Google Lets JC Penney Back in the Playground

Has it been a long three months for JC Penney? The American retailer was penalised by Google after it was discovered that they engaged in “shady” link building practices in order to land in the top spots on dozens of Google search queries, from “black dresses” to “Samsonite luggage.” Google frowns on such blatant misuse of SEO tactics (link building is an effective white hat SEO technique, but it becomes black hat when those links are from link farms and have no value other than providing a link to another site). JC Penney’s indirect search ranking plummeted, but now Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Web Spam team, says that Google is lifting the penalty.

JC Penney, Cutts said, “did quite a bit of work to cleanup what had been going on. You don’t want to be vindictive or punitive, so after three months the penalty was lifted.” He added later, “I think the penalty was tough and the appropriate length.”

What effect did the penalty have on the retailer? After Overstock.com was caught engaging in the same type of link building scheme as JC Penney, they saw their sales fall by 5 percent. JC Penney, on the other hand, reported $376 million in online sales – that’s up 6.6 percent from the same time last year. Only about 7 percent of their traffic comes from organic search results, so the penalty didn’t have a catastrophic effect, or even, it seems, a negative effect in terms of sales. (Stock prices are a different story.)

What does this mean for the rest of the internet world? It depends. Like Overstock.com, a loss in rankings can also mean a substantial loss in revenue. Scores of businesses are dealing with such losses after the Panda update was launched, and JC Penney’s ability to move through the Google penalty, in which the search engine did not crawl their sites, without much damage can provide an answer for them. Google, JC Penney teaches us, is not the only vehicle to drive traffic to sites. In JC Penney’s case, they have a reputation and history spanning over a century.

For small businesses and start-ups without this type of name and brand recognition, it is admittedly much, much harder to survive without much help from Google, but it can be done. More businesses are working to gain traffic through social media sites and optimise for other search engines, such as Bing and Blekko.

Is this a plausible alternative for those who have earned the wrath (or just ended up on the wrong side) of Google?

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