While not as ubiquitous today as a few years ago, we all remember the – well, in a word, hate – directed at the retail giant Wal-Mart. They were targeted for their shoddy treatment of employees, questionable business ethics and notably the use of us their considerable resources to monopolize the market and make it near impossible for the ‘little guy’ to compete. Now, the big guys are using their deep pockets to achieve supremacy on the online battlefield, and some would say it was just a matter of time before they were caught engaging in business no-nos. With the ignominious distinction of being the first (to get caught): JC Penney.

Let’s get something clear here: JC Penney and their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) company didn’t slip into a dark conference room and engineer a nefarious new SEO tactic. Companies large and small have been toeing the line between acceptable and non-acceptable practices for a long time. What really stands out here is the scale and audacity of the operation. In fact, in his New York Times piece that began the scandal, Dave Segal quoted online search expert Doug Pierce as saying “Actually, it’s the most ambitious attempt I’ve ever heard of. This whole thing just blew me away. Especially for such a major brand. You’d think they would have people around them that would know better.”

Of course, to hear JC Penney tell it, whether anyone knew better is a moot point since no one at JC Penney knew anything. However improbable, this would be easier to accept as a possibility if it weren’t for a couple things. Firstly, a job posting for the position of JC Penney “VP Digital Marketing Gifting Glad / CLAD job which expressly states the candidate would maintain and oversee relationships with SEO agencies while helping said agencies “implement and track”. Secondly, the wee factoid that Google detected previously guideline violations related to JC Penney.com three times before the NY Times story broke.

I ain’t sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Whether you’re convinced by JCP’s doe-eyed innocence or not, the facts remain unchanged. With or without JCP’s knowledge, their hired SEO company SearchDex engaged in what is called ‘black hat’ search engine optimization. This refers to practices that Google (and other search engines) find to be ‘deceptive and manipulative’ as opposed to the accepted ‘white hat’ practices used by the majority of top SEO companies. If white hat optimization is Luke Skywalker, black hat is Vader.

While the best use complex techniques and proprietary programs, the basics of white hat SEO consist of page layout, intelligent, non redundant keyword use and relevant anchor text for links. This helps the search engine spiders catalogue the site and links incoming and outgoing. Black hat techniques include keyword stuffing (unnecessary or irrelevant mention and repetition of keywords), buying links on totally unrelated sites and perhaps the most frowned upon: creating “doorway pages”, which are pages that exist solely to redirect users to another site. In the JC Penny campaign, SearchDex appears to have used all of these.

And with impunity. Links with anchor text like ‘black dresses’ that redirected users to JCPenney.com appeared on sites as diverse as casino-focus.com and a nuclear engineering page. Segal expanded in the NY Times article:

There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists – and the list goes on.

On JCPenney.com, there was keyword stuffing galore in the site’s internal links. For example, the ‘Quality Values’ button would simply bring up a long list of products; each linking to that specific category’s home on the website. Then there were the doorway pages. Many of them made little effort to disguise what they were – containers for a link to everything JCP.

The results? JC Penney was achieving rankings for thousands of keywords, and was number 1 in a number of them such as bedding and swimsuits. Unfortunately for them, feats such as ranking higher in the search for ‘Samsonite carry-on luggage’ than Samsonite tends to arouse suspicious. Segal’s interest was piqued, Pierce started digging, and a retail giant had a heck of a lot of egg to clean off its face.

So after their temporary rule of the online retailers and holiday season bonanza, what are the repercussions? SearchDex was fired, of course. But no one’s going to jail, because no laws were broken (although, considering a recent similar case, we may see the Federal Trade Commission attempt to set a precedent). JC Penney.com will not have its page rank reduced to zero, as has happened to other companies caught ‘cheating’. Rather, ‘manual action’ has been taken against Penney, resulting in significant drops in its Google rankings.

Many have highlighted JC Penney’s previous infractions and what they see as a slap on the wrist while pointing out the considerable amount JCP spends advertising with Google. Others have scoffed at the entire scandal, with remarks tantamount to “more power to them, they just shouldn’t have gone so big so fast and gotten caught.”

While it’s impossible to be certain how much extra revenue JC Penney’s black hat campaign netted them, the fact remains that they had a noticeably strong holiday season. And unless legislature or stronger steps are implemented against black hat SEO, the basics of risk and reward are likely to attract some towards the practice.

And if there’s demand, you can bet there’ll be supply.