Late last week, rumblings appeared on Twitter that Interflora, the major florists, had completely dropped off the face of Google, similar to the J.C. Penney saga in the U.S. a couple of years ago.
The penalty placed upon J.C. Penney was due to their violation of Google’s guidelines, specifically, the purchase of links. After 90 days, the penalty was lifted due to J.C. Penney’s removal of the offending links. Whilst the actions by Google against J.C. Penney seemed to dissuade many against these frowned upon practices, it seems as though those carrying out SEO for Interflora did not heed this warning. Martin MacDonald created a great graph (and an accompanying great post) showing Interflora’s reduced search visibility; I would be underselling it by saying it takes a nose-dive.
What caused the penalty?
Martin also mentions a potential reason for the penalty, paid blogger outreach, in the form of being given exact anchor text and URLs to use. In a nutshell, Interflora are sending free bouquets for influential bloggers to review, and in the process gaining links back to their site. Whilst having people review products is fine as a PR campaign, not setting these links to ‘no follow’ can be seen as ‘buying’ links. Some sites are using seemingly innocuous anchor text, which are ‘probably’ unrequested links back to the site, “Interflora” or “blog” being great examples of this. Others are not so.
Hmm, questionable anchor text choice, maybe not specifically asked for. Let’s see another.
Whilst this type of SEO linking may have been more commonplace when the post was put live on the site, it was after the J.C. Penney fiasco that the alarm bells should have been ringing. Interflora should have noted that this type of activity is no longer tolerated by Google and that the links should be removed.
In fact, looking at Martin’s graph again, we can see that the site was actually originally penalised not long after that last paid-link was put live, taking a massive dip until late last year.
By not cleaning up their link profile fully, they have succumbed to another penalty.
The above are just a couple of examples of a whole host of manipulative techniques. Whilst bloggers may have been given flowers to review for links, looking deeper into the anchor text and sites pointing to the Interflora site reveals it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Site-wide adverts using keyword rich anchor text? Check
Low quality low relevance directory links? Check
Advertorials on news sites have also heavily been used. Whilst those in PR agencies use these on a regular basis, the extent that they have been used by Interflora is a cause for alarm. Anthony Shapely looked into the sites hosting advertorials for Interflora and noted that there is a huge Page Rank drop since the Interflora penalty took place.
Such a massive hit on so many sites that link to Interflora certainly would affect their rankings quite dramatically, however maybe not enough to cause the penalty on its own. The anchor text used on these sites almost certainly plays its part in the penalty.
Having such keyword rich anchor text (never mind such a jarringly written article) stinks of trying to game a system that pretty much dried up in 2011 with the Google penguin update.
Whilst searching around Interflora’s backlink profile, something other than their links stuck out to me.
Whilst I know that Google+ is gaining in popularity, come on…really?
Looking into their profile we can see an ‘engaged community’ who are really adding to the conversation.
Whilst we all know that there are issues with fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook, adding so many to a company account surely will end in tears, especially as it’s Google’s own social network, and one that is being integrated into their search engine (a search engine which has already penalised Interflora. Twice.)
To put it bluntly, Interflora have paid the price for not listening to Google. Their guidelines are set out quite clearly and they have been ignored by a brand that thought that thought they were too big to fail.
One lesson that can be learned from this saga is: don’t carry on kidding yourself. Any ‘black-hat’ techniques that may have been previously used are not forgotten by Google - they will be seen, be that through a widespread update like panda and penguin or through a manual penalty. This can manifest itself as a drop of a couple of pages in the SERPs or by being taken out completely.
We all know that the bar has been raised on what Google finds acceptable in terms of links, and Interflora’s penalty is a stark reminder of what happens if we fall below this level.