It’s well known that Google will penalise sites which seek to gain improved natural listings by buying links. Site owners and SEOs who have followed Google’s Webmaster Tools content guidelines for linking will have known this for many years. The unethical approach of buying links was brought to public prominence by the 2011 New York Times article The Dirty Little Secrets of Search which gave a high profile account of JC Penney’s linking tactics or, rather, their agency's.
Given this well-known stance by Google I was surprised by the recent news in February that Interflora SEO rankings had been penalised by Google. The company received the most severe form of manual penalty, resulting in Interflora disappearing for their brand name. Clearly Interflora were unaware of the risks or chose to ignore them in the battle for more sales.
The main reason for the penalty appears to have been an advertorial campaign across the Johnston Press Regional Newspaper Group. Craig Grannell of .net magazine showed how a campaign of placing advertorial links across many regional newspapers related to a Valentines Day promotion seems to be responsible for the penalty. I have seen this type of penalty issued before where companies have booked ads on a newspaper site and they weren’t aware of the damage that a rapid growth in blog links could cause them. It makes you wonder whether the marketers booking the campaign were aware of the potential risk and consequence. Or, if not the marketers, then the people making the decision to offer the placements at the newspaper group. In this case the newspaper sites have been harmed too. To me this looks like a legitimate campaign for awareness raising and seasonal demand generation, and it seems that Google’s power is too great when it can punish a whole newspaper group consisting of many sites, and so drastically reduce its audience and ad revenue.
There are also suggestions that too many similar links were generated by reviews on bloggers sites prompted by paid-for posts, so that is another aspect of this penalty to be aware of.
Google seems to have responded with a post on its Webmaster Central Blog clarifying its quality guidelines for paid linking. It doesn't directly reference the Interflora case, but it certainly seems to have been prompted by it.
So, what are the lessons from this disheartening case? Well first, the impact on business can be dramatic if you get linking wrong, so you have to make sure you use an ethical approach unless it’s a commercial decision where you have you have evaluated the benefits against the risks. We do know from the JC Penney example that they had gained benefits over time through their linking strategy enabling them to “make hay while the sun shines”. It is also possible to reverse the penalty, particularly if you are a large brand that invests a lot in AdWords, it seems, so you can more readily gain access to the details.
Gaining links naturally through creating outstanding content and PR is easier in some sectors than others. Perhaps the only positive thing for me about Google’s power and how they apply it to devastating affect, is that it favours those companies and agencies with brands that support creativity to engage their online audiences.