JCPenney store in New YOrk CityDid you search for an item on Google in the past few months and find yourself directed to JCPenney? Was JCPenney the top returned retailer on just about everything you searched for on Google, even for things other retailers specialize in? You weren't alone; it seems JCPenney is apparently trying to best Google, shooting itself to the top of the search list.

It's a sneaky little practice that uses "search engine optimization" to skew results. Google uses incredibly complex and sophisticated methods to determine which sites get returned at the top of search rankings. One of the key measurements is how many websites use a key word and link out to another site. For example, if a blog, news site, or company specializing in say, luggage, mentions JCPenney, it rises in the rankings.
But is JCPenney the No. 1 site for luggage, specifically Samsonite luggage, beating even Samsonite.com for the honor? Oddly yes, according to Google during a period of several months in which the New York Times was conducting an investigation into JCPenney's surprising rankings.

JCPenney, alleges the newspaper, used a company skilled in "black hat optimization" that basically creates fake web sites that mention the retailer in relation to specific products, pushing up its rankings and violating Google's guidelines. Once discovered, Google began amending its results, effectively burying JCPenney in search returns as punishment.

It's not easy to game the system, as Google typically roots out fake links. And JCPenney has denied any part in the scheme. But if you kept getting JCPenney named in returns for items like rugs or luggage -- I did for some home goods over the holidays -- it's because someone was rigging the results.

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