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It's been a bad week for J.C. Penney, which found itself penalized by Google and scrutinized by the media after a paid link scheme apparently orchestrated by an outside vendor -- now fired -- was uncovered and detailed in the New York Times.

Not surprisingly, J.C. Penney isn't sitting idly by. It's defending itself.

Its strongest response yet to the controversy it has found itself embroiled in was given to SEO consultant Alan Bleiweiss, who reached out to Darcie Brossart, J.C. Penney's VP of Corporate Communication.

It's a response that J.C. Penney may yet regret, as it raises more questions about the retailer's online marketing strategy.

In an email to Bleiweiss, Brossart wrote:

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 1.4m Facebook fans, who clicked from Facebook to jcp.com; 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.

I've bolded the important points because they could be seen to contradict the claim that J.C. Penney has never paid for links. "Partnerships" that produced "links on [partner] sites during the holidays...pointed to our product pages" -- with "editorially relevant content" no less -- may not sound to some people like something that wasn't paid for.

After all, I can't imagine companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Time Warner and Hearst, which are all in the business of selling advertising, would 'partner' with J.C. Penney to write articles linking to its product pages during the most important retail season without some sort of compensation.

As it relates to fashion bloggers, it appears that the company has indeed courted fashion bloggers and vloggers, some of whom are compensated. Smart online marketing strategy? FTC concerns aside, perhaps.

But when you see bloggers associated with groups such as the Style Coalition, "a network of independent online publishers in the fashion and lifestyle vertical" that has "built an alliance of key influencers to help brands, retailers and agencies directly connect with our passionate audiences", whom J.C. Penney has worked with, publishing blog posts that look like nothing more than advertorials, you may wonder where 'smart online marketing strategy' ends and 'paid linking' begins.

The key point here: apparently not all paid links are created equal. The retailer was busted by Google for a scheme that appeared to rely on a high volume of links on low-quality sites. But it speaks volumes that in its defense, J.C. Penney claims it has never paid for links while citing all the links it has received from 'high-quality' sites!

If anything, this highlights the challenges Google has in detecting and dealing with paid links. The truth of the matter is that Google can't detect every paid link, and at some level, it probably shouldn't even try to.

The fact that J.C. Penney apparently can't determine what's a 'paid link' by Google's definition shows that an even bigger part of the challenge is coming up with a workable definition for 'paid link' that doesn't leave a million shades of gray.

At the end of the day, nobody is really disputing the fact that J.C. Penney probably does have a significant number of highly-relevant pages for product-related searches that one would naturally expect to rank well even without a large number of paid links.

But Google still finds itself facing a huge dilemma here: if a company isn't permitted to boost its ranks by buying in bulk spammy, low-quality links, why should it be allowed to pay for higher-quality links from 'legitimate' publishers?

I think that's a question Google is hoping won't be asked in a highly-visible fashion, and frankly, I can understand why.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 February, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2394 more posts from this author

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Linda Bustos

I think a problem here is JC Penney can't really say which links are paid for. When you outsource SEO and linkbuilding to a third party, they may be paying for these links without disclosure. The service fees for a client like JCP would more than cover the cost of these low value links. The SEO firm is concerned with the results - and may keep such tactics under the radar so long as they produce the rankings that keep the client happy.

over 5 years ago

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Megan Gillikin

I'm still wondering why the NYT author picked on JCP. Did they not advertise enough in the Times? If the article hadn't come out, no way google compromises the millions of dollars a year it generates from AdWords from JCP. And now that JCP is lower in the search results, does that make my results better?

over 5 years ago

John Readman

John Readman, CEO at Ride25

This just highlights that many clients don't really know what their SEO agencies are up to. It is more and more important to ensure ethical, sustainable, natural, content rich links from any link building activity taking place.

But not only this - a client needs to be provided with clear transparent reporting that leaves no doubt in anyone's mind what links are getting built and from what sources.

Ultimately you need to have interesting and different content that people want to link to. Good link building purely finds an audience that wants to link to the clients' quality content, in an ethical sustainable future proof way.

I think on-line retailers like ASOS have proved that this is the best way to do this.

over 5 years ago

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Burning Bridges

JC Penney is full of it. They should have been getting some sort of linkbuilding campaign update with their monthly SEO report. At least that has been the standard with the companies I work with.

over 5 years ago

Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media

I am quite encouraged by the noise that is currently being made about paid links (see also the commentary on Forbes) and have been hoping that we would see more public 'outings' to help combat the low quality spam approach - it is about time that some high profile heads roll to show that it is not sustainable.

I suspect (but don't know) that JC Penney probably adopted a 'see no evil, hear no evil' approach to what their agency was doing. It is impossible to say without seeing the link building reports, but it is possible that they didn't FULLY understand / appreciate what was happening nor did they really care as they were simply happy with the results.

As John says, it is important that agencies are transparent about the approaches used and reports should clearly indicate the true nature of links obtained.

It will be interesting to see if they can 'do a BMW' and get straight back to where they were after a short burst of humiliation...

over 5 years ago

John Courtney

John Courtney, CEO and Executive Chairman at Pay on Results SEO, Content Marketing, Social Media, Digital PR, PPC & CRO from Strategy Digital

A lesson to all that forgot the BMW/Big Mouth Media fiasco of a few years back. Don't buy links!

Use your agency to build a natural link profile from many sources such as Directories, Blogs, Social Bookmarking, Articles and PR.

over 5 years ago

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seo sydney

J.C. penny got it so right this time. Very few people have ever though that it can be this way, further more from the link building update that we have been receiving, its so apparent that Google need a way to examine spammy links and legitimate link from publishers who are established.

over 5 years ago

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popspace

very nice I like it thank you for your sharing

over 5 years ago

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