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Black Hatting the Algorithm

In February 2011, if you were to search for “living room furniture” in Google at 7 PM, J. C. Penny would show up as the number one result. If you were to do the same search two hours later, J. C. Penny would appear as the 68th result.  What caused the sudden drop in ranking?  How exactly are these pages ranked?

Simply put, search engines use “spiders” that “crawl” the web pages to scan the structure of the page and index its contents in a document on a database.  The search engine receives a request and retrieves all documents from its index which match the query.  These results are then analyzed by the engine’s algorithm to return the most relevant result to the given request.

Google utilizes its PageRank algorithm (which is still shrouded in mystery) to determine this result.  As discussed in class, PageRank is a ranking of all web pages based on factors which include the frequency and density of keywords and, most importantly, the number of votes (link popularity) for you site.  This process seems very straight-forward and easy.  Search engine optimization (SEO) is employed to maximize the rank of a certain web page.  On-page (content and code) factors are optimized by utilizing the proper keywords, tags, text, and structure.  Furthermore, the rank of a page can be increased by increasing the number of votes to a page.  This can be done by having more backlinks, or pages that link to your page.

The latter is precisely what happened with J. C. Penny.  Although J. C. Penny claimed they did not do so, hundreds of sites, even those not remotely related anything sold by JCP, were paid to place links which led directly to the JCP website.  For example, the keyword “casual dresses” was on, and “black dresses” was on  As a result, JCP was the top search result for everything ranging from the normal “skinny jeans” to the highly specific “grommet top curtains”.  Exploiting this does not sit well with Google; these black hat SEO techniques are deemed completely unfair and essentially scam the user.  As a result, J. C. Penny was effectively penalized: the once top spot they held for PageRankings was lost and buried beneath a sea of 50+ other pages.

Moral of the story? Although it is not illegal and may seem appealing to do so, don’t try to cheat your way to the top PageRank.  Google will find out and punish you.




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