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The Dirty Little Secrets of Search 154

Posted by timothy
from the young-girls'-underwear dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "The NY Times has an interesting story (reg. may be required) about how JCPenney used link farms to become the number one google search result for such terms as 'dresses,' 'bedding,' and 'samsonite carry on luggage' and what Google did to them when they found out. 'Actually, it's the most ambitious attempt I've ever heard of,' says Doug Pierce, an expert in online search. '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.'"
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The Dirty Little Secrets of Search

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  • by Gopal.V (532678) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @11:50AM (#35192444) Homepage Journal

    The whole idea of an SEO budget is to push your name out to the top line of google, bing or anything else people use to search.

    The intent was to game the system. And by doing so, make a ton of money. There are no laws for internet search ... unless you can use trademark laws to push a competitor who's doing that to your brand name.

    Unscrupulous yes, ruthless yes, but that is the true face of capitalism anyway. Google can try regulating, but only enough to make the same people put in pennies into their sidebar offering of less-worth, but clearly marked advertising.

    • by timeOday (582209)
      "Know better" than to land in google's penalty box, almost invisible in search results, like Penny's currently is.

      That said, yes, everybody acknowledges this is just business. If you search for an example from the article (Samsonite carry on luggage), Penny's is no longer on the first page of search results. Yet their paid advertisement appears (with several others) before the very first search result!

    • by Nerdfest (867930)

      there are no laws for internet search

      Good thing too. If this something that was actually illegal, the punishment would not probably not be swift nor harsh. I would think companies would try t a lot more if they tended to come out ahead of the game in some way.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      make the same people put in pennies into their sidebar offering of less-worth, but clearly marked advertising

      Fast forward to some hypothetical situation: one pretty much has to do it, to be visible - would that be evil? ;)

  • by geschild (43455) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @11:53AM (#35192456) Homepage

    News at 11.

    Reasonably written article.

    If you already know the ins and outs of search or have no interest in it's specifics you can spare yourself the read, though. Ymmv.

    • To play devil's advocate, who says that JC Penny did this themselves? Maybe their head of IT that was just some lay person that worked himself up through the ranks got one of some SEO spam and thought "Hey, this sounds like a great idea!". Not knowing how they conducted business he just went with it.

      Sure enough, JC Penny is #1. He looks like a hero, pays off the small spamming firm and everyone is happy until they're caught.

      I'm webmaster for 2-3 smal town rugby websites. I always get "BE #1!" spam. Except I

      • by geschild (43455)

        "To play devil's advocate, who says that JC Penny did this themselves?"

        I'm going to be rude and answer a question with a question: does it matter?

        Unless you've been hiding somewhere dark for quite a while, you would know these things happen.

        Companies act like assholes all the time. If they act like assholes against Google and Google finds out, they react to them to keep their business 'safe'.

        How is this 'news' to a nerd? To a marketing droid somewhere, maybe but even that I doubt in this day and age.

        • by icebike (68054)

          How is this 'news' to a nerd? To a marketing droid somewhere, maybe but even that I doubt in this day and age.

          Please do not insult us nerds by even the hint of parity with marketing droids.

          Thanks.

          • by geschild (43455)

            "Please do not insult us nerds"...

            If you feel insulted by that, you better thicken your hide, nerd! You're going to need it... :D

            But honestly, I never intended to insult anyone, not even marketing droids...
            (Or perhaps, especially marketing droids, since they might have a modulating armour and heavier weapons ;P)

            You're welcome!

        • by Chapter80 (926879)

          "To play devil's advocate, who says that JC Penny did this themselves?"

          I'm going to be rude and answer a question with a question: does it matter?

          I think it matters.

          What it it was the head of IT at MACY'S that boosted JC Penny's ratings.

          Right now he's laughing his ass off, as he watches JC Penny in the Google Penalty Box.

      • So their IT guy hired an SEO firm without the board's knowledge, does it matter to Google? No. A company gamed the system and they punish the company. Too bad for JC Penny they hired the wrong guy for the job. You can't expect Google to start investigating who in the company originated the SEO move.

        • by Chapter80 (926879)

          Too bad for JC Penny they hired the wrong guy for the job.

          Or, as I mentioned elsewhere, perhaps Macy's hired the right guy, and he gamed Google for JC Penny, and now JC Penny's rankings are dropping like a rock.

      • by icebike (68054)

        To play devil's advocate, who says that JC Penny did this themselves?

        They didn't do this them selves. They hired it done.

        From TFA:

        PENNEY reacted to this instant reversal of fortune by, among other things, firing its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex. Executives there did not return e-mail or phone calls.

        Hiring digital taggers to spray your graffiti all over the net and then insisting you are innocent is a transparently thin defense.

      • by JWSmythe (446288)

        To play devil's advocate, who says that JC Penny did this themselves? Maybe their head of IT that was just some lay person that worked himself up through the ranks got one of some SEO spam and thought "Hey, this sounds like a great idea!". Not knowing how they conducted business he just went with it.

        There's another option here. If I read the article right, JC Penney denied doing it. Searches can make or break a company. So someone who wanted to sink them could have been the one doing it.

        • by dzfoo (772245)

          Your alternate theory is that a competitor actively sabotaged JC Penny's search engine rankings so that it would be the on the top results for many consumer products during the explosive holiday season; with the hope that JC Penny would be caught and punished a couple of months after raking in the dough from their increased Christmas sales?

          Right.

                      -dZ.

          • by JWSmythe (446288)

                Ya, a little something like that. :) I'm confident that's not the case, but I wouldn't be surprised if they came out saying something like that.

    • by billstewart (78916) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @02:39PM (#35193292) Journal

      The job of a search engine is to find web pages that are interesting to people, and it does that job by using a lot of robots with models about what's interesting. If you've got a web site you want the search engine to tell people is interesting, you can either do that honestly, by making it actually interesting, or dishonestly, by lying to the robots so they'll tell the humans that it's interesting, and sometimes that's cheaper and easier because robots only have models.

      To the extent that there are "white hat SEOs", they're either doing the basic web design jobs of making sure that your information is findable (e.g. putting the keywords in text, not in images played by flash animation that other web designers told you would look cool), or else they're doing editorial work by telling you to write more interesting web content. For the most part, those people don't call themselves "SEOs", they call themselves "web designers" or "editors" or "graphic designers", though there are some companies that really do need to hire somebody to clean up bad web design.

      Real SEOs are the black-hat types, who'll offer to get results for you by methods other than making your web site actually more interesting. They're lying scum, but sometimes they're good enough at lying to robots that they get results. Unfortunately, one of the big results they get is garbage all over the web, from link spam in blog comments to garbage that search engines find that's really just copying bits of content to attract advertising. Makes the web as a whole a lot less interesting.

      • by geschild (43455)

        ..."lying to the robots so they'll tell the humans that it's interesting"...

        Precisely. In the Google case, lying to robots==lying to humans. Not Google employees, but the people that use Google to search for something. Google understands very well that if their customers get lied to and Google doesn't stop that, they'll go elsewhere for their search results and Google will do anything it can to prevent that. If that makes Google behave ethically, that's fine with me.

        In other words: all this is, is a turfwar by companies. Some behave worse, in the common ethical sense that most huma

      • by JWSmythe (446288)

        Real SEOs are the black-hat types ... They're lying scum, but sometimes they're good enough at lying to robots that they get results.

            So you're saying that SEO's belong in the sales department, eh? :)

  • I didn't want to RTFA in order to know how badly miffed Google was by all of this, so here's a snippet.

    “Am I happy this happened?” he later asked. “Absolutely not. Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.”

    And the company did. On Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a “manual action” against Penney, essentially demotions specifically aimed at the company.

    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.

    • I wonder if Google's action could lead to a lawsuit? It's one thing to re-jigger the ranking equation to block linkfarms, but something else entirely to purposely punish a company and make them essentially invisible.

      BTW I used to work for Penney's. They were a good company in the 90s, riding high, and matching 90 cents for every dollar their employees put into an IRA.

      Then they got hit hard by the rise of Web shopping, were forced in 2002 to layoff all their managers, eliminated 2/3rds of the clerks, promo

      • by _Sprocket_ (42527)

        I wonder if Google's action could lead to a lawsuit? It's one thing to re-jigger the ranking equation to block linkfarms, but something else entirely to purposely punish a company and make them essentially invisible.

        It wouldn't be the first time. Look up SearchKing.

    • I just did a Google search for "samsonite carry on luggage". While the text link for JCPenney's is about five or six pages down, Google starts off with a row of Shopping images, and JCPenney's one of them.

      • by lwsimon (724555)

        Google Shopping is a vertical, and completely separate from the normal search results.

  • by RockMFR (1022315) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @11:59AM (#35192472)
    This is totally unfair of Google to punish JC Penney like this. We need to help them restore their page rank. I'll start.

    Nazi memorabilia [jcpenney.com]
    abortion factory [jcpenney.com]
    murder weapons [jcpenney.com]
    penny stock [jcpenney.com]
    worst place to work [jcpenney.net]
    token black guy [jcpenney.net]
  • Really, anyone who hasn't worked retail for at least some time in their lives doesn't have any understanding of what really happens when you are in that position. I know this item is more about the empowered management and their bone-headed decisions (nowhere is the dilbert principle of management applied as much as in retail), but we should keep in mind the poor retail slaves who end up on the chopping block because of this kind of shit.

    In a partial shout-out to my comrades - both past and present - in
    • And just to be contrarian:
        - I liked working retail. Sure every now and then you'd get an asshole customer, but you could usually bribe them with 50% off (or whatever), and make them go away.
      - Overall there were more benefits than downsides, such as flirting with cute coworkers, or looking down blouses when the dumb college girls bent-over in front of you (duh - don't bend over)
      - But of course the pay was only 1/10th what I make in the office, so that's why I left.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The company is "JC Penney", not "Penny".

  • The Times did a good job on this, but there are some questions.

    They did mention that Penney is (or was) a big Google advertiser, but you've got to wonder who else has succeeded in doing this.

    I read a blogger Whither the NY Times [blogspot.com] who's doing a pretty funny review of the Times day by day, with the looming paywall in the background.

    He asks who else, and wonders how did the Times scope this out?

    Businesses seem to rise and fall in their Google rankings in weird ways. Maybe the search engine optimizers hav

  • It seems these companies, J.C.Penney, BMW, on and on, are as interested in keeping up with Google's "Laws", how to adhere to them, how to avoid them, how to get around them, than they are with actual civil laws of employee treatment, customer safety, and societal taxes.
    • by mikael_j (106439) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @12:28PM (#35192584)

      I suspect this is a case of a company trying to play the same games they play in meatspace. Basically is boils down to "follow the letter of the law, not the spirit" with a pinch of of bending the letter of the law every now and then under the assumption that their size and influence will make those upholding the law ignore their transgressions. Unfortunately for them that's not how the "laws" of the internet work...

  • The Article Saith:

    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.

    I find it interesting that they are using 'black hat' and 'white hat' to distinguish between different actions and motives in search engine optimization, when the same terms cannot seem to catch on in public discussions of hacking, cracking and computer security. Makes me jealous.

    • by JustNilt (984644)

      I find it interesting that they are using 'black hat' and 'white hat' to distinguish between different actions and motives in search engine optimization, when the same terms cannot seem to catch on in public discussions of hacking, cracking and computer security. Makes me jealous.

      The terms have been pretty much universally adopted by the SEO "community".

      I have a friend that is constantly trying to get his blog up in the rankings. A site he refers to is http://www.warriorforum.com/ [warriorforum.com] and the black hat/white hat distinction is pretty constantly discussed. I think the real trouble is when amateurs think a black hat SEO campaign is actually a white hat one.

      At least my friend asks questions of me before doing some of this stuff; it's like Amway and spammers rolled into one. Crazy stuff.

      • by lwsimon (724555)

        I'm active on WarriorForum, and do quite a bit of SEO work.

        I don't consider what JCP did to be black hat at all, provided it was done by actual humans. The relevancy of the place where the comment is left... isn't relevant. So long as the comment provides value to the conversation, though, it's fine.

        I suspect that what the article didn't say is that these links were auto-generated spam. While I may make 15 or so decent comments with links in an hour on a good day, I could use Scrapebox to generate 150,00

  • Bing (Score:4, Interesting)

    by eison (56778) <pkteison@hotmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Sunday February 13, 2011 @12:40PM (#35192620) Homepage

    I see they are currently #1 on bing for Comforters and #4 for dresses. I wonder if it would be possible for the search engines share data on who is cheating?

    I'm actually really surprised by the article, that it took so few sites to affect results and that such obviously off-topic links still helped. I thought the algorithms were already smarter than that.

    • by 32771 (906153)

      > I thought the algorithms were already smarter than that.

      I have the suspicion, that Google is like any other company, in that they only innovate if they must and the bottom line is most the important.

      So I would have to applaud JCPenney for causing some progress in the world.

      I also have the suspicion that since google seems to be market leader it could be the most affected by search engine circumvention devices. Less well known companies with different algorithms could yield better results just because o

  • Ah yes, our friends at google find themselves in a wonderful position...where multi-billion dollar companies bow to them to get their rankings up. Isn't there something wrong with that? Sure, google was within their right to drop jcp from their ranks for being a tad too clever; but on anther hand, what alternatives to these companies have? IF this was a free service, governed by a non-commercial entity then all is well; but google is no different than Microsoft these days: huge, multi-billion dollar beast w

  • I just did a search and JC Penny are right there on the first page in the right hand column. Probably because they are local here but its still funny. Most of the sites I see taking JC Penny's place are sites I never heard of so I guess that shows the statement about what one might expect to see when typing in search terms, is just a made up guess or untested literary license.
  • Google penalty box (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    And who declared Google the "decider" of what should top search listings?

    Any algorithm is going to have winners and losers. Why should any business simply accept Google's arbitrary ranking without trying to do what they can to improve that ranking? Google penalty box? Sounds like Google is taking it upon themselves to decide "right and wrong" on the internet and inflict punishment on those who don't comply with their dictates for what constitutes "fair", without anyone having any recourse. Color me not impr

    • by Nkwe (604125)

      And who declared Google the "decider" of what should top search listings?

      Google did. It is their web site and their search. They can rank web pages any way they want to. No one forces anyone to use Google and Google is not an "official" part of the Internet.

    • by Zancarius (414244)

      Sounds like Google is taking it upon themselves to decide "right and wrong" on the internet and inflict punishment on those who don't comply with their dictates for what constitutes "fair", without anyone having any recourse. Color me not impressed.

      No they're not. In case you didn't know, Google has their webmaster guidelines [google.com] posted for all to see. The motivation behind these rules is to ensure (or at least try to ensure) that their search results continue to be relevant and useful for--wait for it--the use

      • by TheLink (130905)

        The guidelines say:

        Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking."

        And I believe they smacked BMW Germany for that.

        However pay-wall sites (like elsevier) appear to present different content to Google from what nonsubscribers can see. And they've been doing it for years.

        For example, do a google search for: site:elsevier.com cancer +"lower percentage"
        http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Aelsevier.com+cancer+%2B [google.com]"lower+percentage"

        Compare what you see in the search results to what a nonsubscriber can actually see. Yes many Google users might be subscribers, b

        • As a non-subscriber, to me it looks like an excerpt from the abstract, and lo, the abstracts are visible to non-subscribers!

  • What is search engine optimization to a corporation is search result poisoning to users.

    Then again, an opportunity arises for a smaller non-SEO-attacked search engine to rise and take Google's place like Google took Altavista's.

  • This is a great article. I would really recommend other to read it.

    It gives great insight into the world of searches and profiles both viewpoints from a SEO company and also Google's anti-SEO team.

    It's a bit long, but definitely worth your time.

  • by wickerprints (1094741) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @02:02PM (#35193070)

    First, I noted that in the article, Google claims to try to keep the "money" side separate from the "search" side. Okay, but the fact remains that if you don't crack down on cheating, then companies will have less incentive to buy paid links from Google. The fact that the quality of the results would decrease for the user is secondary. So Google surely is motivated to prevent companies from gaming the system, not out of some altruistic sense of honesty or service to the user, but because cheating threatens their paid advertising model.

    The other observation is that SEO tactics could easily be used as a weapon against competitors. If you're a top-listed company and your competitors want to knock you down...all they have to do is put up spam links to your site, then report it to Google. Next thing you know, you've been de-listed.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @03:00PM (#35193426)

    "The NY Times has an interesting story (reg. may be required) ... what google did to them when they found out. [thespec.com]

    Copying a New York Times article wholesale, and then using a Slashdot post to bait-and-switch readers into visiting your website rather than the Times?
    Ballsy.

    Doing so when the article's content is about using malicious links to artificially inflate your site's visibility?
    Just. Not. Cool.

    The original NY TImes article is here. [nytimes.com] Whether you approve of the Times' registration policy or not, you shouldn't support people who steal their content and use it to make money.

    • I'm not so sure. TheSpec's article's first line says "THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE". Perhaps they have some sort of a deal with the NY Times allowing them to reprint articles. At the least, it's not as malicious as you suggest since they give some attribution.
  • David Segal is quite the inane journalist. He equates SEO hucksters with "black-hats". True black-hats are too busy commiting crimes to waste their time on such mundanity.

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday February 13, 2011 @04:21PM (#35194016) Homepage

    This is one of those press events which gives CEOs nightmares.

    There's been press criticism of Google before, but it's mostly been anecdotal - blogs, op-eds, and other commentary. This time, there's real reporting, with the New York Times naming names.

    Usually, after criticism, Google says nothing, or perhaps replies in a blog posting. Google people rarely speak in forums that they don't control. This time, Matt Cutts had to sit down with New York Times reporters for an hour long interrogation.

    Google's vaunted claims that they can detect link spam were shown to be false. Google didn't catch the spam, the New York Times did. Then Google made an algorithm change and claimed that fixed most of the problem. The Times tracked Google's results and showed that it didn't. Only a "manual action" moved J.C. Penny down.

    Now the rest of the business press is going to take a hard look at search. Expect follow-up articles in Bloomberg, Fortune, etc. Google management has weeks of pain ahead. After their feud with Microsoft last week, their troubles with European antitrust regulators, and Blekko nipping at their heels, they didn't need this. Attention may be focused on those "manual actions". Should those be published? The European Union has specifically asked for that data, and Google can no longer deny that it exists.

    I've been critical of Google's anti-spam efforts, mostly on the Places side.I thought they were better at detecting link farms of junk sites, though. That's old-school SEO. If they missed this, they have worse problems than I'd thought.

    • by horza (87255)

      Google's vaunted claims that they can detect link spam were shown to be false. Google didn't catch the spam, the New York Times did.

      That statement isn't true. They may detect it but correcting it may need more care and attention. Plus there may be a waiting lists of thousands of cases to be examined. It is not the swiftness of the execution that BlackHat SEOs fear, it is the severity.

      Google management has weeks of pain ahead.

      I don't think they do. JC Penney's might though.

      The European Union has specifically

  • I really don't think JCPenney had any idea this was going on. I'm thinking they paid some company to make them float to the top of the search engine results and had no idea how that company would do it. I'm thinking the "SEO" company is the bad guy here and JCPenney just looks like the mastermind.
  • I can't help but think the only long-term way to reduce the effectiveness of these kinds of SEO tricks is to remove all storefronts from Google results. Even that isn't foolproof certainly, and I'm sure that online shopping sites will then just use non-store entry pages. But these SEO tricks work because many people, when they want to buy something, just go to Google and click on the first link presented, which I don't think anyone knowledgeable about web search will think is a good idea. That behavior h

  • Just wrote about how sucky googles search is becoming because of these retarded sites... We need a revolution http://webuilders.co.za/ [webuilders.co.za]
  • "You'd think they would have people around them that would know better." Of course they do. But, as has been discussed on Slashdot time and again, there's the people that know better and there's the people in power. Unfortunately, they're usually mutually exclusive groups. I can even picture the meeting: a group gathered around a large table. 2 or 3 IT guys say "We shouldn't game the system, big trouble if we get caught." Accounting guy says "If we do it it can bring us big bucks!" High end company
  • I get large color circulars on stiff card stock from Penneys in the mail every other week, each proclaiming 20-40% off sales. Their bulk mail budget must be staggering.
  • by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Monday February 14, 2011 @09:11AM (#35198308)
    Searching for "black dresses" now relegates J.C. Penny to the sixth page of results, meaning that casual users who are not aware that search results cover more than one page will never see it again. Do not mess with Google.
    • by tehcyder (746570)

      Searching for "black dresses" now relegates J.C. Penny to the sixth page of results,

      But how many people would actually search for "black dresses" on Google as a way of buying a black dress?

      • But how many people would actually search for "black dresses" on Google as a way of buying a black dress?

        People unaware that Google results are more than the first three links.

      • by lwsimon (724555)

        I could get an accurate number if I had my analytics software in front of me, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say "Thousands. Every day."

      • by coolmadsi (823103)

        Searching for "black dresses" now relegates J.C. Penny to the sixth page of results,

        But how many people would actually search for "black dresses" on Google as a way of buying a black dress?

        I have seen someone type 'facebook' into a Google search toolbar to get to the facebook home page to log in. It is surprising (to me, as someone who works in IT anyway) what people search for sometimes.

  • Why does google even *carry* "sponsored ads" from Target, who at least 85% of the time will claim a hit on *anything* you're looking for, but if you follow it, they don't have it? I mean, try fabric by the yard. Or chemicals. Or....

                        mark

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