Over the years, Google has applied some high profile penalties and they’ve always been a fun read. I thought I’d round-up all the big ones I could find and present them for your amusement (and education). All the companies in this post had been caught with their hands in the paid links cookie jar. Whether they were selling or buying, Google came down hard on them for a bit but, as you can see, they’re all back and doing fine now. I won’t name names, but one of these ten below is still blatantly selling links on their high profile site.
In my younger days, I woke up one morning to find my biggest money making affiliate site with a big fat -50 slap in the face. I was doing everything from buying links, to heavily targeting certain anchor text. At the time I didn’t care, knew the risks and the money I was making was down right ridiculous. I moved onto the next domain and was eventually back making my monies. The ability to shrug it off is lost on a big brand. Everything they do in marketing has to be for the long term and getting slapped by a Google penalty can be a major problem for just about the whole operation. The penalties put on one of the companies below cost them just over $4 million in losses… ouch!
While tons of websites are quietly put in the penalty box for paid links, link schemes and other shenanigans, the big boys are the most interesting. This should also be a lesson to those up and coming, take over the world companies that might be considering partaking in link schemes. It’s a mess to clean up and it can take many months to recover from, if you ever do recover…
If you’re still wanting to buy links, and by all means buy away, learn how to do it properly for Pete’s sake! The reality is, big brands are still buying although they are getting sneakier and sneakier. Mark my words, almost every competitive SERPs top 10 results are going to have a lot of paid links. What I’m seeing lately is just the right balance of paid links, careful anchor text use and a good mix of where those links are pointing. It can be done, but let’s see what impact Google has had in the past.
*I imagine most of you remember the paid links war drum started banging hard around 2006-2007 *
Before we get into the main bulk of the content I’d like to mention that I want comments on the big brands I did miss out on. If you want to see the everyday website getting stung on a weekly basis, come join me on Google’s Webmaster Help. Since Panda started rolling out it seems that paid links are causing webmasters a lot of problems.
Yes, you are reading that right and this is not a typo! Apparently Google Japan didn’t get the memo on buying links; Either that or they forgot to send it in Japanese. Matt Cutts publicly stated via Twitter that the PageRank drop for their .co.jp search homepage was in fact because of some naughty link buying. They were getting reviews for a widget by paying bloggers and using a pay per post service. To me, this would be a prime link bait tactic for Google to use, except for the fact that they have no real need to be doing that in the first place.
I don’t have a problem with bloggers in a niche reviewing a product or service, whether or not it was paid for; That is just good marketing in my books. If you are really paranoid, ask for a nofollow link. It’s not much different that submitting a press release about a new product launch. Keep in mind, though, that the reason I would do this is not for the link, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Perhaps one of the most well known publications in the world, Forbes Magazine was caught not once, but twice for selling links in a multitude of areas online. By the looks of it, they were making a pretty penny doing it and despite being a very large company, Google still dropped the ban hammer on their website. You can see the original Google Webmaster Help thread which even had Matt Cutts himself provide the best answer. That’s the kind of attention big brands get. I’ve rarely ever seen him pipe in on any other topic in that forum.
Now I wonder how much of a clue Forbes had in the first place. It was online marketing firm Conductor Inc who was the link broker for them and many other large sites that may have been penalized. They were at the very least selling links to other big brands that were closely related in business. A really rather smart idea. If you are going to buy links, then they were doing it the best possible way but it obviously didn’t pan out as they had initially anticipated. Still, there are ways of buying links that Google will NEVER catch on to, so remember that you have to be sneaky if you’re going to risk it all.
1800Flowers.com is perhaps the best known flower chain in North America. Heck, I’ve even used them a handful of times. I did, however, forget to give them paid link advice. They entered a very competitive market both online and off and to boost their rankings they dabbled in the dark side. Needless to say, it eventually caught up to them. The penalties were a major sting to their sales for a little while before Google let them back into the game – something that’s typical after the storm calms down and the penalized site starts playing by the rules.
What kind of links caused it? Well, they denied it but they had links on sites that were quite obviously selling paid links and they were targeting “Mother’s Day Flowers” keywords galore. Like I mentioned above, if you search for Mother’s Day Flowers now you’ll find them at the number one spot and if you check that page’s links, you’ll see how they are still ranking. Regardless of linking methods, that’s a company I’d expect to see in the top 3 spots. The NY Times called them out on it and made it a big story, but at least they got some really juicy links out of it.
So, the lesson learned? Getting caught is a great way to drive links to your site!
Well, we’re not really all that surprised to see yet another publication getting “slapped in da face” for selling links. I understand, times are tough for print media publications and trying to make a buck or two on paid links can bring in some serious dough. This website is for the Long Island area of New York, and is owned by the Tribune group. Newsday.com was the only website in their portfolio that got a slap, so it makes me wonder how many websites they own got away with it.
If you take a look at some of their articles, you might notice some links that may be considered “paid” but in the end, who knows. The links are always related to the post’s topic so it could be just good linking. I know online newspapers have a big network of sites and interlinking them for legitimate purposes is something that is going to happen. You can read the original Google Groups posting here about it and see how it was all handled. Make not of the fact that it took a few months to get their PageRank back to normal levels.
5) GoCompare Insurance
GoCompare is a car insurance quote company and if you know anything about competitive markets, you’ll know that anything insurance is tough as nails. Go look at the top 10 ranking sites for the term car insurance and you’ll find paid links in at least 80% of the sites ranking there. The sad truth is, those big terms are all completely dominated by paid links. The difference? Most of them have a really good link profile in addition to the paid links. You’ll find diverse backlink profiles usually make it so that people get away with paid links for longer, if not forever.
GoCompare was buying a lot of links on a lot of crappy sites, which is still evident in their link profile to this day. I imagine those links are now just devalued and not doing much for their rankings. They’re not in the top 20 search results for the ‘car insurance’ keyword anymore so perhaps they got stuck in a link building rut since. If you folks are reading this, give us a shout because I have some great ideas for link bait in your niche!
6) Beat That Quote
This is the site that Google bought in March of 2011 and was quick to penalize for buying links. I’ll throw out the link bait card again because the site didn’t do too well for a lot of terms and this is a great way to get links if you’re Google. Looking at their Alexa ranking, it didn’t do them a whole lot of good in the long run. To me, this is the type of site that should have been hit by Panda pretty hard but I imagine they somehow made it past the filter.
Keep in mind my earlier mention about the insurance SERPs being some of the toughest out there. I’d put money on the fact that the majority of companies are still buying links to this day. When competition is that rough and tough, the paid links usually play a large part of the overall rankings.
Here we go again. Those insurance companies sure do love their paid links! I’ll continue to stick by my quotes on the insurance game being completely dominated by paid links and other naughty link schemes. There are few companies in this arena doing things legitimately and ranking hard for it. A newcomer into this industry better have some incredibly smart marketers working for them if they’re going to even stand a chance for a top 20 spot. Not only that, you’re going to be under heavy watch due to the competitive nature of those SERPs.
I found the Google Webmaster Help thread directly from the company trying to figure out what was going on with their rankings in Google. GoHealthInsurance.com had a 3rd party company buy links as part of their SEO strategy until Google took notice. They had the company email and remove all those links but were finding that the rankings weren’t coming back. Well no duh! You’re going to need some good quality link loving to get back up for those keywords. Keep in mind that it can also take a few months to come back after you’ve been filtered for a certain keyword or removed entirely.
From my affiliate marketing days I’m quite aware that the gift basket niche is a big one and a tough one to crack at that! While they have an amazing exact match domain as well as beer baskets, I have no idea why the paid links were necessary! How are beer baskets not link bait alone? (mmmmm beer) Back in 2008, right before the holidays, it was reported that GourmetGiftBaskets.com was dropped from the Google index. This is a nightmare of the worst kind for any company and the fact that it was right before the holidays is a killer. How killer? They reported a $4 million dollar loss in sales.
Eventually, things got back to normal, however, if anyone from the company is reading this, your partners page and articles section is something I’d be worried about Panda going after. By the looks of it, they may have already. Other than that, I still see a lot of sketchy links in their profile. Overall, their strategy has been focused on getting national news coverage. They also have tons of links from the biggest sites on the web and with an EMD like that you’re in for a win!
9) JC Penny
The JC Penny debacle was perhaps the most talked about penalty of the year. They hired a 3rd party company, which is okay, don’t get me wrong, but I would have thought they had a good in-house team. Like a lot of 3rd party low life SEO companies, they’ll buy links to quickly inflate the rankings for their client. The worst part? They won’t even tell them they’re doing it. We’ve even had to clean messes like this up for companies before. I have no idea if they knew or not, but they had no reason to buy such terrible links on unrelated blogs. Their budget could have paid for the best link bait, the best reviews and if they wanted to go for paid links, they could have been sneaky as a fox.
JC Penny does have one thing going for them – they’re one of the biggest retailers in the world. They were able to clear up their issues quite quickly and were back to ranking in no time, even for the gamed keywords. In addition, when you spend that much on Adwords, you must have some serious clout within the Google hive! Either way, it works as great link bait and JC Penny got all the links they’d need from the biggest sites in the world. Bravo folks!
Overstock was the other contender for biggest brand banned in 2011 and it’s an interesting case to me. I’ve got links for clients on .edu’s offering discounts, but there was one difference in our tactic. We didn’t game anchor text and just got a natural site/brand name link and as a result, never felt any sort of a penalty. We didn’t expect to rank to all high heavens either, it was just another part of the link profile to add some diversity. To this day, those clients have not felt any ill effects from those links. BRB while I go knock on some wood!
The whole issue got blown out by the WSJ Online edition and thanks to them, Overstock got a truckload of awesome links for it. Their company has some of the best in-house SEO’s in the world, so they’re still going strong. However, a lot of the keywords they were targeting in that campaign still elude them to this day. Regardless, they’re still doing great in the SERPs and traffic looks to be rising up this year for them and they’ll no doubt continue to see that rise.
So, if you’ve learned anything from the big guys going down in Google’s books, it is “play by the rules”. If you haven’t been, ask for help and work to fix the problem. If you do need to buy links, and it will always be a part of a diverse link portfolio, do it very sneakily and make sure that you’re not gaming the SERPs. With any sort of luck, you’ll be back ranking for your old keywords in no time. That is, if you have enough clout.