It seems that no one is safe from the wrath of Google. While many of us have seen our site suffer in the wake of a new algorithm or policy change over at the big G, you might be forgiven for thinking that big sites belonging to companies like BMW and J.C. Penney would be safe. In reality though you couldn’t be further from the truth and it seems that Google likes nothing more than targeting big fish – with BBC News being the latest corporation to find themselves in the cross hairs. Let’s take a look then at the biggest companies to find themselves in trouble with the Gods of search, and what we can learn from these cases.
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So what’s the scoop behind this most recent controversy? Well apparently BBC News recently received an unnatural link notification from Google, suggesting an unnatural looking links profile. A representative from the BBC posted on the Google Help Forums expressing their confusion at the situation:
‘Given the BBC site is so huge, with so many independently run sub sections, with literally thousands or agents and authors, can you give us a little clue as to where we might look for these ‘unnatural links’.’
One theory is that this is the result of RSS scrapers, but of course that’s taking Google at their word and assuming that they haven’t been paying for advertorial links. At this point it’s uncertain whether the BBC has actually been penalized by Google or whether this was just a warning.
J.C. Penney is one of the companies best known for getting themselves in Google’s bad books. Unlike BBC, it seemed as though J.C. Penney were purposefully buying links on huge numbers of websites across the net. This all came to light when the Times discovered that JC actually came up before Samsonite’s own website for the phrase ‘Samsonite Carry-On Luggage’. Further investigation revealed that thousands of websites with links to J.C. Penney using similar anchor text and apparently the same thing was going on for tens of thousands of terms.
Google got wind of all this and responded by burying the retail site and in the space of two hours they dropped from top position for ‘Samsonite carry on luggage’ to number 71. This was despite protestations from the company that they ‘didn’t know’ that their SEO company ‘SearchDex’ were using those techniques.
Overstock got into trouble shortly after J.C. Penney for offering discounts to college and university students in exchange for links on their ‘.edu’ sites. Overstock saw their site buried several pages back for a range of terms, despite claiming that they ‘didn’t see anything wrong’ with the strategy. Adding insult to injury, Google only found out about the scheme following a tip off from a competing site.
Another high profile case was that of BMW. In 2006 Google discovered doorway pages on BMW’s German website stuffed with keywords. This is an old black-hat SEO strategy used to trick spiders into thinking that the site is highly relevant, and one that wouldn’t even work today in light of Google’s algorithm changes. It was this kind of strategy that forced Google to implement it’s big changes in the form of Panda and Penguin, but really you’d expect better from a company as big as BMW… The punishment? Complete de-indexing…
A year later in 2007, Newsday.com was penalised for linking out from its site. This was because the ‘featured links’ were promotional in nature and not related to the site’s content, and because they lacked any ‘nofollow’ tags. This essentially amounts to ‘selling’ PR, and as a result Newsday lost some of their own and were demoted from a PR8 to PR5. According to the site’s SEO manager those responsible lost their jobs over the fiasco…
Forbes meanwhile took an even more direct approach to selling their links in 2011. Unlike Newsday.com, Forbes were notified by Google and asked to remove the links. Their reaction though was odd, and the company instead decided to remove a portion of the links then claimed not to know which links were in violation. Matt Cutts himself responded and instructed Forbes on precisely which links were the offenders, but Forbes still tried to play innocent claiming that the links had appeared mysteriously during a site redesign. This wasn’t actually Forbes’ first time getting into trouble with Google, and some people suspect that the whole thing may even have been an elaborate PR stunt. Whether or not this is the case it certainly puts another spin on these stories – perhaps this is a cloud with a silver lining?
Everything I have read on Google’s rules for SEO makes them seem so unpredictable. It seems like even large corporations have this problem. I’m very new to all of this, so I apologize if this question is common knowledge, but, does Google actually publish its rules for SEO or are you just supposed to guess by trial and error?