Apparently, J.C. Penney might have been participating in "black hat" optimisation and goosing their rankings. According to Doug Pierce, an expert in online search:
[Google]draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and "white hat" approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site's visibility. Penney's results were derived from methods on the wrong side of that line, says Mr. Pierce. He described the optimisation as the most ambitious attempt to game Google's search results that he has ever seen.
"Actually, it's the most ambitious attempt I've ever heard of," he said. "This whole thing just blew me away. Especially for such a major brand. You'd think they would have people around them that would know better."
J.C. Penney denies these actions but it's pretty clear that "someone paid to have thousands of links placed on hundreds of sites scattered around the Web, all of which lead directly to JCPenney.com." And as most of us know, more links to your site almost always mean a higher Google ranking for you.
After the NY Times notified Google, J.C. Penney has dropped from being the first result for nearly every search to 70th. J.C. Penney has fired its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex, and has said they will continue to work to "retain our high natural search position". Read the full account at the NY Times. [NY Times]