In the past year, Google has made an almost accelerated effort to refine their quality guidelines and link schemes; from Penguin 2.1 to Hummingbird, and everything in between, there are several practices within the search community that have made the journey from tried and trusted tactic to old and obsolete. By refining these quality guidelines, Google’s search results have generally improved, though some sites have been left in the dust. Instead of talking about how to get in Google’s good graces, today we’re taking a look at four major sites who took some minor missteps and ended up with penalties from the search giant.
Perhaps among the most famous, the Interflora penalty and subsequent algorithm update that followed was incurred after Google identified that this UK-based flower delivery company was using paid advertorials to acquire links and manipulate PageRank. The site made little effort to disguise its efforts, effectively bribing journalists and websites for links so that the site would rank well for its target keywords during Valentine’s Day. When Google found out, their search quality team made a statement indicating that Interflora, along with the sites that sold and published the paid advertorial space, would be penalized. The PageRank for the site fell to a zero, and they were completely removed from the SERPs–even for branded keyword searches.
In the same way that Interflora got penalized for buying links to promote their site, not long after, BBC News received an unnatural links warning in Google Webmaster Tools. It was shocking to see a news site with such authority fall victim to an unnatural links notification from Google. With the amount of readers and affiliates the BBC has from all over the world, it’s also too difficult to pinpoint which links would be identified as potentially problematic. The site was quick to act, with one source suggesting that RSS feed scrapers were what caused the notification to appear in Google Webmaster Tools. However, the proximity to Interflora suggests that BBC News could have fallen victim to the same unnatural links that other UK news outlets were dramatically penalized for. Google later came out with a statement to identify that one article in particular had a large amount of potentially unnatural links, which is what incurred the penalty. In typical fashion, Google remained tight-lipped over which article had been penalized, and remains an unsolved mystery.
A high-profile site on this side of the Atlantic, Rap Genius is a pretty amazing site for lyrics that offers a great user experience and an interface that allows people to interpret the poetry and verse that goes into each song, enriching the lyrics with interpretations and meaning, as well as discussion and more. This even sparked a Moz post about different SEO strategies that could be used to help the site grow! However, not long ago, the site was hit with a Google penalty after someone published a blog post on the site’s less-than subtle link building tactics, and Google decided to take action. On Christmas, Google hit Rap Genius with a manual action forcing them to remove all of the links that they acquired by promising link exchanges, special promotion and incentives to sites that used keyword-rich anchor text to link to them. The site’s profile within the search community prompted several articles about the whole ordeal, including an in-depth explanation from Rap Genius about where they went wrong. Google forgave them.
Expedia is the latest in a list of big companies who have run afoul of Google’s quality guidelines, and appear to have got hit with a major penalty, losing a huge amount of traffic and rankings nearly overnight. Expedia got singled out by a blog that indicated that the bulk of the content it was creating were paid pieces with overly-optimized anchor text, both which generally send red flags to Google Headquarters. Google seems to have taken swift action:
Again, in typically tight-lipped fashion, Google has declined to comment. A pretty brash way to handle someone who spends nearly $30 million in AdWords each year!
There are countless of other stories as well; JC Penney and Overstock.com have both tried to acquire links through methods that directly violate Google’s guidelines. In an industry that changes so quickly, and with a company that revises their quality guidelines with increasing frequency, even big corporations run the risk of running afoul of Google. So where does this leave SEO?
Links are still a healthy part of any site and a substantial part of the algorithm for both Google and Bing. However, links need to be acquired in a way that is organic, relevant, and natural, without payment or incentive–otherwise, sites may find themselves sitting in Google’s penalty box with a major misconduct.