When Google penalizes a big brand, SEOs had better pay attention. The fact of the matter is that Google does not like to penalize big brands. The search engine looks foolish when popular brands don’t show up in the search results, and users can become frustrated with the experience. When Google penalizes a big brand, they do it to send a message to webmasters everywhere that this particular tactic is not okay with them.

Of course, if there’s only one lesson to be learned from any of these penalties, it’s this: big brands pretty much always bounce back. Where no-name sites can go months without getting a penalty lifted, and often never get their traffic levels back, big brands are not subject to these kinds of problems. This just goes to show that relying exclusively on Google for notoriety is a no-go if you’re hoping to build a lasting business.

Even so, we can’t ignore the messages Google is sending us when they penalize a big brand, simply because of the fact that they were willing to penalize it in the first place. Today, we’re going to look at 4 big brands that Google penalized, why, and what it means for the rest of us.

1. Rap Genius

This most recent incident is still fresh in many of our minds, but it’s worth a quick refresher. Rap Genius, a lyrics site, launched an “affiliate” program. The program asked bloggers to post a series of links to Justin Bieber lyrics pages. In exchange for the links, Rap Genius would tweet the post to its following.

Shortly afterward, Matt Cutts made it clear that Google was looking into it:

Rap Genius was penalized on Christmas Day, even though the site had already realized it was digging itself into a hole, and made an apology. The penalty was incredibly harsh. Rap Genius did not even rank for its own name, and practically dropped off the face of the earth as far as Google was concerned.

In response, Rap Genius wrote a scraper to download all 178,000 links, parse them, and rank them by how suspicious they were. They then went through them by hand, emailed the webmasters to have them removed, and disavowed the rest.

Rap Genius had the penalty removed in 10 days.

The lesson here?

Rap Genius wasn’t paying for links. They were merely offering tweets in exchange for links. Google’s guidelines certainly don’t explicitly say you’re not allowed to exchange tweets for links.

This just goes to show that operating by the “letter of the law,” so to speak, isn’t enough. The most important language on Google’s link schemes page is right at the beginning:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

It was clear that Rap Genius was doing something that they wouldn’t do if it weren’t for the existence of Google.

This isn’t to say that marketers can never exchange tweets for links. The point is that it has to make sense as a cross-promotional strategy that will benefit business in the absence of search engines. In this case, it clearly didn’t. Posting a bunch of artificial links at the end of a blog post about pretty much anything isn’t a cross-promotional strategy that makes sense outside of SEO.

Ultimately, that means it’s not safe as an SEO strategy either.

2. Pirate Bay

Calling The Pirate Bay a “big brand” might be risky semantically, considering that it is widely considered to be an illegal organization offering pirated versions of software, movies, and music. But the way that Google has dealt with The Pirate Bay has been an interesting insight into the search engine, and the number of people who use the site is huge enough that I think it belongs on this list.

In September of 2012, Google began censoring Pirate Bay, but not through a traditional penalty. Instead, they simply removed Pirate Bay, and many other piracy-related search terms, from Google Instant. In other words, while Pirate Bay still showed up in search results, Google did not want to be seen as “recommending” Pirate Bay to anybody.

In a similar move, Google removed a Pirate Bay extension, and similar extensions, from the Chrome Web Store in December of 2013.

Perhaps just as interestingly, however, Google adamantly refused to actually remove The Pirate Bay from its search results, despite takedown requests from copyright holders.

What’s the lesson here?

While many will claim that Google jumped the “don’t be evil” shark a long time ago, it seems very clear in this case that Google wants to send two messages:

  • They do not endorse piracy
  • They will not censor websites for political reasons

As SEOs, the lesson here is somewhat complicated.

For starters, Google apparently removes millions of URLs every year for copyright infringement. This sends a clear message that sites need to avoid publishing copyrighted material without giving credit, and that they must obey copyright law in order to stay safely in the search engines.

At the same time, Google is willing to list sites in the search results that exist in risky legal territory if they expect removal to be interpreted as a political stance. The Pirate Bay, and sites like it, have a large political following, and Google isn’t interested in throwing gasoline on that fire.

This has very strong implications when it comes to the power of a rabid audience.

3. Mozilla

Mozilla, the organization behind the popular open-source Firefox browser, was penalized by Google in April of 2013.

In Mozilla’s case, the penalty was not the result of links. Instead, the organization behind the browser was penalized because of spammy user-generated content. Aggressive spammers were flooding the comments and addons sections with “cheap payday SEO” links.

Thankfully for Mozilla, only one page of their site was penalized, and it’s easy to see why. That single page alone contained 12 megabytes of spam, a full 21,169 comments of it.

Rather than fix the problem and get the penalty lifted, Mozilla opted to simply remove the page altogether.

The lesson here?

Google will penalize you if you can’t keep spam under control, even if you don’t consider it your “fault.” From Google’s perspective, this is still bad for the user experience.

Regulating user generated spam isn’t always easy. While Akismet does a pretty decent job of preventing this, spammers sometimes find their way around it. Moderation of Mozilla’s 22 million pages isn’t really an option, either.

The best solution to user-generated spam is community moderation, allowing users to mark comments as spam, and to vote comments up and down, Reddit-style.

Of course, being heavily involved in the comment section is good too, for more reasons than one, but this strategy does have its limits.

4. Interflora

In February of 2013, a popular UK flower website named Interflora was evidently hit with a penalty so heavy that they no longer ranked for their own name. Their visibility in the search results dropped to near zero. While there was never any official word from Google or Interflora, it’s clear that their SEO firm was in the process of removing links. Twitter erupted with comments on how Interflora was asking people to remove links to their site:

 

Interflora had evidently been sending free flowers to bloggers for links. This alone can be somewhat risky. Google’s terms of service say that you aren’t allowed to exchange products for links. This is considered paying for links. If, on the other hand, Interflora was merely sending flowers to bloggers hoping for links, we wouldn’t typically expect a penalty.

Shortly after penalizing Interflora, Google warned sites not to sell links, including advertorial links that aren’t no-followed. This led many to speculate that Interflora had been penalized for buying advertorials.

This is a reasonable speculation, considering that Interflora purchased 150+ advertorials during January in the lead up to Valentines Day. A huge PageRank drop occurred across a huge number of newspaper sites, including several national ones.

Further analysis revealed that the advertorials weren’t the only issue, however. Seventy percent of their links were labeled toxic or suspicious according to Link Research Tools.

The lesson here isn’t just that Google was willing to penalize Interflora, but that it was willing to penalize tons and tons of UK newspapers that were selling advertorials with do-follow links. That Google was willing to penalize newspapers, as opposed to spammy blogs, is an especially important takeaway.

It is clear that Google is taking a very strong stance on paid links and that it will not discriminate based on the quality of the site. Newspaper or splog, if you’re selling or buying links, Google will take action.

Conclusion

This is by no means an extensive list of big brands that have been penalized by Google. Google has penalized Overstock, JCP, BBC, Washington Post, BMW, WordPress, and even itself. That said, the lessons are essentially the same. If your site is spammy, whether user-generated or not, you might get penalized. If you buy or sell links, you can get penalized.

More importantly, Google has been more than willing to take actions against big brands in order to fight spam.

Regardless of your opinions on these actions, the implications for SEOs are clear. If your marketing strategy isn’t strong enough to survive a penalty, it’s more likely to face one in the first place, and you’re less likely to find a way to recover.