The dust has settled, and the topic of JC Penney’s public SEO reprimand is already a thing of the past. You might think that the recently announced logo redesign for Penney’s or the recent Oscar advertising buzz are intended as a quick diversion from the recent reputation crisis suffered at the hands of Google. As one expert says, “You don’t want to use a logo change as a Band-aid.”

No worries. While on the outside it might look like peculiar timing, JC Penney has actually been in the process of redesigning their website and brand for months. The two events are completely unrelated.

But I want to revisit the public embarrassment and discuss what this means for SEOs and search marketing strategies going forward. 

What Exactly Did JC Penney Do?

Before we get into my prediction, you need to understand precisely what we’re dealing with. JC Penney (and their then-current SEO vendor SearchDex) either bought links from other websites or created hundreds of artificial websites from which they posted links to JC Penney. Or both. SearchDex allegedly created websites for the purpose of creating additional links to the JC Penney site. Whether all the links came from sites created by the vendor or from purchasing links from external sources, the results were incredibly good rankings for several months… until someone called them to task.

While it may seem unlikely that JC Penney would rank #1 for everything from dresses to area rugs, it IS possible. What hurt their cause in the eyes of Google was the total irrelevancy between linking site and JC Penney page. Links from World of Warcraft sites, nuclear engineering sites, bulgarian property sites, etc… These links came from sites totally irrelevant to the products JC Penney offers.

Had JC Penney’s vendor stuck to buying links / building sites that were actually relevant to the pages they linked to, such a public investigation may have never seen the light of day. There was still no proof of where the links came from, and so Google made a quick and dangerous assumption: if the artificially gained links benefit JC Penney, then JC Penney must be the culprit. 

There WILL Be Consequences for Google

I’ve read through many of the articles and sifted through opinionated comments about JC Penney, link buying, Google policies, and what not. I was searching to see if anyone else was predicting what seemed blatantly obvious to me: this public embarrassment of a nationally recognized brand will do more harm than good. And I don’t think that Google is prepared.

Anyone Can Buy Links Or Build Spammy Sites

The simple truth is that ANYONE can do the things Penneys was penalized for. Not only that – ANYONE can create spammy content with links that point to ANY website. So in theory, one of JC Penney’s competitors could have bought spammy looking links and then tipped someone off in hopes of getting them penalized.

What proof does Google have of purchase? None. You “might” be able to find a connection between the ownership of some spammy sites and Penney’s SEO vendor. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but it’s about the only connection Google could make.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Everyone assumes that either J.C. Penney or their vendor were in the wrong. But there’s no proof. There are only links on completely unrelated external websites which could have come from anywhere.

Which leads us to the ominous prediction of the post… Dun dun dun!

Spammy Link Buying Is about to Skyrocket

Some agencies and inhouse marketing teams will shy away from buying links because they fear the wrath of Google. That’s to be expected. But what concerns me is how easily it will be to get your competition penalized*.

If a penalty consists of more than nullifying the benefits of bogus links, we’re about to see blackhat link building practices skyrocket. Think about it. If you can spend $10k on links for your biggest competitor(s) and then report them for bogus link building practices, you’ve just faked your way into the top spots.

There’s been a similar problem in Online Reputation Management for years. How easy is it to create a fake profile impersonating the leadership of your competitor and make horribly offensive statements which earn them a bona fide reputation crisis? If public opinion can be swayed by an impersonating commentor/twitterer, then a ton of money previously allocated toward self-promotion may be re-allocated toward the much less-dangerous (and perhaps more fun) approach of damaging your competitor’s reputation.

In the world of search, things could get much uglier before they get better.

*NOTE: I have not seen any mention as to what precisely was done during the manual Google update affecting JC Penney’s rankings. Perhaps they simply nullified the benefits of each bogus link. If so, then the naturally reduced rankings for JC Penney are well within accepted responses. If, however, Google simply penalized Penneys a particular number of rankings, then the penalty is based on the assumption that JC Penney is indeed responsible for the bogus links, which cannot be proven.