The NY Times published a very interesting article today about J.C. Penny’s rankings in the organic listings on Google.  The retailer has been able to secure the top listing in Google’s organic SERP (search engine results page) for a wide range of very generic keywords.  Here is the leading section of the article to set the details up for this blog post:

“Someone types the word “dresses” and hits enter. What will be the very first result?

There are, of course, a lot of possibilities. Macy’s comes to mind. Maybe a specialty chain, like J. Crew or the Gap. Perhaps a Wikipedia entry on the history of hemlines.

O.K., how about the word “bedding”? Bed Bath & Beyond seems a candidate. Or Wal-Mart, or perhaps the bedding section of

“Area rugs”? Crate & Barrel is a possibility. Home Depot, too, and Sears, Pier 1 or any of those Web sites with “area rug” in the name, like

You could imagine a dozen contenders for each of these searches. But in the last several months, one name turned up, with uncanny regularity, in the No. 1 spot for each and every term:

J. C. Penney.

The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of”

Here is a link to the rest of the article.   NY Times Article

As I read this article (from the actual newspaper, a very deliberate Sunday morning ritual which represents a change of pace from my extremely digital lifestyle) while sipping my morning coffee, the first thing that came to mind is that lots of markers may come away with the wrong conclusions about search, organic listings and even a possible conspiracy theory from Google.  So let’s dive into it a bit and gain some clarity.

The first of several key takeaways one should glean from the article is the power of link building.  J.C. Penny was able to reach the #1 ranking in Google by obtaining a high quantity of inbound links to their site from very wide range of other websites.  I have often expressed an opinion that of all the factors in the Google search algorithm, link building was the most significant individual influencing factor.  However, J.C. Penny obtained their links by paying for them as opposed to earning them with quality content.  While these paid links were able to produce results, it is clear from the article and Google’s position that this is only a short term win.  A win that has proven to be very costly to the retailer.  J.C. Penny has risked being “black listed” by Google, an offense that carries a the very strict penalty of never appearing in the SERP again.  Google is in the process of adjusting the algorithm and removing those links which has significantly pushed the retailer’s listing lower and even off the first page.  This will have an enormous impact in online sales at  Mess with the bull and you get the horns.

The next key take away is the power of search.  Google’s dominance among search engines has made them the “go to” site when people need to find information or make a purchase.  The web plays a role in just about every buying decision we make today and when people need information, they turn to Google.  It doesn’t matter what business you are in, if you don’t have a presence on the web and if your presence is not listed in Google, you are missing out on opportunities.

For the conspiracy theorists, if you read the article you can’t help but wonder if Google played a role in helping J.C. Penny reaching #1 by ignoring the black hat techniques.  After all, the retailer spends $2.46 million a month on paid ads in Google.  So did this advertising revenue play a role in Google not penalizing the retailer?  I’m going to defend the search engine on this one. I believe that Google has regularly demonstrated a big picture view point and has done a nice job of separating the two business units.  The power of Google has long been their objectivity within their natural listings.  It is the #1 search engine partly because users trust the listings.  Allowing natural listings to be influenced by the amount of money a business spends in paid search would severely damage that trust.  Also, consider that J.C. Penny will now have to pay for listings in the sponsored section of Google as a result of significantly dropping from visibility on this very important and highly searched keywords.  Google will actually make more money as a result of the retailers blunder.

Brand marketers, if you read the article, you are aware that J.C. Penny claims that these links were acquired by their SEO agency without their knowledge of the tactic.  Assuming you believe that, I hope you learn that there are no shortcuts to long term success.  Acquiring inbound links should be an earned marketing effort.  Providing valuable content to your audience (the human audience as well as the Google spider) will lead to a higher quality inbound link and greater long term results.  With the enormous popularity of social media today, there are plenty of ways to build link equity without turning to black hat techniques.  My advice to you, make sure you know what your agency or team is doing and be leery of promises in reaching #1 ranking.