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SEO Epic Fails: 5 Big Names Penalized by Google for Going Wrong with Their SEO

| Posted in category Search Engine Optimization

For quite a long time, Google has been accused of turning a blind eye to the big players who violated their guidelines. In 2006, Google made the first step to prove these rumors false - BMW got penalized for implementing shady SEO techniques that were against Google's rules. After that, Google performed a number of other public executions of some really big companies, year 2011 being especially "fruitful" in terms of celeb penalties.

This proves that even big shots may sometimes go wrong with their SEO. So, let's consider top 5 most scandalous crackdowns by Google and see what lessons they teach.

1. BMW - Year 2006

In 2006, Google found out that BMW were using doorway pages stuffed with keywords to funnel down users to their German website This was blatant and outright Black-Hat SEO, therefore BMW got the most severe punishment possible - they got completely removed from Google index.

On the Matt Cutts personal blog, you can see one of the doorway pages BMW used:

Their excuse

BMW responded that, oh well, "if Google says all doorway pages are illegal, we have to take this into consideration". Anyhow, BMW did remove the doorway pages and was re-included into Google index shortly after that.

Lesson learned

No matter how big a company you are, using doorway pages to attract visitors to your site is a bad idea. Moreover, if you hire an SEO service to do SEO for your company, make sure you know what they are doing.

2. Newsday – Year 2007

In 2007, NewsDay.Com, a popular Long Island (New York) edition, got a slap on the hand from Google for not using a nofollow attribute on the so-called "Featured Links" that were sitting on their home page. These links lead to certain websites, quite unrelated to the niche, for example, a site that sold Mets tickets, a Personal Injury Law Firm website, etc. This resulted in Newsday.Com's dramatic drop from PR8 to PR5. Thus, News Day became the only newspaper in the Tribune group with a PR5 site, as opposed to other Tribune papers with PR8 websites.

Their excuse

According to Brent D. Payne, the SEO manager who joined Tribune in February 2008 to deal with the consequences of the penalty, "the offending links were removed in 2007". Yet it took Google several months to lift the penalty completely. And it was not until Brent posted on Google Webmaster Forums that Newsday.Com’s PageRank went back to normal.

Brent D. Payne also stated that "the people that are responsible for the offending code are no longer with Tribune and I have made it very clear that this cannot and will not happen again".

Lesson learned

It's OK to put links to related sites. It’s OK to sell links to unrelated sites (just the way you sell regular ads), as long as they are accompanied by a nofollow attribute. Quite simple rules, yet some are reluctant to follow them.

3. JC Penney – Year 2010

Now, this is some big story. If you think that link spam is the matter of the past, think again. During the 2010 holiday season, JC Penney decided to boost their positions in the SERPs for a whole bunch of extremely popular terms by getting link farm-type backlinks to their site. Almost any hot product you searched for - you saw JC Penney right on top of search results.

In February 2011, the story eventually made it to the New York Times, and only then did Google notice and penalized the scammer. JC Penney were pushed almost a hundred positions down in the search results. As stated by the New York Times, "At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for "Samsonite carry on luggage". Two hours later, it was at No. 71.".

The big question is "how come Google noticed so late?" The rumor is out that JC Penney is one of Google's top advertisers and spends more than $1mln/mo on Google PPC ads. Is it possible that Google has intentionally been overlooking JC Penney's shady SEO practices? I'll leave it up to you to decide.

Their excuse

JC Penney spokeswoman, Darcie Brossart, said they did not authorize the purchase of links and said those were being taken down that very moment.  JC Penney also sacked their SEO cosulting company, SearchDex.

Lesson learned

Even though link spam can boost your positions in the search results dramatically over a short period of time, sooner or later you will get caught.

4. Forbes – Years 2011

In February 2011, another uber-popular edition, the Forbes magazine, was caught red-handed while selling links on their own website. Unlike in the case of News Day, Google did send Forbes a notification email calling on the magazine to "look for possibly artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate PageRank".

BTW, this was not the first time Forbes got in trouble with Google for illegitimate link sales. Back in 2007, quite a big number of websites experienced a sudden PR drop, allegedly for selling/buying links on their sites. Back then, Barry Schwartz, Rand Fishkin, Loren Baker and other influential bloggers managed to reassure the Web marketing community that the move was just Google's "public relations stunt", aimed at scaring everyone who attempted to buy/sell links.

Their excuse

When accused of selling links again in 2011, Forbes reacted in a curious way. They first removed some of the paid links, while leaving a couple of links still in place. Then, Denis Pinsky, the Digital Marketing Manager at, wrote on Google Webmaster Forum "Can someone help figure out what Links are in violation?", meaning he had no idea what Google was talking about. And he received an answer from none other than Matt Cutts of Google himself. In his reply, Matt Cutts pointed out the webpages that still contained paid links. Bingo.

By the way, the pages that the Google evangelist mentioned are now simply gone ;).

But this was not the whole story. Besides the Google Webmaster Forum discussion, Forbes was also trying to whitewash themselves by claiming that the links in question had miraculously gone live after a site redesign. Yeah, right.

Lesson learned

In order not to make a fool of yourself and your company, when caught selling links on your site, admit to it. Especially if you are Forbes. Then, remove the links and file a reconsideration request.

5. OverStock.Com – Year 2011

Very shortly after the JC Penney scandal, yet another major US retailer, Overstock.Com, was caught doing shady linky business intended to manipulate Google PageRank. Overstock.Com offered a 10% discount on their products to college/university students and faculty in exchange for links on their .edu sites.   This boosted Overstock.Com rankings substantially, since Google has enormous trust for the links from .edu sites.

Once caught, Overstock.Com saw a tremendous drop in their website rankings for certain terms, from the first page of search results to pages 5-7. By the way, this time Google found out about Overstock.Com's illegitimate actions from a competitor's tip off.

Their exuse

Overstock said they thought there was nothing wrong in getting publicity from university sites in exchange for a discount. Besides, they claimed that, by the time they got penalized, the offer had already expired, but some university sites were not in a hurry to dismantle the links. Excuses, excuses.

Lesson learned

Paid links are paid links no matter what you call them. And yet another big company's example shows that no one is untouchable in the land of Google.

Thus, 5 big names penalized by Google - 5 powerful messages sent to the schemers and black-hat SEO out there, and most of these messages concern paid links. And, although Google does not yet have an effective algo that would allow them to spot paid links, they have a functioning tell-on-your-competitor system that enables one to report sites that sell/buy links. Therefore, unless you are seeking notoriety, it's best to refrain from uncertain SEO practices, because your competitors could be watching ;).

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