“Maybe We Should Have Asked the Public Relations Team If This Is a Good Idea…."

The New York Times’ recent article about manipulating Internet search engines was a fascinating glimpse into the world of search engine optimization. Most companies want their products and services ranking high in online searches, particularly a Google search. There is an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the search engines (which do not disclose their specific ranking formulas) and the individualscompanies who make a living trying to move clients higher up the search rankings.
As The New York Times story points out, something had clearly gone very wrong (or very right, depending upon your point of view) when J.C. Penney popped up as a top site for items ranging from dresses, luggage, skinny jeans, tablecloths, comforter sets and furniture. Those results didn’t happen by accident; they were part of a deliberate and well-executed “black hat” strategy over many months to raise J.C. Penney’s rankings. Google executives called it the most ambitious attempt they had ever seen to game their system.
I’ll leave it to others to debate if the strategy was “ethical” or not. What I found most interesting was the denial by J.C. Penney that the company had engaged in any deliberate attempt to manipulate the search engines.
“J.C. Penney did not authorize and we were not involved with or aware of the posting of the links that you sent to us, as it is against our natural search policies,” said a spokesperson. I feel for the J.C. Penney public relations team. The search engine results did not happen accidentally. It took time, effort, resources and money to systematically create thousands of artificial links to the J.C. Penney website.
Evidently, the Internet marketing team at J.C. Penney did not consider it important to get the input of public relations professionals about the potential negative fall-out from engaging in this type of activity.  I am sure they were very proud of the results they achieved, right up to the day when The New York Times called Google to ask about this jury-rigging, resulting in a painfully long story in the Sunday Business section.
The bottom line is that actions have consequences, and public relations professionals provide the most value to organizations when they are in the loop BEFORE decisions are made and executed. Marketing and public relations are complimentary, but different, disciplines within the corporate structure. Neither should control the other, but they must be at the table at the same time so that all voices and perspectives can be evaluated and weighed.