New York Times outs major US retailer for link spam

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  • February 14, 2011

A very interesting story broke this weekend involving JC Penney (a big US retailer with 1000+ stores and $17.8 billion in revenue) and the New York Times. The retailer was basically outed for apparently using TNX to set up thousands of links on very low quality “spam” sites.

It seems that the campaign worked so well the site was ranking for pretty much everything, until the NY Times outed it and the site was moved down to 60th or worse for all the queries after Matt Cutts got involved. Search Engine Land and TechCrunch also covered the story very well.

J C Penney immediately sacked their SEO agency SearchDex who had been managing the campaign since 2004. It does seems strange to me that an agency who had worked with a client for so long would suddenly start building a load of spam links, unless serious pressure to improve results had been applied from the client. The links had been in place for around the “last three to four months” according to Google.

The fact that Google didn’t catch this sort of spam is a big PR nightmare for them. They should be buying links from all the major link sellers every day and removing the ability for the link sellers to pass PageRank every time they find a new one. Missing something like TNX is a major error.

Another worrying point is a major newspaper deciding to start outing link spam and forcing Google to take action.

Nobody wants to use spam links but if everybody else is doing it and not getting caught then people start to think it’s OK. Google has been telling retailers not to use link spam for years but the longer people can see blatant spam working the harder it will be for people to resist trying it out.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • James Holden

    Your point about Google buying links to trace the link sellers is something I’ve been saying for a while.

    it’s so obvious there’s no possibility that they’re not.

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  • jezza101

    “Another worrying point is a major newspaper deciding to start outing link spam and forcing Google to take action.”

    I didn’t quite get this point? Isn’t it good to see a good old fashioned jounalistic expose applied to modern media? Papers have always played a role in “policing” certain activities that aren’t illegal but will result in bad PR.

    Surely this will be an eye opener for any big companies who use such techniques. A good thing, no?

  • Christian

    Obviously spam is a good way to reach the masses but definitely not very professional. How are people going to think of your items as higher end when they get a pop-up every few minutes with your name on it?

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  • Paul

    Hi Patrick

    Even today it is amazing to see how many companies, big and small, have absolutely no clue about link building and spam and black hat techniques.

    even some small SEO companies think that buying links is fine and continue to do so for themselves and for their clients.

    Good on NYT for outing a major player like that for doing something so stupid.

  • Imre Bernath

    I am a Pro member at SEOmoz. They have a very good way to show Domain Authority. We use it for linkbuilding also for our customers.

    We are a SEO company in Holland and we are one page 1 for the vervy difficult keyword SEO with only 151 Linking Root Domains!!! build in 2 years. The links we look at are only relevant and with a high Authority shown in the Competitive Domain Analysis of SEOmoz.

    Linkbuilding is not the only SEO factor!
    See our result after 2 years of hard work and we have not the focus on linkbuilding!

  • Ryo

    Probably the funniest thing I heard all day. I don’t what’s better that Jc Penny used spam links or that Google didn’t catch it sooner

  • lee

    Imre – I’d say link building is just as important as ever. Its not the only factor, but its by far the biggest one.

    I don’t think you can call it 2 years of hard work to build 151 links…

    If you had spent some of that time building links you would be at least tucked in behind the Wiki listings, not stranded in last place.

    I don’t think you can use ranking 10th for a not very competitive phrase with not many links as proof that “link building isn’t the only seo factor”.

  • John McNally

    I’m glad that link spamming retailers are getting exposed. I only use white hat techniques and the sooner black hats are punished, the better.

    Leamington Spa, England

  • lee

    White had only is fine… if you don’t want to rank for anything competitive.

    JC Penny vanished from the top 10 for a load of phrases – another link buyer just moved up from 11th to 10th to take their place so no big difference… as a purely white hat seo you’re still going to be stuck out in the wilderness where nobody sees your site anyway.

  • Evan

    That is a really interesting story. I am surprised that New York Times did not have someone on their own team with SEO knowledge to steer the ship. It shows how important it is to have someone on any business with good SEO knowledge

  • Michael

    I’m new to this SEO thing, but even I know that if anyone can buy a link on site than the link is not going to be worth much. I supposed in the case of JCP they were able to buy a very large number of links and thus get a good result but I have to wonder how much that cost them. At least with Google taking action it will give smaller companies a change to get a decent rank without needing a JCP level SEO budget.

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  • Rad

    I think over time google will have less influence. We are already going towards a social-media influenced trend. You just wait and see… google is the next Yahoo/Lycos/Webcrawler.

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