Last month, the New York Times published a fantastic story about the way JC Penney figured out how to get great placement in Google search results. Around the holidays, if you typed a generic product into Google — like “dresses” or “bedding” or “area rugs” — the first result would inevitably be JC Penney. Which — theoretically — increased chances that you would buy these products from JC Penney instead of one of its competitors.
This was also true for some specific brand names, too. If you typed “Samsonite Luggage” into Google, your first result would have also been JC Penney, which sells that product.
The store accomplished this by basically gaming the system. It didn’t do anything illegal, just something that Google and other self-appointed web police look down on. It either created or hired a bunch of meaningless, empty web sites and posted links on them that pointed back to JC Penney’s site. This made JC Penney seem very popular on the web, and thus it achieved higher page rankings.
I looked into this topic for a radio show I was working on, and while I interviewed potential guests, I couldn’t help getting frustrated that no one would give credence to my devil’s advocacy. “But what did JC Penney do wrong?” I kept asking search experts. “How is it different than naming your pluming company ‘AAA Plumbing’ just to get listed first in the phone book?” None of the experts answered that adequately, but they all insisted Google was right to punish JC Penney for its “black hat” actions.
This all happened last month. Today, I was listening to an old episode of public radio’s On The Media, and the hosts were reading listeners’ letters. One listener wrote in to comment on the JC Penney story. I wanted to kiss my iPod when host Bob Garfield read it. I’m posting the audio and a transcript below.
[gplayer href="http://radiofreewalsh.com/audio/otm-letter-jcpenny.mp3"]On the Media: Listener Letter: JC Penney[/gplayer]
On our interview last week about how JCPenney gamed Google to achieve better search results, Ted Bunn of Richmond, Virginia writes, quote: “I’m baffled by your use of the words ‘sinister’ and especially ‘illicit,’ to characterize JCPenney’s search optimization strategy. Nothing in your report suggests that anything the company did was illegal. You can bet that all of JCPenney’s competitors do their best at search engine optimization. They’d be negligent in their obligation to their shareholders if they didn’t.
As far as I can tell from your report, JCPenney’s only crime was to be better at it. If Google wants to remain preeminent in the search business, its obligation is to plug holes in its algorithm. No one else is obligated to refrain from walking through any holes they find.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Trust me, I tried.