At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”
Two hours later, it was at No. 71.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”
By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.
It seems J. C. Penny was the subject of what Google calls “corrective action,” spurred on, interestingly enough, by the Times’ investigation of the “subterranean world of ‘black hat’ optimization.”
A J.C. Penny spokesman denied the company did anything wrong, but it did react to its reversal of search-derived fortune by, among other things, firing its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex.
As part of Segal’s journalistic investigation, he met with a link-selling specialist named Mark Stevens in Palo Alto. Stevens was asked to defend his profession by the reporter.
“I think we need to make a distinction between two different kinds of searches — informational and commercial,” he said. “If you search ‘cancer,’ that’s an informational search and on those, Google is amazing. But in commercial searches, Google’s results are really polluted. My own personal experience says that the guy with the biggest S.E.O. budget always ranks the highest.”
To Mr. Stevens, S.E.O. is a game, and if you’re not paying black hats, you are losing to rivals with fewer compunctions.
In other words, search marketing is war and in war all is fair game. That’s hardly a persuasive argument, but it’s a popular one nevertheless.
One thing’s for sure, the combatants in this war have a lot to win and/or lose. A study last May by Daniel Ruby of Chitika, an online advertising network of 100,000 sites, found that, on average, 34 percent of Google’s traffic went to the No. 1 result, about twice the percentage that went to No. 2.