JC Penney has a bigger problem than paid links

UPDATE 2/14/2011

Yesterday I wrote an email to Darcie Brossart, the official spokesperson who was referred to in the original NYT article on the JCPenney link fiasco, inviting her to read my article.  She sent me an email this morning in response, with a bit of insight into the JCP SEO currently in place as well as the official full length JCPenney response to the NYT article.  It’s a lengthy one so I’ll need to carefully review it before I publish it here, as I would like to be able to address  that response properly.  Stay tuned…


UPDATE #2 2/14/2011

I’ve gotten an email back from Ms. Brossart, giving me permission to publish her initial email to me.  Today’s a hectic day with clients so I’ll do my best to find the time to carefully read that email and provide it here for you along with my insights as soon as possible…


I love when web sites get caught paying for links and end up feeling the Google wrath.  JC Penney’s the latest example.  Yet it’s happened before, and it will surely happen again.  But there’s a much bigger problem every time this comes up that nobody ever talks about.  The fact that most of these sites have a much bigger problem than paid links.  Their on-site organic SEO is either very weak, or nonexistent altogether.  And believe me, that’s an EPIC problem…


If you were paying attention today, you either saw the tweets about the manual slap Matt Cutts laid on JC Penney after the New York Times began an investigative article on the matter.  Or you came across Vanessa Fox’s article on the topic or perhaps you read the forum thread over at Webmaster World.

All the buzz is focused in on the issue of paid links, the fact that while they’re not illegal, they do violate Google’s guidelines, and all the usual noise specific to paid links.

What I haven’t seen out there yet is anything about the very scary notion that in their response to the NYT inquiry, JC Penney’s spokesperson discounted the problem based on the notion that they only get seven percent of their online visits from organic search.  According to the article, Darcie Brossart, JC Penney’s spokesperson stated:

Just 7 percent of JCPenney.com’s traffic comes from clicks on organic search results, she wrote. A far bigger source of profits this holiday season, she stated, came from partnerships with companies like Yahoo and Time Warner, from new mobile applications and from in-store kiosks


IF that is a correct statement, JC Penney has an EPIC failure in place as far as their SEO is concerned.  I don’t care how big or small your site is – if you are only getting single digit percentage visits from organic search, all the paid links in the world are still failing to achieve the ultimate desire to profit from search engine listings.

Now, that may just be a red herring figure, used purely to deflect criticism, or it could be corporate arrogance pointing toward a complete lack of understanding in the potential value of organic SEO.  We probably won’t ever know.  And that’s okay.  What it did for  me however, was immediately cause me to have one of those “WTF” red flag shiny object moments…


As soon as that shiny object caught my attention, I went to the JC Penney site.  And in under three minutes, I observed at least a dozen MAJOR problems.  I’ll outline just a few here, because I don’t give away my expertise for free anymore.  But let’s take a look at just a few issues.


www.JCPenney.com redirects to http://www.jcpenney.com/jcp/default.aspx .  (I won’t even bother detailing why THIS is a problem. It’s a rookie SEO issue).  What I will say is that once you spend any time on the site, all of a sudden you get redirected to one of several JCP servers.  In my particular review, I was redirected to www4.JCPenney.com/jcp/default.aspx.

Exactly how many WWW servers JCP has, I don’t know at this point.  That alone was enough to tell me there’s a massive duplicate triple quadruple content problem.  Such a 1996 issue, it blows my mind.


Let’s examine the Women’s Skirt’s page. Google has communicated that they are fully capable of processing dynamic URLS.  That’s a very dangerous concept to fall for.  Having clean URLS is a fundamental requirement as a signal to search engines that “this page is relevant to these keywords”.  Clean URLs are also now known to be very helpful to User Experience.  I won’t include a full URL example here, because they’re ridiculously long, and pure code-monkey.  The kind of URLs I used to generate back in 1999 when I was building ecommerce systems from scratch and passing all my parameter variable IDs in the URL.


On that same page, the Title is:

JCPenney : women : skirts

Attention world – the above title is almost worthless from an SEO perspective.  First, placing JCPenney at the front of every URL might be ideal from a CMO’s perspective.  However it has no business being at the beginning of the title on very high value category pages.  That’s invaluable SEO real estate.  At the very least, a properly optimized URL might instead be:

Women Skirts | Womens Skirts | JCPenney

Or for you hyphenation fanatics, just replace the pipe symbol with a hyphen.

God forbid you should actually attempt to do that though. Because it would give you three exact match phrases (women skirts, skirts womens, and womens skirts). And apparently the people providing SEO services (either the recently fired company or their predecessor perhaps), or someone in corporate, decided that the current page Title structure is “ideal”.  God bless their hearts…


While we’re on this page, note how they’ve actually got a breadcrumb navigation implemented.  Well good for them, they got something right.  But actually, they didn’t.  Even the breadcrumbs are borked.  Because the URL used for the Skirts page we’re on is actually DIFFERENT than the URL I ended up at .  Not from a www4 issue, but because the URL I ended up at has an extra parameter stuck on the end of it. Probably for click tracking.

And there’s no canonical functionality going on, which would at least potentially mitigate this problem.


Let’s look at the top level category Window Treatments.

Let’s not even harp on the fact that this page’s title is simply:

JCPenney : Window


Uh, excuse me, where’s the CONTENT?

That’s right – there’s not one single bit of actual HTML readable content on one of the most important pages on the site.  Because, like many retailers, their print media graphic designers are probably in charge of site design.  So excuse me while I then ask, even if you get PROPER page titles, and human readable keyword seeded URLs, and you fix your quintuple content issues, how is a search engine supposed to know that this page is highly relevant to a search for window treatments, if there’s no well crafted content describing the wonderful variety of window treatment products you offer?


IF, in fact, as I stated at the beginning of this article, JCP is only getting 7% of their traffic from organic search, they’re missing a massive opportunity.  No matter how many phrases they’re found for from paid links.  Every retailer I’ve ever dealt with that faced a similar situation (lacking on-site best practices), has seen phenomenal traffic growth from exponentially more long tail terms after they cleaned their on-site act up.

And if, after JCP somehow finds a way to clean up the current paid link mess, they get back in Matt’s good graces, they end up on the bottom of the 1st page of Google, with proper on-site SEO, JCP might even jump to the top few results.  Or even the top organic result.

But they are very likely going to need a LOT of work.  And that would require the buy-in from corporate.  So maybe somebody needs to let corporate know what REAL SEO is all about.


UPDATE #3 2/14/2011

Here’s the official response from JCPenney as provided to me in an email directly from Darcie Brossart, JCP’s VP, Corporate Communications.

About Alan Bleiweiss

Just another guy. Who happens to have a lot of experience living, breathing and sleeping organic SEO. So that's my primary focus - high end SEO audits and consulting for sites ranging from thousands to tens of millions of pages. In my spare time I blog, rant, write eBooks, and speak at industry conferences.

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