Being at the top of a search engine results page can mean the difference between business success and failure. So, what would you do to ensure a listing there?

Absolutely anything?

If so, you better be careful. There are search engine optimization (SEO) methods that are considered illegitimate by the search engine companies like Google, and they don’t appreciate being gamed.

Just ask $17 billion retailer JCPenney, which got caught using black-hat (illegitimate) methods to boost its search results during the 2010 holiday shopping season. JCPenney was accused of taking part in a so-called link scheme, probably the most complicated black-hat SEO technique. The punishment for this kind of foolishness ranges from being demoted in the search rankings, to complete removal from Google’s index – a disastrous death sentence for any site.

“Our high [search engine result] rankings were pushed down,” Darcie Brossart, Penney’s vice president of communications in Plano, Texas, confirmed concerning the sanctions Google imposed. “We have terminated our relationship with our former natural SEO firm. We don’t know how it happened. We did not authorize it, and we were not involved.”

It’s important to recognize if your SEO firm (or your in-house Web expert) is venturing too close to the edge of the black-hat cliff, because if Google or other search engines find there is some monkey business happening, it’s your site that will suffer. “I’m not saying everyone is doing it, but it’s not unusual,” says Vanessa Fox, former Google Search employee and author of Marketing in the Age of Google. “A company might hire an SEO firm without knowing a lot about SEO, or they might think it’s not risky,” she adds.