Was Target hit by Penguin?
Is it possible Target.com was smacked flapped by Google's Penguin update? It's certainly possible (although unlikely), and while only conjecture, one piece of evidence indicates Target has experienced a dramatic loss in traffic tightly timed with the Penguin update.
Why We Think This
When the first versions of Panda hit, Mark Ballard analyzed PPC partner traffic and found obvious trends in the types of sites suffering traffic loss (e.g. content mills). His analysis also lined up with the public discussion of specific sites hit by the update.
As it turns out, Target.com is a very large Google search partner, and dramatic drops in search network clicks are meaningful here, especially when the timing coincides so tightly with Penguin.
Note the sharp drop in clicks for Target.com on 4/25. Penguin was announced and released on 4/24. Target was the only top 50 search partner to see PPC clicks fall through the floor.
Again, while this is an indirect way to determine who may have been hit by Penguin, doing the same with Panda did seem to fit with the intent of that update and what others were saying at the time.
Why Could This Happen?
When looking at Target's website, there isn't anything obvious that Penguin (or Panda) would penalize. Sure, the global navigation is a bit excessive, and there are rich anchor text links well below the fold that appear solely for SEO. But there isn't any reason why these things would cause an issue, by themselves, and they aren't out of the norm of what you might see on a large, competitive ecommerce site. Internal footer links like this aren't usually a reason for concern:
There is an inordinate amount of nofollow being used internally. If we were advising them on SEO, we would certainly want to evaluate why this has been implemented and help recommend some other strategies.
Off-page metrics show just what you'd expect of Target: a massive link profile with a predominance of branded anchor text. It's a very natural looking profile, save a few odd entries. Digging deeply into the historical index with Majestic SEO, we discovered some oddities around at least three anchor text matches: electronics, baby, and toys. Looking at the link distribution for these exact match anchors showed a pattern.
Like other large brands and sites, there are many domains redirecting to Target.com. However, Majestic shows us that at some point in time (possibly several months or several years ago) Target had rich anchor text from these domains pointing at the landing pages for electronics, baby and toys (and possibly others). Looking at those URLs and anchors today show straight 301s to the home page. There are probably less than 100 of these redirects in place, at most, so it's nothing alarming.
It may be that Target had many, many duplicate sites for non-SEO reasons - for example brand ownership of misspellings. Are these now hurting their SEO? I would be surprised, but this kind of thing is not unheard of in SEO.
Another possibility is that these sites, as duplicates, linked to target.com for SEO purposes and were then mass redirected. However, that seems much less likely.
Finally, an edge scenario we found were a few duplicate domains hanging out there with Target's content but links pointing to the canonical target.com homepage. It seems obvious enough that these are either spam sites or anomalies. One domain worth mentioning, however, is targetmobilestore.com which links to the target.com URLs in breadcrumbs, potentially creating confusing signals.
Other than the concerning search network click trends, there isn't an obvious reason to believe Target has been hit by Penguin. Admittedly this was only a 30 minute exercise and much more investigative work would need to be conducted. However, with PPC clicks as an indicator, one that has validated Panda penalties in the past, we can see no other clear explanation for Target's dramatic loss in traffic.
MB Postscript: We have noticed a sharp increase in search network traffic from Google's googleadservices.com domain, but the timing and scale of that increase does not fit neatly with the traffic patterns we've seen from Target.com. The two may still be related though.