If you follow SEO news at all, you will have heard by now that on Thursday 20th February, UK flower website Interflora was hit with a Google penalty for manipulative link behaviour.
I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the issues with their link profile which may have resulted in the penalty in this blog post as they’ve been well covered already by Martin McDonald, David Naylor and (in excellent detail) by Christoph C. Cemper. The general agreement is that the penalty was most likely a result of sponsored blog posts (via free gifts), advertorials on newspapers or a combination of all of these and more.
The newspaper advertorials seem like the most likely culprit for tripping the penalty, especially as all of these newspapers took a pagerank hit at the same time and Matt Cutts, head of the Google spam team, tweeted a timely warning that their guidelines against selling links also apply to advertorials.
What I really want to talk about in this article is some lessons which this situation highlights that every company should pay heed to whether they handle their link development in-house or outsource it to an agency.
A good look through their backlink profile quickly turns up a lot of links which any seasoned link builder can point to as deliberately manipulative.
However, any seasoned link builder probably also knows that the online flower market is notoriously competitive, with a large number of websites from big brands to affiliates vying for position. As with any highly competitive online market space, there’s rarely any websites which rank well and have a squeaky clean profile and the online flower market is no exception.
The question then is why, of all the other sites in that space, was it Interflora who took the penalty? It’s not an exaggeration to say that Interflora is probably THE flower brand in the UK. It was around long before the internet was a household tool, never mind Google, and has been a true household brand for as long as I can remember. It’s also probably one of the few companies who have successfully bridged the bricks-and-mortar and online divide as it was always a business which made use of a distributed network of independent flower shops throughout the country to fulfil the orders it received, making it a perfect company to adopt a successful online business model.
Perhaps the biggest irony here is that many of the sites ranking in Interflora’s wake and which have now moved up to fill it’s void are actually Interflora affiliates and Interflora whitelabel sites, such is the strength of Interflora’s position. So why would Google, given the choice of the household name for online flower orders, the company which most users would expect to see, versus a myriad of clones and also-rans choose the former to penalise? Indeed, why was Interflora the only site hit? We can’t really know the precise reason, but we can say with reasonable certainty that it is because Interflora did something to make it impossible for Google to ignore them. The three most plausible theories being:
- Google want to set an example in this market, so they single out the biggest brand as they know every other company in the vertical will be benchmarking against them and it will get wide press coverage.
- Several competitors get fed up with a big brand using aggressive, manipulative link techniques and file spam reports against Interflora.
- Interflora step over a line, build too many manipulative links too quickly, and trigger a penalty.
Whichever of these reasons was the cause for the penalty, the lesson is quite clear; if you’re going to stick your head up above the other poppies in the field you need to make sure you do so with a squeaky-clean backlink profile otherwise you’re creating the tool for your own downfall.
Are Old Domains Becoming A Liability?
Dirty backlink profiles pose problems both for the potential harm they could do and for the added problems of cleaning them up after the fact if you do get penalised.
As I noted earlier, pretty much any successful site has a murky backlink history. Whether it was manipulative links that got them their success or they were a site which already performed well and wanted more of the rewards good rankings brought, pretty much every commercial domain with a bit of time under its belt is bound to have something dodgy in its backlink profile.
As these sites moved from custodian to custodian, more and more layers of what would at the time have been considered good link development (and maybe the occasional sprinkling of renegade black-hat link spam) have been piled on top of these aged domains, often with little thought to what has gone previously, resulting in potentially volatile mixtures of backlinks.
As Google get more aggressive with penalising sites with bad backlinks and better at detecting them will these aged domains – once a strong signal of trust – become a liability for their owners?
Interflora may have been hit with this penalty as a result of a specific link tactic such as the advertorials – the penalty may have even been algorithmic. Now though, in order to get the penalty reversed, they will have to submit disavow and re-inclusion requests. That means going through their entire link profile, not just the links which caused the penalty, and cleaning up anything which is suspicious or manipulative; because that’s what the Google spam team are going to look at when they review the re-inclusion request.
As Cemper points out in his in-depth link diagnosis, it may not even be possible for them to recover passwords for old link networks or find contacts for a lot of the spam blogs hosting their links so the domain could well be a write-off. It’s likely that Interflora’s brand will save them from this eventuality and they’ll be let off after a period as we saw with other high profile cases (eg J.C. Pennys), but who knows for how long Google will let big brands off with a time-out?
The lesson here is that you can’t just assume that you can brush your old link profile aside. Even if those old directory links aren’t working anymore, are they going to be a hurdle if you run into problems with other link strategies down the road? You should be cleaning up your past transgressions now, if only to make the disavow process quicker should you ever need to resort to it in the future.
Link Detox Is No Longer Optional
As a result of this, at Serps Invaders we’ve come to the conclusion that link detox is no longer optional and is no longer exclusively a tool to implement after you’ve been penalised.
We see too many sites coming to us now with dirty backlink profiles and many instances where there are potential indications that these profiles are actively harming their rankings. The damage can be costly if ignored and as such, we made the decision earlier this year that for any sites which we consider pitching for we now do a review of low quality links as part of our pitching process. If we feel that it is necessary we include link detox as a mandatory aspect of our proposal.
Manipulative Links Are Manipulative Links
The situation with Interflora resurrected once again arguments over semantics and contradictions in Google’s messaging regarding manipulative links.
When some SEOs pointed to the blog posts which had been obtained through sending bloggers free flowers as a likely cause of the link penalty, other SEOs countered with claims that this is a valid link acquisition method, pointing to a video used to market Google software products in which a small business owner sends free satchels to bloggers for review as evidence that this method is supported by Google. Others simply argued that sending review products to bloggers is a valid, whitehat tactic and that there was nothing untoward about Interflora’s use of it.
These two arguments don’t really address the real issue.
Google looks for manipulative links. It does this by looking for link patterns. If Interflora was sending bloggers flowers and some of those bloggers wrote about the flowers and some of them chose to link back to Interflora using whatever anchor text they felt appropriate, that wouldn’t have been an issue. However, when you look at the reviews on these blogs it doesn’t take an algorithm to start spotting patterns in the specific keywords used as anchor text for the links and that these keywords are typically terms which would be very valuable for a flower company to rank for in the SERPs.
This points to a very strong likelihood that these links were specified by the people managing the outreach campaign and would therefore be manipulative links, obtained for improving the rankings of Interflora.co.uk. We can’t of course say for definite that this is true, but it looks a lot like it.
As Google’s ‘rules’ aren’t laws and they don’t have to obtain irrefutable evidence that parties have violated them or have their accusations validated by a jury of peers, whether or not Interflora or their SEO agency truly did obtain these anchor text links deliberately is irrelevant.
The lesson here is quite simple; demanding specific anchor text or links as part of your outreach is manipulative, even if you’re demanding ‘natural’ anchor text. If Google feel strongly enough that your links are suspicious or manipulative, that’s enough for them to penalise you. This doesn’t mean you can’t do outreach or launch campaigns designed to earn links, just that you need to let publishers decide if and how they will link to you themselves.
SEOs as Brand Wardens
The final lesson which is crucial to take away from this situation is that SEOs are brand wardens.
Whether we work in-house for a company or we’re part of an agency working for several companies, we take on part of the responsibility of protecting and shepherding the brand or brands which we work for. Whenever we build a link or do outreach, we are representing the brand, not just of the agency we work for but also the client which we are doing outreach on behalf of.
The emails we send, the way we speak to other people, the links we acquire, the sites we acquire them on and ultimately the effect those links have on the site they are pointing to all add or subtract from the brand we are working for. This is hugely important.
As SEOs, we can get stuck with tunnel vision, focusing purely on the link target or the rankings without stepping outside of our bubble to see what impact we are having on the brand. It’s not something which can be ignored because what we do, whether it’s making on-site changes, doing outreach or building links are all necessarily public.
SEOs must take responsibility for how they represent the brands they work for and must be mindful of what would happen if a light was cast on their work. They need to consider if the SEO or link development strategies they are proposing now could harm that brand in the future; they must consider how their outreach methods would play if they were made public by a blogger and they must look at a site and the content they are considering publishing there and think ‘if one of my client’s customers saw this, would they think less or more of my client?’