailer.
"[...] It’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of. 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," said Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media, who analyzed J. C. Penney's black hat SEO.
The New York Times shared their findings with Google, which admitted demoting the retailer's search rankings on three separate occasions in the past for violating the rules.
But despite being a repeat offender Google's staff failed to keep an eye on the company's website and allowed it to game the search results during the most important online shopping period of the entire year.
The search giant has now taken manual action against jcpenny.com, demoting it in the results for many keywords where it was previously leading. For its part, J. C. Penney claims that it wasn't aware of the unethical practices and it has since fired its SEO consulting firm, SearchDex.
The methods applied in this case are the same ones used by cybercriminals in black hat SEO campaigns that poison search results to push scareware. However, the latter are more successful because they piggyback on the search ranking of legitimate websites that have been compromised, instead of using pages set up for spam.