British flower vendor Interflora was assessed a Google death penalty this week. Google hasn’t commented publicly about the reason but there has been some good sleuthing done that provides some good insight and likely causes. From all appearances, it does not seem like Interflora was trying to deliberately game the system. Many are arguing that this is an overreaction by Google, which seems to suggest that they are trying to make an example of the florist.

Here’s the shocking picture of what a Google penalty looks like:

interflora searchmetrics resized 600

Image courtesy of David Naylor.

That cliff shows a jaw-dropping 95% decrease in search visibility. One of the disturbing aspects of this story is that it does not appear that Interflora engaged in cut and dry black hat SEO tactics. In a superb bit of detective work, Anthony Shapely concludes that their aggressive buying of advertorials is what led to their demise.

This is somewhat controversial because, although it is technically a violation of Google’s quality guidelines (i.e. thou shalt not pay for links), it’s a very widely employed practice. If the article is clearly labeled as an advertorial, it seems fair that Google should simply discount the link rather than assessing a penalty. Indeed, it seems like Interflora may have collateral damage in a massive bombing raid by Google on British newspaper sites who are overtly selling these links. Shapely offers the following thoughts:

“We are confident after analysis these links are the cause of Interflora’s current situation and in addition the recent flurry of Webmaster Tools messages reported across our industry in various open and closed forums…

The biggest indicator (other than matching lots of links in common with newly penalised sites) is the huge PageRank drop that occured late last week across virtually all Regional and some National Newspaper websites…”

Update: Matt Cutts has responded on the Official Google Webmaster Central blog. He uses the word “advertorial” which seems to confirm the assumptions.

“Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or “advertorial” pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”

Closing Thoughts

Interflora may not have know it, but they were involved in some high stakes Internet marketing risk and reward tactics. This story illustrates how critical it is for all of the marketing disciplines to be working together. So how can you avoid getting a Google smack-down?

First, be sure that someone on your marketing team is familiar with Google’s webmaster guidelines. Here are Google’s four basic quality principles:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

The third bullet is a very broad category and is (presumably) where Interflora got themselves into trouble. It’s obvious that Google considered the mass-purchasing of those advertorials as a link scheme.

If you’re employing an outside SEO consultant or firm, there’s no guarantee that you’re safe. Many SEOs, unfortunately, take shortcuts that get their clients short term results and then skip out of town before the penalty hits the fan. And others are simply ignorant of the latest changes on the web. Be sure to ask your consultant specific questions about how they’re optimizing your site and how risky their techniques are. Ask them if there’s any chance that an Interflora or J.C. Penny situation could happen to you. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s an indication that they are not paying attention to the latest trends in SEO and would be warning sign that you may want to start shopping around for a new consultant.

Be careful out there!