J. C. Penney was punished by Google for its spammy links. Marketers should consider using quality content to catch merit-based links.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published an article about a search engine optimization investigation against J. C. Penney that has resulted in the department store's quick sink in Google search results. Marketers looking to boost their Google rankings might learn from this debacle that they'll pay the price for paid links – and white hat SEO is the only way to go.

The Times reported that J. C. Penney was the No. 1 result for a number of common queries – from “dresses” to “bedding.” In fact, the department store was doing so well that Times officials doubted whether even a retail giant could have enough optimized content and merit-based inbound links to pull off such high rankings. J. C. Penney ranked higher for “Samsonite carry on luggage” than Samsonite itself.

A little investigation showed that J. C. Penney had an extremely high number of inbound links from spammy sites. Although J.C. Penney spokesperson Darcie Brossart claims that the company “did not authorize, and we were not involved with or aware of, the posting of the links that [The New York Times] sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,” Google execs seem to feel the department store is still responsible.

Google claims its algorithm caught on, as J. C. Penney dropped from the top slots for many key phrases earlier last week, but Matt Cutts says his company took it a step farther and manually removed J. C. Penney from the top search results as well. In an interview with The Times, Cutts said he can “confirm that this [linking scheme] violates our guidelines.” Last Wednesday, he and his antispam team took “corrective action” against J. C. Penney.

The Times reports that at 7 p.m. last Wednesday, J. C. Penney was the No. 1 search result for “living room furniture.” By 9 p.m., it was No. 68.

Google's decision to step in and manually remove J. C. Penney mirrors Blekko's removal of several sites that users marked as spam earlier this month. The movement toward more aggressive removal of spam content is a sign that brands hoping to gain a prominent place in search rankings must employ honest search engine optimization strategies.

Matt Cutts doesn't exactly apologize about the J. C. Penney blip, as he stands behind Google's algorithm. “Given the one billion queries that Google handles each day, I think we do an amazing job,” he told the Times. Still, he indicates that Google is going to redouble its efforts to fight spam.

As Brafton has reported, Google recently updated its algorithm to reduce spam content on the web. Now, marketers might expect more manual removals, as well. As Cutts told the Times, “Spammers never stop,” and battling spammers is an ever-evolving job.

Paid links clearly backfire. But what can marketers do to attract merit-based links? The Google Webmaster Central blog answers this question by encouraging marketers to “create unique and compelling content on your site and the web in general.”

Katherine Griwert is Brafton's Marketing Director. She's practiced content marketing, SEO and social marketing for over five years, and her enthusiasm for new media has even deeper roots. Katherine holds a degree in American Studies from Boston College, and her writing is featured in a number of web publications.