Gaming Google or Beating Google at Its Own Game?

By Karissa MarcumIt could be the most valuable formula ever devised, the most guarded digital recipe ever brewed. Yet, despite Google’s efforts to protect its search engine algorithm, their secret sauce has been discovered and most recently, exploited, by retail giant JC Penney.The New York Times recently published a damning story outlining how JC Penney allegedly gamed Google’s PageRank algorithm. The strategy, which is not uncommon, artificially made the company the number one search result in categories that it wouldn’t normally own.The headlines echoed what Google execs might have been feeling: “gamed,” “tricked” and “dirty.” No one has said that it was illegal, but the collective conscious of the internet seems to be decrying the move as a blatant disregard for the unwritten rules of the digital age, with Google opting to punish JC Penney by manually burying its search results.Google came out strong in defense of their approach, noting that JC Penney had also violated its webmaster guidelines, “When someone is looking for information on Google, we want them to find the most relevant answers possible. Our search algorithm relies on more than 200 signals to help people find the answers they’re looking for, and when websites violate our published webmaster guidelines to try and game the system, that’s bad for users and we are willing to take manual corrective action,” a Google spokesman said.Despite firing its SEO agency, JC Penney claimed that it was unaware that the so-called “black hat” technique was used: “JC Penney was in no way involved in the posting of the links discussed in the article. We did not authorize them and we were not aware that they had been posted. To be clear, we do not tolerate violations of our policies regarding natural search, which reflect Google’s guidelines,” Vice President of Corporate Communications Darcia Brossart wrote.But beneath all that lurks the question, “Can we blame them?”After all, the top search results of a Google search typically generate four times the traffic than the next highest result. In fact, more than two thirds of internet users don’t go beyond the first page.Online, the front page of Google is the front line. The fight—for millions of eyeballs and billions of dollars—is won and lost there. No more valuable piece of digital real estate exists.So all of this begs the question: “Is the online community upset that JCPenney broke the rules or just jealous that they didn’t discover the formula first?Perhaps, after the dust is settled, the answer will be found in the top search results of a Google search.