Until recently, JC Penney was the most dominant retailer in search engine optimization – SEO, in geek-speak – showing up in Google’s coveted number-one spot for all sorts of keywords, from “Samsonite luggage” to “area rugs” to “black cocktail dresses.” How did a fairly generic middle-of-the-road retailer like Penney’s steal the top spot from every other commerce site on the Web?


They cheated.

According to a report published in The New York Times, JC Penney hired people to post hundreds of links to their site on Internet forums and blogs, without any regard for the content of those sites. All those links to the retailer boosted JCP’s search standing to eyebrow-raising heights.

That’s one of many practices that the search industry calls “Black Hat SEO” — the “black hat” being synonymous with the bad guys in an old-school Western. It’s become a catch-all term for practices that boost search ranking by going against Google’s guidelines and basic business ethics. Once upon a time, Black Hat SEO was more about porn and illegal software download sites putting Disney terms in their meta-keywords. Today, it’s major auto companies, clothing labels, and the anchor store in your local mall.

Why do they do it? Because it works… to a point. JCP went through the holiday season as the top result on dozens of shopping searches. But in a way, they fell victim to their own success — they did such a good job of gaming the system, people started to wonder how they pulled it off. That got Google’s attention — and brought about a massive SEO smack-down. Those terms that JC Penney was dominating? Now they’re coming up on page seven of Google’s results. And when it comes to search, page seven might as well be page 107.

Bear that in mind when you consider your own SEO strategy. Does it make more sense for your business to go the “white hat” route — making sure that your content can be easily crawled by search spiders, that you’ve created keyword-rich content that accurately describes what your pages are all about, and that you’re building high-value links on credible sites? Or the route that might be quicker and easier — but potentially far more costly?

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