Is Google corrupt? Search me

Google was thoroughly conned by SEO experts hired by JCPenney. Can we trust its search result rankings at all?

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a long piece by David Segal describing in painful detail exactly how Google's search results have been totally pwned by JCPenney. Over the holiday shopping season, the retailer where my mother used to drag me to buy my Easter suits received an extraordinary bounty of Google love, ranked number one in searches for "dresses," "bedding," "area rugs," "furniture," "skinny jeans," and dozens of other terms (including, probably, "Easter suits").

Is JCPenney really the destination of choice for all these categories of products? Hell no. But Google couldn't tell the difference, because it had been gamed by JCPenney's black-hat search engine optimization (SEO) firm, SearchDex. (SearchDex isn't talking, but JCPenney fired the company shortly after Segal called with some pointed questions. Draw your own conclusions.)

[ Also on InfoWorld, Cringely predicts 2011 will be the year hacking goes mainstream. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Apparently, SearchDex buried links attached to those search terms on thousands of dormant, fake, or abandoned websites, all of them pointing back at JCPenney.com. Google's bots detected all those links, drew the erroneous conclusion that JCPenney was all that when it comes to skinny jeans and area rugs, and drove millions of Web shoppers toward the site. JCPenney had one of its best online shopping seasons ever.

The problem? This is known as link farming, and it's banned by Google's Webmaster terms and conditions. With its billions, Google can afford to pay people to do nothing but sniff out suspect search results driven by link farms and 86 them. You'd think with an example this egregious Google would have noticed -- especially since it had warned JCPenney three times before about dicey search results. But no.

Per the Times:

Matt Cutts, the head of the Webspam team at Google ... sounded remarkably upbeat and unperturbed during this conversation, which was a surprise given that we were discussing a large, sustained effort to snooker his employer. Asked about his zenlike calm, he said the company strives not to act out of anger.

Or maybe it strives not to anger companies like JCPenney, whom the Times points out spends millions on Google ads, in addition to lord only knows how much on SEO trickery. Cutts says the idea is absurd; the European Union, on the other hand, is investigating Google for this very practice. Segal writes:

Is it possible that Google was willing to countenance an extensive black-hat campaign because it helped one of its larger advertisers? It's the sort of question that European Union officials are now studying in an investigation of possible antitrust abuses by Google.

Investigators have been asking advertisers in Europe questions like this: "Please explain whether and, if yes, to what extent your advertising spending with Google has ever had an influence on your ranking in Google's natural search." And: "Has Google ever mentioned to you that increasing your advertising spending could improve your ranking in Google's natural search?"

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