Disturbing Look at Search Engine Innards

I was browsing the NYTimes online yesterday when I discovered Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets. I couldn’t stop reading. Author David Segal investigates the dark side of search engine optimization in a story that blends mystery and suspense while it gives good background of something that affects most everyone who owns a business.

Segal starts by setting the story:

PRETEND for a moment that you are Google’s search engine. Someone types the word “dresses” and hits enter. What will be the very first result?

And from there, introduces the mystery of JC Penney’s seemingly inexplicable search-engine success:

The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

What happened? That makes for great reading — about search engine black arts, cheating the algorithms, manipulating links, fly-by-night stealth sites, and big business. And it seems like good investigative journalism as well. The Times paid a search engine expert to drill down into JC Penney’s success, and what he comes up with was surprising to me. Especially when I thought about how much is implied but not actually said.

And it includes a lot of background that’s good to know. Most businesses depend on search engines and search engine placement. And some of this is scary.

Read it: I dare you.


  • Jim Richardson says:

    That really is alarming news to read. However, the first thing that came to mind was that Google is far from being the only search engine out there. Somehow we have made it popular, but I just wonder if that was a good idea. I experimented with a few other search engines for “little black dresses”. Of course, none of them came up with JCPenney either, but they seem to be competent sources of information as well. Also, bear in mind that JCPenney has been around for a long, long time. Since 1902 in fact. So, when the internet arrived I’m sure they started getting hits from the start. Perhaps that played into it as well? Interesting and informative piece you wrote and from now on I will search multiple engines just to have more options to factor in. Thank you!

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