JCPenney Responds to NYT and Google

After I wrote my own article this weekend chiming in on the JCPenney paid links fiasco, and I got a flood of comments on the matter, I wrote an email to Darcie Brossart, VP, Corporate Communications at JCPenney inviting her to read my article.  Ms. Brossart was the spokesperson quoted in that original NYT article.  When I got into the office this morning, an email was waiting for me from Ms. Brossart.

Unfortunately I am buried in client work this morning and won’t be able to fully digest her response, which includes the official JCPenney statement on the whole NYT article and Matt Cutts’ manual action against JCP in the organic SERPs, until later tonight. But rather than holding off on providing their response until I can go through it and provide my own insights, I felt it would be appropriate to publish it here for you, my readers.  This was also the recommendation I got from two trusted friends in the industry.

Here then, is Ms. Brossarts’ email in full – for now I’ll leave it to you to digest and comment.  Note too that I am only publishing this after confirming with Ms. Brossart that she was okay with my publishing…
Alan –

Thank you for your email.  Below is JCP’s statement regarding yesterday’s NYTimes story.  Additionally, after reading your blog thread, I thought you’d like to know that is a closed site.  Google bots currently don’t crawl our site.  Our natural search vendor manages a mirror site for us that redirects to (hence the redirect links that you discussed on your blog).  We are planning to open to Google bots with the launch of our new platform.

I hope this helps clarify.

Please let me know if you have other questions.

Darcie Brossart
VP, Corporate communications
JCP’s statement:

The characterization of JCPenney in the New York Times article is misleading and unwarranted. In particular, JCPenney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted.  To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google’s guidelines.

We are one of the nation’s largest retailers, serving half of America’s families. Our website was one of the first and largest of its kind and we are committed to best practices in marketing and selling online. Once we learned of these unauthorized web links, we began an immediate investigation into how and by whom those links were posted. We have also terminated our relationship with our natural search marketing firm.

The New York Times failed miserably in neglecting to disclose that it hired a competitor to the search firm working with us and used that competitor firm as the primary source, as well as in its description of our business:

The reason JCPenney outperformed the competition during the holiday season is attributable to having the right merchandise, great price points, a compelling holiday marketing campaign and the best department store customer service.  It’s as simple as that.  It is naïve for the New York Times to suggest that these low-quality web links drove our business.

JCPenney is one of the top 20 brand marketers in the country.  Because JCPenney was one of the first retailers to maximize search engine optimization, we have had a very robust natural and paid search program in place for years.  Couple this with the fact that we are one of America’s largest retailers, and it is clear why JCPenney had held some to the top search rankings in dozens of key word searches for years – long before these unauthorized links appeared.

Our natural search program has never included paid web links, like those described in the article.  It is against our policy, and the fact is, we don’t need to them to build our Google rankings.  We have millions of links from our web partnerships and programs that already gave us link popularity.  These included links from our 1.4 million Facebook fans, who clicked from Facebook to; social media and fashion bloggers; our holiday partnerships with Yahoo!, Microsoft, Time Warner, Hearst.  Our links on these sites during the holidays had editorially relevant content and pointed to our product pages.  These links and ones like them are what drove our relevancy rankings on Google, not the unauthorized, low quality links that the New York Times reported on.

We have seen no spike in sales from natural search at any time, including during the holiday period in question.

We have no record of ever having received a violation notification from Google before last week when the unauthorized links came to our attention.  If we had, we would have worked quickly to remedy the situation, as we are doing now. Obviously, we are disappointed that Google has reduced our rankings.  Nonetheless, we will continue to work through the appropriate channels to regain our high natural search positions.

JCPenney is one of the most financially sound retailers in the country, so to insinuate that the closing of five underperforming stores, and the discontinuation of some legacy operations that don’t drive meaningful growth for our Company was somehow connected to this issue, is contrary to the facts and a disservice to New York Times readers.

So, Search Marketing Wisdom readers, what’s your take on things now?

Was it wrong for the NYT to hire “a competitor to the search firm working with us and used that competitor firm as the primary source” ?  Should they have disclosed this?

Was it wrong for Google to not notify JCP, as they state?

What about their claim that they have 1.4 million links from Facebook fans?  That has to be a mistaken concept and I’ve asked Ms. Brossart for clarification, which I’ll add when I can properly add my own insights to this…


UPDATE 2/14/2011

I was initially confused by the “these included links from our 1.4 million Facebook fans…”  I interpreted that to mean “we have 1.4 million facebook fans who all created a link to our site from theirs – 1.4 million links…  And I went WTF?  – So I contacted Darcie and she clarified:

Facebook was just one of our examples.  We only listed the number of fans to highlight that it is a large fan following, and not meant to count the 1.4 million fans as separate links.
I also asked her in that email “How many legitimate non-paid-for links does JCP actually have coming from 3rd party web sites?

We have a very robust program, and while we are not going to disclose how many links we have, it is fair to say that it is several million.

Now at this moment I have no way of verifying exactly how many links they’ve got, let alone which are legitimate.  OSE reports in the tens of thousands.  But the site’s ghosted and too many domain addresses exist for me to bother figuring it out.  But I just wanted to update this post with these additional pieces of info.

And thanks to everyone who commented here – lots of questions, lots of opinions.  I think this whole thing leaves more questions than answers, and probably hasn’t swayed too many people one way or the other.

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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  1. […] the official response from JCPenney as provided to me in an email directly from Darcie Brossart, JCP’s VP, Corporate […]

  2. Sure they needed those links for those rankings. If they didnt, the devaluation of those links would not lower their rankings in the first place. So of course they needed all those TNX links to rank as well as they did.

    NYT did not fail to disclose the source. They clearly stated it was Doug Pierce from Blue Fountain Media.

    Clearly she simply doesnt know any better or she would know that Facebook links dont count and that she just outted JCP even more for their “partnerships and programs.” This could easily be viewed as paid links too.

    A company that large should have at least one dedicated SEO person on staff to monitor situations like this SearchDex/TNX stuff and to proof read statements such as the one above before they are made public.
    Gennady Lager´s last blog ..glager- @AlanBleiweiss you and I know that JCPs respone is horse shit If they didnt need those links to begin with- they wouldnt rank so low nowMy ComLuv Profile

  3. Brett Tabke says:

    That was a very good, appropriate, and on target reply by JCP.

    I have to say I agree the NYT story had a lot of holes in it. (especially on page 2-3 that were locked behind a giant SEO’d paywall).
    Brett Tabke´s last blog ..Paid Links at JC Penney – Google Takes Manual ActionMy ComLuv Profile

  4. Hugo says:

    Saying that you did not authorize those links (even though they were there for some time and easy as heck to identify) is like saying that you didn’t know that the contractor you hired to facilitate production of your wares was employing child laborers.

    Sure, you did not authorize (perhaps). But you also failed to police your domain (literally and figuratively) and/or purposely turned a blind eye.

    Can’t say that I’m very surprised by this shifting of the blame approach.

  5. gareth jax says:

    Well, i still see a lot of incoming troubles.

    Seo-browser on ->
    » HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently From To
    » HTTP/1.0 302 Moved Temporarily From To
    » HTTP/1.0 200 OK

    And regarding the links, this comparison is interesting!comparison!!filter!follow!!source!external!!target!domain
    (in particular the data about the links that PASS value)
    gareth jax´s last blog ..La grande guerra delle mappe e del local search 2- Facebook dealsMy ComLuv Profile

  6. Keith Brown says:

    “The reason JCPenney outperformed the competition during the holiday season is attributable to having the right merchandise, great price points, a compelling holiday marketing campaign and the best department store customer service.”

    Definitely, I think I saw “great price points” as an attribute in webmaster tools.
    Keith Brown´s last blog ..Wasting Away Again in FacebookvilleMy ComLuv Profile

  7. Jim Rudnick says:

    My own BS meter is peaking out here, Alan…

    This is perfect marketing-speak that has already been run by in-house counsel and is sent to you to try to do some damage control.

    I no more believe any of it – than I believe that they did NOT know at the SEO update meetings over the past 6 months that such black hat processes were bringing in links JUST in time for Xmas.




  8. Julie Joyce says:

    I think that it’s very convenient to say “we didn’t know” and then fire their SEO agency. As people have said, if they didn’t know about these new links, they’re idiots for not doing a better job of monitoring their inbounds. If Searchdex did get those links and JCP had not been told of the risks involved, that’s bad news. I really don’t know what to believe with this. We’ve had a client do the “oh god I NEVER buy links” thing before too, even though he absolutely knew we were buying links for him (he did get a nice breakdown of what each link cost after of course being warned of the risk, don’t worry) so I’m very aware that sometimes, risk has been communicated but it’s hard to get out of a mess unless you blame someone else.

  9. JadedTLC says:

    This just reinforces to me the need for INhouse SEO in conjunction with SEO companies. I would love to help JC Penney out in their SEO efforts. I am a fan of the company, but putting your site into an agency’s hands worries me.

    I’m not against agencies, but there has to be a check and a balance on both sides of the business. And when an uneducated client hires the wrong agency, the wrong agency knows that. This agency would NOT have been able to do this to my company. I would let them know what they are risking by buying links. (And what kind…)

    Grrr… I could go on and on. InHouse and SEO consultants/agencies are one team. You can’t play basketball without a guard and a forward.

  10. Having worked at the SEO firm for a large computer manufacturer, I can say they probably knew the links were being bought for them since there should have been a line item for that in their contract.
    If it was included in their services, I can see that it could have been done without JCP knowing about it. My client didn’t care what we did for linkbuilding, just that we got links and improved their rankings. (We never paid for links though)

  11. It does come across as a little suspect, especially since they fired their search company. And it’s not so much their ranking on certain terms as much as their ranking high on ALL those terms when most of those aren’t their core business. Standard company response, but one would be naive to expect otherwise.
    Mitch Mitchell´s last blog ..Do You Want Accountability Or ActivityMy ComLuv Profile

  12. […] is Blue Fountain Media’s response regarding JC Penney’s official response, posted here:  ”The New York Times failed miserably in neglecting to disclose that it hired a competitor […]

  13. JohnT says:

    Sorry JCP – just don’t believe it! Not to say its not clever but please don’t try to insult our intelligence.

  14. Matt Lambert says:

    To be absolutely fair, Darcie didn’t say there were 1.4 million links from facebook fans. She said there were links from their 1.4 million fans.

    If this were true, then it would be quite easy to get your competitor banned …..wait a minute. What was that you were saying about competitors…..

    All the best, Matt.
    Matt Lambert´s last blog ..Marketers get thisMy ComLuv Profile

  15. Mark Jackson says:

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, the thing about this whole story is that “red hat” SEO “could” be involved, where a competitor could get a boatload of crappy links and point them to a website that they wanted to hurt.

    I’m not saying that’s the case here. And, since I’ve not seen a denial from SearchDex, I’ll assume that they were responsible for the links.

    So, as much as the “head” of SEO at JC Penney may need to be accountable to “knowing” what’s going on, they hired an SEO firm (that they’ve worked with for years) and should either (a) know that some weird things were happening with their link profile or (b) known VERY WELL what was going on with the links, because they did, in fact, get these into place.

    If we’re going to pass blame, you might start with programmers who decided that “SEO isn’t important enough” and can’t put the time into building a search engine friendly/accessible website. There are so many large, ecommerce websites who depend on companies, like SearchDex, to provide an option for “natural” search, because they can’t seem to understand how to build a website which can be fully crawlable/indexable/rankable.

    I do find it most interesting that Google had to intevene “manually” to this. I’ll be following the discussion on WebmasterWorld.

    • John Huebner says:

      I completely agree with this part of your statement:

      “If we’re going to pass blame, you might start with programmers who decided that “SEO isn’t important enough” and can’t put the time into building a search engine friendly/accessible website. There are so many large, ecommerce websites who depend on companies, like SearchDex, to provide an option for “natural” search, because they can’t seem to understand how to build a website which can be fully crawlable/indexable/rankable.”

      Which is one of the reasons that I started my own blog where I plan on addressing this at some length.

  16. Kevin says:

    So…riddle me this …..what WOULD prevent someone from building spammy links to a competetor and then “blowing the whistle”? How is Google supposed to resolve that?

    As long as links factor, we will have this problem with no easy way to resolve.

  17. Jacqueline says:

    SearchDex made JC Penney a lot of money. VP of Sales everywhere are wishing, hoping and praying for ANYTHING that would help them too.

  18. The most disturbing aspect of the official response I think was “We have millions of links from our web partnerships and programs that already gave us link popularity.” How many of those links are bought and paid for? it’s one thing to get links because people write about your great products because they like them.

    It’s another thing altogether to get links through partnerships.

    • S says:

      you know whats the most disturbing thing? the most shitty thing is that it seems like at every turn, JCP is always in the wrong:
      – links from legitimate partners are wrong, considered spammy and “paid”
      – links in websites’ resource pages are wrong and “spammy”
      – links in blogs relevant or otherwise is wrong and these blogs are considered “content farms”

      so where the F*(K can they get links from exactly?

      and dont pretend to hide behind a veil of innocense: everybody buys links. and you guys know it. what is the definition of a paid link? it doesnt have to involve money: you can pay for a link by exchanging links (which is considered wrong here too), you can pay for a long by providing a service etc.

      and what’s stopping competitors from building shedloads of crappy links for them and then blowing the whistle? how can google do anything about that?

      and also, for google to “manually” demote them – what kind of moral stance is that? there are so many sites built on shit links, all you need to do is search “seo company” in Google UK and look at the first listing there. its funny how when its a big name brand, Matt Cutts listens. but when its a smaller company, nobody wants to know.

      all this double standards are making a lot of genuine honest people sick to the back teeth.

  19. Nuttakorn says:

    JC Penney appointed SearchDex for SEO program, it means that both parties need to take responsibility on risk happens on link building program. JC Penny must responsible to audit SEO firm that they do the right thing not do thing which against the JCP natural search policies, this happens means JCP lack of accountability on this.
    Nuttakorn´s last blog ..Image Ads on Search Result PagesMy ComLuv Profile

  20. For what it’s worth, David Segal (the NYT reporter) told Public Radio that Google manually penalized JC Penney’s listings in the search results. While he is not an official source of information from Google, one can easily infer that the links were not being devalued.

    A very cursory glance at JC Penney’s backlink profiles as documented by Yahoo! and Google themselves suggests there may be hundreds of thousands of links pointing to the JC Penney Website (excluding its own internal links), and millions of references to the domain.

    Of course, these numbers are only “rough estimates” and one cannot hope to obtain accuracy from such sources.

    It seems highly doubtful the alleged paid links were responsible for all those number 1 rankings. Forum profile links carry relatively little weight anyway.

    I think it unlikely that the full story has been published (or that it ever will be). That anyone would buy links for a client with such a large backlink profile seems rather odd to me, especially forum profile links — which can be bought at a rate of several thousand for about $100.

    The NYT’s SEO company (who claim they were not paid) don’t seem to have taken all these facts into consideration. Nonetheless, they did publish some pretty compelling evidence that black hat tactics were at play.

    Question is, who was responsible for the links? No one has shown that either JC Penney or their (now former) organic SEO firm actually placed the links.
    Michael Martinez´s last blog ..How Link Analysis Works for SEOMy ComLuv Profile

    • I’m only referring to the forum profile links — I think the evidence for the coupon site is solid enough to show that SearchDex put it up. But the coupon site is a very different tactic from forum profile links.

      • rishil says:

        I think the case is that SearchDex actually ran a Shadow domain, and as such may mean that they indeed place those links – after being fired, if they were legit, they wouldnt have stayed quite for this long, killing their reputation.

        • Rishil,

          I can’t pin it down 100% but given all the domain re-routing, and the fact that Ms. Brossart knew about the re-routing, and explained to me that in their next version site they’re going to open the main site to indexing, I’m now even more confident that SearchDex did. Why the F else would a company play the re-routing game? there’s no other reason I can think of from an SEO perspective that would offer any significant enough value. None. Someone please enlighten me if there is. Anyone? Beuller?

          • Mark Jackson says:


            If you’re not aware, there are a number of companies playing in this playground…

            Large ecommerce websites, like JCP, also come bundled with large, complex companies who have complex IT projects which are “more important” than SEO. So, since the IT folks won’t ever put significant resources into fixing their sites, so that they’re SEO friendly, they outsource to a company, like SearchDex, who “copies” the client’s website, asks them to disallow content from the “real” website, and “optimizes” on a separate server (rewrites URLs, etc.).

            For many companies, this is their only option.

            I’ve discussed this with Google engineers at past conferences and they’ve said they’re “fine” with it. That said, you “can’t buy links” (though we all know how much of this is going on). The link buying was not necessary. But, I would argue most that the IT department at JCP should have put more into “making our website SEO friendly” and perhaps none of this would have come to pass.
            Mark Jackson´s last blog ..Social Media Gives Shoe Retailer’s Promotion LegsMy ComLuv Profile

  21. Alan Hammond says:

    I really hope all of those links from Yahoo, Time Warner, Hearst etc were ‘no followed’ if they were commercial marketing arrangements!

  22. […] You may want to see Alan’s Post on JC Penney Has Bigger problems than paid links as well as JC Penneys Official Relpy  regarding the Fiasco. Share and […]

  23. Mark,

    For all the work I’ve done with sites as big as and larger than JCP, and with corporations that own several such sites, I’d honestly never run into the phenomena before. It’s crazy to allow it as far as I’m concerned. Not even factoring in SEO, we’re talking about a major revenue channel, with sensitive customer data. To allow that kind of copying should be a huge red flag from corporate.

    • Alan.. (LMAO!! dear. mr fortune 500… we are going to make a copy of your website, do things on it we wouldn’t normally do because it risks your url and your public reputation, put you at risk of a lawsuit from your stockholders and investigation from the SEC for doing it.. but it’s ok, it’s not your “real” domain)
      DISCLAIMER: being ridiculous.. would never advise client such stupidity.

      Mark.. (SHAME ON YOU) #imjustsayin

      Dear.. S..

      funny.. don’t see double standards.. see a search company violating Google Webmaster guidelines and getting the company in trouble.. which was what my pubcon black hat preso was ALL about.. Due Dilligence.

      there are many more problems with jcp than
      a. the jcp spokesperson knows..
      b. the nytimes knows..
      c. links..
      d. their google presence is spammy..

      and fyi.. We don’t buy links… unless it’s a yahoo directory listing. We do SEO on press releases for the client, and they do have links in them.. but that is NOT our method of SEO.. that’s PR.
      steveplunkett´s last blog ..Little Rock Open HouseMy ComLuv Profile

  24. Samantha says:

    Oh god, who CARES!? This has just become another Decor My Eyes scandal. The NYT has found a new niche…

  25. Jonah Stein says:

    Search Dex offers a “white hat” cloaking system called Verdandi, which is similar to Gravity Stream (created by Stephen Spencer, no part of Covario) which is likely the reason behind the shadow domains, redirects, etc.

  26. iDCX says:

    Great post and thanks for placing JCP response.

    It is a shame that they down play the role of the paid link – but essentially as they say above – they’re a massive brand with millions of links – as for the targeted search nature of these links – lets leave that open to interpretation.

    we at JLB buy links all day long – and provide business owners with legitimate improvements to their rankings – were we to price and lace links for a brand the size of JCP – then indeed our best heads would be knocking together for it – i.e we look before we leap

    either way – its a great debate and your article rocks Alan, thanks for posting this info – this is a nice thread to be watching the unfolds of this saga…

    Good luck on the recovery JCP… next time use a search company that knows what its doing in this niche hay!


  27. oli says:

    I think it is naive of them to state that these paid links did not help them, since their home page (Which was linked to) was coming up for competitive terms that were in no way contained on the main page itself. JCP were caught, and that is all there is to it. Yes it might have been their natural SEO contractors who made the mistake, but at some point this must have been authorized since there are HUGE numbers of paid links leading back to their site, and paid links cost serious cash.
    oli´s last blog ..Why Does Your Home Need Outdoor LightsMy ComLuv Profile

  28. Mark Jackson says:

    You guys must understand something about the unique product/offering that SearchDex (and a few others) offers.

    They are compensated on a “cost per click” for driving natural search traffic. They are compensated very well, depending on how much traffic they can drive. Now, I’m not privy to the details, but I know similar arrangements can cost a company $50,000 per month, or more. With that kinda dough, you can afford to spend a bit on paid links, and – in fact – you can “get your money back” (and then some) because a #1 ranking will drive significantly more traffic.

    Steve – if the “shame on you” is for the link to the blog post, that’s just showing up as “checked off” (by default) in my response. My initial post, I remembered to de-select the radio button (as I am, this time). Certainly was not intentional (though – no offense – I could give a “rip” if I offend you. 🙂 ).

  29. jim says:

    Who cares about JC penny ?

  30. […] Working at an Internet marketing company we all keep a watch on what’s going on in the industry. Recently we were watching and reading about the JC Penney debacle. I’m specifically talking about the NY Times Article, "The Dirty Little Secrets of Search" and a Related blog entry, "JC Penney Responds to NYT and Google." […]

  31. […] JCPenney Responds to NYT and Google – while we’ve stayed away from the drama, for the most part, this response was at least interesting. Now we can lay this one to rest. […]

  32. Geoff says:

    It still blows my mind that JCPenney was able to do the “black hat” seo stuff like they did. they should get penalized for that. lame.

  33. […] high in Google rankings for every. single. keyword…ya might want to raise an eyebrow.  Just ask JC Penney, who has been accused of seeding a whole ton of paid links to their site over the […]

  34. Stevo says:

    So here we are being exposed to the ‘Black Hat Techniques’ of large corporations and established brand names, but seriously how much free publicity has this created for the likes of JC Penny and co. It begs the question how long will it take before so called ‘Black Hat Techniques’ can be worked into the equation as a possible option for the marketing department?

  35. Joe J says:

    This case study is extremely interesting to me, especially since JCP could have taken VERY simple approaches to masking the link purchases, mainly by using a dummy link inventory site.

    I find this to be very amateur by the SEO company JCP was working with, and although JCP has CLEARLY been in the know about the link buying, being caught could have been avoided.

    Everyone who is somebody buys links in one way or another.

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