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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