Posted in Poor Quality Assurance

New York Times investigates how JCPenney’s “search optimization” firm gamed Google

This article is a must-read:

For months, [JCPenney] was consistently at or near the top in [Google] searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of

How did Penney accomplish this? Its search optimization firm cheated by soliciting links to Penney’s site from untold numbers of other websites, including content farms. The cheating was discovered by the New York Times, which published a high-profile article about it. Google subsequently took action, but the damage to its reputation has already been done.

Google’s so-called anti-spam guru Matt Cutts claims the company cares about the integrity of its search results. But actions speak louder than words. Increasingly, what’s relevant and useful is buried in Google searches, while spam and junk float to the top. Maybe that’s not by accident, either.

Last year, Advertising Age obtained a Google document that listed some of its largest advertisers, including AT&T, eBay and yes, J. C. Penney. The company, this document said, spent $2.46 million a month on paid Google search ads — the kind you see next to organic results.

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.

Google does not exist to make the world a better place or improve human knowledge. It exists to spy on people and make money. That explains why quality assurance has been declining: it’s just not a priority for the Monster of Mountain View.

There’s no reason to use Google for search anymore, particularly with so many good alternatives now out there, including startups like Blekko.