10 Big Brands That Were Penalized By Google, From Rap Genius To The BBC

google-flyswatter-penalty-600

It’s been a busy year already with big brands getting hit by Google penalties. First came Rap Genius, slammed so hard that you couldn’t find it for its own name. Then came Expedia’s suspected penalty that may have hurt its traffic. But these are also a familiar tune. Big brand violates Google’s rules, gets in trouble but ultimately returns to Google’s good graces with what may seem a virtual wrist-slap.

Below, in reverse chronological order, is a list of major brands that have been hit by Google penalties over the years for various reasons. Some violations weren’t even intentional.

10) Rap Genius & Links For Tweets

Rap Genius

Rap Genius invited bloggers to add links to its lyrics content, in exchange for Rap Genius then tweeting the posts from those bloggers. After this exchange came to light on Christmas Eve 2013, the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts said Google would investigate Rap Genius.

On Christmas Day, Rap Genius was penalized by Google and no longer ranking in the top page of results for its own name. Rap Genius also lost traffic for lyrics-related searches. After working to remove “unnatural links,” Rap Genius had its penalty lifted by Google after 10 days.

  • When: December 2013
  • Violation: Unnatural links
  • Penalty: Much of entire site degraded from ranking in the first page of results at Google; didn’t rank for its own name
  • Penalty Period: 10 days

9) Mozilla & UGC Spam

Mozilla LogoThat’s right, Mozilla — which makes the popular open source Firefox browser — has been penalized by Google. But unlike with Rap Genius, it was an extremely specific situation — one single page of user-generated content that was considered too spammy to include.

The situation emerged after Mozilla received a manual action notice – i.e., a message from Google that some human spam reviewer decided something deserved the site getting a penalty.

Concerned about a message saying “Google has applied a manual spam action to your site,” Mozilla sought help in Google’s webmaster forums. Google quickly clarified that only one single page at Mozilla had been impacted. A similar Google penalty over UGC content happened to Sprint one month later. And somewhat related, all of Digg was dropped from Google briefly, after a mistake Google made that was meant only to impact a single page.

  • When: April 2013
  • Violation: UGC spam
  • Penalty: Single page apparently degraded in rankings
  • Penalty Period: N/A, because the page was removed

8) BBC & Mysterious “Unnatural Links”

446main_logoGoogle penalized the respected British Broadcasting Corporation? It sure did. Similar to Mozilla, the penalty involved a single page, this time one deemed to have “unnatural links” pointing at it.

The situation came to light after the BBC received a manual action notice. Like Mozilla, the BBC sought help in Google’s webmaster forums, which lead to Google responding that the penalty impacted one article. It’s unclear how it was resolved, as the page impacted was never stated. Probably, the penalty was removed by Google in short order.

  • When: March 2013
  • Violation: Unnatural links
  • Penalty: Single page apparently degraded in rankings
  • Penalty Period: Unknown

7) Interflora & Advertorial Links?

interfloraSimilar to Rap Genius, Interflora found itself penalized in Google, no longer ranking for its own name, as well as for many generic flower-related searches. Why? Google itself never gave an official reason for penalizing Interflora, as is fairly normal in penalty cases, nor did Interflora itself say.

However, Google quickly pushed a warning against “advertorial” content that doesn’t make use of nofollow or other methods so that links in such content don’t pass along ranking credit. After apparently getting some links removed, Interflora’s penalty was lifted after 11 days. Interestingly, Google didn’t severely act against a number of online florists accused of buying links two years prior.

  • When: February 2013
  • Violation: Probably paid links in advertorials and perhaps elsewhere
  • Penalty: Much of entire site degraded from ranking in the first page of results at Google; didn’t rank for own name
  • Penalty Period: 11 days

6) Overstock: Discounts For Links

overstockOverstock hit trouble with Google after a competitor found that it was offering discounts to schools in exchange for links back to the Overstock website. The links lead to particular products, with very specific anchor text that helped Overstock rank well for terms like “vacuum cleaners” and “gift baskets.” The Wall Street Journal profiled Overstock being hit by the penalty, probably tipped by the same competitor that reported Overstock to Google.

Overstock was so happy to have its penalty lifted two months later that it issued a press release about the news. Overstock said the impact might hit revenues by 5% and filed a statement for investors with the SEC in the weeks after it hit. It also blamed the penalty for “adversely” impacting revenue for the first and second quarter of 2011, in its annual filing.

  • When: February 2011
  • Violation: Paid links, in the form of offering discounts for linking back to the site
  • Penalty: Much of entire site degraded from ranking in the first page of results at Google; probably kept ranking for own name
  • Penalty Period: 2 months

5) JC Penney & Paid Links

JCPA New York Times article detailed how retailer JC Penney was apparently buying links to rank better in Google. The article even contained a rare confirmation of the violation by Google. By the time the article appeared, JCP had already been penalized.

It’s not clear if JCP ever disappeared for its own name, but it did drop for many generic terms relating to products it sold. After cleaning up the paid links — and blaming the mess on its SEO firmJCP regained many top rankings in Google after 90 days.

  • When: February 2011
  • Violation: Paid links
  • Penalty: Many pages degraded from ranking in the first page of Google’s results
  • Penalty Period: 90 days

4) Washington Post & Selling Links

Washington Post logoIn October 2007, Google made a major change in saying that if sites sold links to others, for the purposes of helping Google rankings, the sellers themselves might be hit with a penalty. Soon after, a number of sites were penalized, including Forbes, Engadget and what will be the poster-child for this action, the Washington Post.

Unlike examples above, these sites generally didn’t lose rankings in Google, though Google reserved the right to do that. IE, you could still find their home pages and much of their content in Google searches.

Instead, the sites had their PageRank values reduced. PageRank is a value of importance Google assigns to web pages and is one of many factors it uses to decide how to rank pages. That means some of these sites might have seen less traffic. However, the bigger impact was that the lower PageRank scores made them seem less valuable places to buy from — Google’s way to help “devalue” the link selling market.

  • When: October 2007
  • Violation: Selling links
  • Penalty: PageRank value dropped from PR7 to PR5
  • Penalty Period: Uncertain when it was restored; probably within months. Currently PR8

3) BMW & Cloaking

bmwCloaking is a technique where a site might show one thing to a search engine’s automated “crawlers” that gather up pages and something else to human visitors. Google doesn’t like cloaking and considers it a punishable offense. And cloaking lead to one of the earliest penalties against a major brand, when German site of BMW was hit for it.

Google removed the entire site. It was big news, at the time. It also underscored what continues to be a problem for Google. When it happened, I wrote that Google would have to quickly have to restore the site because searchers expected to find it. Three days later, BMW was back in.

  • When: February 2006
  • Violation: Cloaking
  • Penalty: Site removed
  • Penalty Period: 3 days

2) WordPress & Doorway Spam

Wait, the program beloved by so many bloggers, which we even use here at Marketing Land — WordPress — was penalized by Google for spam? Yep.

Way back when WordPress was young, it once played host to pages for a third-party company that was after higher rankings. Those rankings were easier to obtain if the articles were within the popular WordPress site itself. The pages also had hidden links to other content.

Andy Baio spotted what was going on, and chaos and debate quickly followed. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg had just gone on vacation to Italy, so it was hard for him to respond to the reaction. But fairly quickly, he said it was a badly implemented experiment in advertising and apologized.

  • When: March 2005
  • Violation: Doorway Pages
  • Penalty: Site’s home page didn’t rank for its name; PageRank was reduced from PR8 to nothing; other “inside” pages were OK
  • Penalty Period: 2 days

1) SearchKing, Selling Links & The First Amendment

SK06aOK, you might argue that SearchKing isn’t a big brand like the others on the list above, so where’s the list of 10 you were promised? Relax, the bonus below has you covered. But SearchKing is one of the earliest and most famous penalties that led to a court case supporting Google’s right to largely do what it wants with its search results.

SearchKing — a small search engine at the time — backed the “PR Ad Network,” a way for people to buy and sell links in hopes of gaining better rankings on Google. Google didn’t like that and in September 2002 dropped SearchKing’s PageRank score from PR8 to PR4. In turn, that led SearchKing to sue Google over the decrease in October 2002.

The following year, a judge ruled that Google’s listings — including whether it wants to give a site a good PageRank score or not — were Google’s opinions and thus protected from government interference under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. About four years later — and after SearchKing had abandoned the link-selling model — it regained its PageRank score, actually going up to PR7

  • When: September 2002
  • Violation: Selling links
  • Penalty: Site’s home page didn’t rank for its name; PageRank was reduced from PR8 to nothing; other “inside” pages were OK
  • Penalty Period: 3 years, 7 months

Bonus: Google Penalizes Itself, Over & Over Again

Google Logo - basic featuredThere are plenty of sites that intentionally spam Google, and this can include some big brands. But there are also sites that get into trouble without meaning to do harm. They might do things without any intention to go against Google’s rules and yet end up on the wrong side of the Google law.

There’s no better illustration of this than Google itself, which has taken action against itself five times for violations ranging from buying links to cloaking. For more about that, we invite you to read the companion article to this that we have on our Search Engine Land site:

What About Expedia?

200px-Expedia_logo.svg_Why isn’t Expedia on the list above? That’s because it’s not a confirmed penalty. Interflora was never officially confirmed, either. But unlike with Expedia, the Interflora home page disappearing from Google for so long was effectively a confirmation that it had been hit by severe penalty.

It’s suspected that Expedia was involved with paid links. However, neither Expedia or Google will confirm that it was penalized over this. All we know is that after unusual links leading to Expedia were noted, Expedia’s visibility in Google seemed to declined, though it continued to be found for its own name.

So a penalty? Maybe. Or maybe Google did a clean-up action against suspected paid links that, when removed from the ranking equation, meant Expedia no longer did well for some terms.

When asked on an earnings call this month about any penalty, Expedia’s CEO dodged, not addressing the question directly but instead saying that year-over-year traffic from Google — which he called a “big partner” — continues to increase.

What About Everyone Else? An Open Letter To Come….

How about suspicions that the major UK bank of Halifax has been hit by a penalty? Or several other brands suspected to be hit by penalties, rumors that have been circulating in the past week or so in various venues.

We’ll have more to say about that on our Search Engine Land sibling-site tomorrow. The short story is that it’s often difficult to confirm if someone’s officially been hit by a penalty or not. Since Google almost never says, it’s down to making educated guesses.

A disappearing home page is often a good sign, but there can still be other reasons for that. A chart showing that a site plunged in estimated search visibility could be indicative of a penalty, but there could also be other reasons, too.

It’s also concerning when the tips often come from competitors with their own motives for outing some companies. Add to this the fact if we wrote about all the sites Google penalizes, or is suspected to have penalized, that’s all we’d write about.

Going forward, we’ll be looking to write about sites that have been hit by penalties when there’s something exceptionally notable about particular situations, either new lessons beyond the ones already learned by the examples above, or new twists that really are unique.

Again, tune-in tomorrow on Search Engine Land for more about this. We’ll also postscript a follow-up to our story from here. Meanwhile, don’t forgot our companion story there:

(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Features & Analysis | Google: SEO | Search Marketing | Top News

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About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.brand.com/blog James R. Halloran

    Damn… I can understand intentional link-building schemes like what RapGenius and J.C. Penney did, but one page with “suspicious” links penalizing the whole site is a little extreme, I think.

    At least Google isn’t being a hypocrite by not penalizing itself when they did some wrongs. I do remember when their browswer — Google Chrome — first came out and they used unethical link-building schemes to promote it. I remember reading lots of reports about how they ended up hurting themselves because of that.

  • notrepresentinggreenville

    From an ethical view, I think that any SEO is an attempt to game the system. That isnt what Google want.

  • Karlosb

    These larger brands that bend the rules is very frustrating. Their brand is so well-known that their websites already carry so much authority that it is extremely hard for the smaller companies to compete yet they feel it necessary to bend the rules. Also, their penalties seemed to last a fraction of other companies.

  • http://www.keshkesh.com/ Takeshi Young

    Moral of the story: If you’re a big brand, a Google penalty is just a slap on the wrist. You’d be almost foolish not to be aggressive and get penalized, if for nothing else than all the free publicity that would generate.

  • http://www.clickfire.com/ Emory Rowland

    For SearchKing, I think you mean from PR8 to PR4? Looks like they still have their PR4 :)

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I’m talking about what happened then, not current.

  • http://www.bettergraph.com/ Anoop Srivastava

    People think that google not penalize the big brands, but google show up that The rule is same for all of them. Recently Google Penalize the Halifax bank site.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    oops, I see, yes, i had that backwards. fixed now.

  • MC Daza

    The underlying issue here is that there is such a black box on what Google’s policies are that if you are not a big company you can’t really know why you are getting penalized or why your rankings are changing. Luckily for these big brands they can post on forums and actually get a response from Google executives (like Mozilla). Plus their penalty is a few days or months in the gutter. But, what happens to the rest of us? The system is just not fair…

  • http://seewhatdolionseat.com/ David Tsilosani

    great post!

  • tobryant

    In business you can buy and sell any company asset…except page rank. Its hard for companies to get their head around the fact that not everything on the internet is a business or for sale.

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