Gaming Google: J.C. Penney Accused of Trying to Boost Search Results

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You'd better think twice before trying to game Google.

For websites that want to be found with the Web's most popular search engine, the company lays out some very specific guidelines. But color outside the lines, and you might find that your prime page-one search ranking has slipped to the barely-visible back pages on Google.

Considering how many people Google their way to information and services, it's no surprise that some companies and organizations are tempted to manipulate the system. Securing a ranking on the first few pages of a Google search is like setting up a storefront on Main Street; surfacing on a later page is like languishing in a back alley.

For good reason, Google takes its search rankings seriously. When companies don't follow the rules, it isn't long before they suffer the consequences.

"If a site has been penalized, it may no longer show up in results on Google.com or on any of Google's partner sites," Google says on a page of Webmaster guidelines.

Google Punishes Sites for 'Black-Hat Tactics'

In a recent search engine showdown, Google buried several J.C. Penney links in its search rankings after learning that the company was accused of employing so-called "black-hat tactics" to get a leg up online.

To dominate rankings for search terms like "black dress," "bedding," "area rugs" and other consumer searches, J.C. Penney allegedly paid to have thousands of links added to hundreds of websites across the Web, according to the New York Times. Some of the sites featuring J.C. Penney links were nuclear.engineeringaddict.com, casino-focus.com and other sites that had little to do with Penny's business, the Times reported.

The additional links to J.C. Penney pages boosted the retailer's presence on the Internet because Google's algorithms consider a site more search-worthy if it looks more popular online. But paying for links is a big Google no-no.

Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment from ABCNews.com. But after learning of J.C. Penney's search scheme from the New York Times, Google confirmed that the tactics violated its guidelines and told the Times that it would bury the rankings as a penalty.

J.C. Penney says it was not even aware of the illicit links.

"J. C. Penney did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies," Darcie Brossart, a J.C. Penny spokeswoman, told the New York Times. "We are working to have the links taken down."

When contacted by ABCNews.com, Brossart said that the Times article is "misleading and unwarranted."

"J.C. Penney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted," she said in an e-mail. "To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google's guidelines."

Brossart said that once Penney learned of the "unauthorized" links, it immediately investigated how and by whom the links were posted and terminated the company's relationship with its "natural" search marketing firm.

"Obviously, we are disappointed that Google has reduced our rankings," she said. "Nonetheless, we will continue to work through the appropriate channels to regain our high natural search positions."

J.C. Penney is just the latest high-profile site to get slapped on the wrist by Google. Here are six other sites that have been banned or buried.

Hutchison's Campaign Site Gets the Boot

In August 2009, Google blocked the website of Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's gubernatorial campaign after it found hidden text in the Web site's source code.

To the average visitor, www.standbykay.com looked like any other political site. But those who could pull back the layers of the Web found something else.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, the source code for the site included more than 2,200 hidden phrases, including word combinations with Hutchison's name and Rick Perry, the name of the incumbent. The newspaper said it also included the phrase "rick perry gay."

A spokesman for Hutchison's campaign told ABCNews.com that its Web consultant, ElectionMall Technologies, was informed by Google that the site had violated its guidelines. He also said that they had dismissed the firm.

When contacted by ABCNews.com, ElectionMall declined to give a comment.

The URL standbykay.com has been discontinued. But when it was still alive, aides for the senator said the phrases were computer-generated based on campaign-related terms that Internet users would likely search for and were intended to help target online banner advertising, the Statesman reported.

Hiding text in source code is a giant Google no-no.

"Google did take action on this site for hidden text. Hidden text is a violation of our quality guidelines," a company spokesman said in a statement, adding that it had removed the site from its index.

BMW Germany Blocked for Deceptive Practices

In February 2006, Google gave BMW Germany the Internet kiss of death when it discovered that the car company was presenting different content to visitors to its site than it was to the search engine.

"That's a violation of our webmaster quality guidelines, specifically the principle of 'Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users,'" Matt Cutts, the head of Google's Web spam team, wrote on his blog at the time.

Although the website might give ordinary visitors a page chock-full of brand new Beemers, search engines would see a page of search-friendly text.

Google reduced BMW's page rank to zero, which meant that when Internet users searched "BMW," it would no longer appear at the top of the page.

According to the BBC, a BMW spokesman acknowledged at the time that the company used so-called doorway pages, which are large sets of search-engine optimized pages intended to boost a site's search rank.

But the spokesman denied misleading users.

"We did not provide different content in the search results to the final Web site," Markus Sagemann told BBC News. "However, if Google says all doorway pages are illegal we have to take this into consideration."

In a matter of days, Google restored the Web site to its index.

Traffic-Power Banished From Google

Google doesn't usually comment on specific sites that flout their guidelines (even Matt Cutts' blog posts usually don't single out trouble sites) but in January 2006 it broke with tradition.

In a post, Cutts confirmed that Google had banned Traffic-Power.com and sites affiliated with it from its index.

Traffic-Power.com apparently no longer exists, but it had been a search engine placement firm that helps other websites boost their rankings. Google said its tactics rigged the system to help its clients and removed it permanently.

GoCompare's Traffic Tumbles After Google Rap

So what exactly happens if a site is just punished, but not totally removed, by Google?

In February 2008, Hitwise, a firm that measures website traffic, took a look at GoCompare, a U.K. insurance comparison website, to figure that out.

After Google found irregular inbound links to the site, which help improve the ranking but are not necessarily relevant to the rest of the content on the page, it reduced the company's ranking.

In the week ending Jan. 26, 2008, GoCompare was the number-one site receiving traffic from the search term "car insurance" and capturing 17.49 percent of the all search traffic from the term, according to HitWise.

But by the week ending Feb. 9, 2008 -- after the site was "blacklisted" by Google -- it dropped out of the top 10 and captured only 2.31 percent of the traffic from "car insurance."

Google Vs. Google

Though it may rule the Web, Google isn't beyond reproach.

In 2006, it punished itself.

Text intended to be internal was showing up on public pages. But, to be consistent, the company removed the pages from its own index.

"When it was noticed, people in the space who sometimes fight with Google said, 'Why don't you ban yourself?' And then they did," said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the industry website Search Engine Land. "That was indeed quite a chuckle."

In December 2008, it penalized itself again -- temporarily, at least.

Because of a glitch, searches for "google," "analytics," "google adwords," and other terms didn't return the normal Google.com result.

But soon after noticing the mistake, Google issued a statement saying, "Unfortunately, for a short period of time yesterday, we experienced an issue where our search engine wasn't returning some pages hosted on google.com in users' search results.

"We've since fixed this problem, and users can now find all Google-specific sites they are searching for. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused," the statement said.

In February of this year, however, it faced a different situation.

The Web spam team learned that Google Japan was paying for blogger reviews, which violates the company's search guidelines.

Google's Cutts tweeted, "Google.co.jp PageRank is now ~5 instead of ~9. I expect that to remain for a while."

Barry Schwartz, owner of Web consulting firm RustyBrick and executive editor of Search Engine RoundTable, said the penalty lasted for a few weeks.

"Google typically doesn't go after individual websites," he said, adding that filters usually search the Web for spam. When the spam team finds sites that are breaking the rules, they contact them and go through a reconsideration process to bring the site in line.

Google vs. the Entire Internet

Earlier this year, the search engine community -- and Internet users around the world -- had another chuckle.

In January, Google flagged the entire Internet as malware for one Saturday morning.

Usually the warnings are meant to alert users to sites that could harm their computers, but the error meant that every person who used Google to search saw a warning next to every site listed.

Search Engine Land's Sullivan estimated that the short-lived problem probably meant that the company took some kind of revenue hit. At the very least, it gave the larger-than-life tech firm a moment of humility.