Open Letter: Why Search Engine Land Will & Won’t Cover Someone Being Penalized By Google

It’s been big news recently about major brands and Google penalties, and the floodgates feel open on people spotting even more brands possibly hit out there. Some new crackdown by Google? No. It’s the rise of hyperactive attention in this area, and that’s turning into a problem. Hence this open letter, on how we’re planning to address “public penalty reports” here at Search Engine Land.

In Summary: Penalties Aren’t Always Newsworthy

The TL;DR is this. We’re not going to be writing about every brand that is suspected to be hit by a Google penalty. Unless there’s some exceptional news value, there are better things to do. Google has been hitting big brands with penalties for over a decade; Google’s even penalized itself five times. Brands being penalized by Google aren’t news, though the circumstances in some cases might make them so.

That’s the summary. The long answer is below. Buckle up for it, if you really care about this issue. It’s complex and involves twists and turns such as the difficulty of identifying a penalty, the motivations of those outing someone penalized and even the mainstream press getting suckered into effectively doing public spam reports that Google can’t ignore.

Revisiting The “News” Of Rap Genius

rapgenius-logoJust before Christmas last year, lyrics site Rap Genius got hit with a penalty so bad that it didn’t even rank for its own name. The news spread far-and-wide over the following two weeks.

A brand disappearing like this from Google isn’t new. It happened to WordPress in 2005; BMW in 2006; Interflora in 2013. You can read about all those and more in a special post on our Marketing Land sibling-site: 10 Big Brands That Were Penalized By Google, From Rap Genius To The BBC.

The situation with Rap Genius followed the same familiar pattern we’ve seen so many times before:

  1. Someone blogs about something a major brand is doing that seems to go against Google’s guidelines, in this case, Rap Genius
  2. That catches the attention of people who start shouting out to Google
  3. Google declares it’s aware of the issue and takes fast action, because it’s so glaring that it can’t do the usual “we prefer to handle these things algorithmically” response
  4. Site gets penalized
  5. Site returns to Google in short order

The steps above are exactly what happened with WordPress in 2005, with the exception that we didn’t have Twitter to help with the second step of generating attention. Rather, other blogs, forums or places like Slashdot tended to magnify the original message.

So what exactly was new with Rap Genius that caused so many people who normally wouldn’t be doing much over the Christmas break to instead be focused on this site?


I suppose that Rap Genius sure looked dumb getting dinged by Google when Rap Genius has talked a message about how awesome it is at tapping into Google traffic. Or maybe because it was backed by VC money. But then you could apply both of those factors to Demand Media, which along with other companies, got whacked by Google’s Panda Update in 2011.

Dealing With “Public Spam Reports”

spam-viewer-featuredFor us here at Search Engine Land, our decision process in whether to cover Rap Genius, as with all such cases, starts with the first point. Usually, we come across someone who suspects a site of spamming Google or has discovered a site that’s actually been penalized.

They’re not the same thing, and we’ll deal with the suspected spamming aspect first, when someone does what’s long been called a “public spam report,” posting about an issue for the world to see.

Do we want to take that report and help participate in the second point? For the most part, we usually don’t. That’s because our job isn’t to be playing spam police on behalf of Google. Google has a formal method where people can report spam.

If we wrote about all the sites that are suspected to be spamming Google, then that’s all we’d write about. Search marketing is so broad that focusing on one particular area like that wouldn’t benefit our readers. It’s also complicated because knowing if someone is indeed spamming can be difficult.

Is someone doing paid links? Maybe. Or maybe those links are being blocked in perfectly acceptable ways other than using nofollow. Is someone even responsible for links pointing at their site, or could there be a competitor trying for “negative SEO?” Is there some technical violation such as hiding text which, upon review, might be down to some designer who honestly just didn’t know better when messing around with CSS.

Yes, there are plenty of cases where you can be pretty sure someone has been spamming. But then that comes back to core question — what’s newsworthy about that? If it’s just that it’s a big brand spamming, that’s no surprise. Plenty of big brands spam Google (and many more do not). Is another story by us going to change anything there?

And related to that, why go after a particular brand? In doing so, are you playing into someone else’s agenda? When the New York Times wrote about JC Penney’s unusual rankings in 2011, which ultimately led to a penalty, that’s almost certainly not because the reporter just happened to stumble upon the situation. Nor did the Wall Street Journal likely just happen upon Overstock getting a penalty two weeks later. Competitors probably tipped both publications.

That’s why we rarely break the news about a suspected spamming case. We don’t want to be playing into some backchannel spam reporting game that’s going on. The downside is potentially, we miss stories when they first happen that can go big with mainstream news or other publications.

However, the novelty value of such cases that generates so much attention when other publications write about them would disappear if, each day, there was yet another spamming story. And that’s what would happen.

Public Spam Reports Do Work

google-web-spamOf course, one reason you see people trying to enlist publications to write about someone spamming Google is because it can work much faster than going through Google’s usual process. I’ve had any number of emails from people over the years who are frustrated that they see some competitor getting away with something that goes against Google’s guidelines, even after reporting it to Google.

One reason is that “algorithmic solution” I mentioned earlier, that Google typically wants to deal with spam by identifying a pattern and then coming up with an automated method that catches not just a single offender by a number of them. Google even posted a fresh video about this recently:

That’s what those “updates” with names like Panda and Penguin are all about — filters designed to catch spam and low-quality content.

Still, those filters don’t always work. It can be frustrating watching spam go on for months without Google taking action. That can lead to public spam reports. Many are ignored, but when one scores some big publicity, it sure works. Get the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal to write about suspected spam, and suddenly Google’s not playing the “we don’t confirm penalties” game nor the “we like to deal with these things algorithmically” card. No, in such cases, Google usually makes relatively instant corrections.

Not all public spam reports are done by competitors. Some happen when an ordinary person is just annoyed with something they’ve seen and decides to do a post. Sometimes, it’s also the SEO with no particular agenda other than, perhaps, rightly embarrassing Google for not doing its own spam policing job correctly.

There’s also the very rare occasion where a competitor will step up and call out some other company directly. That tends not to happen much, in my opinion, because of legal fears or worries that Google or others might look more closely at the complainant’s site.

As a news publication, we definitely think there’s value in covering suspected spam when we see a gap between what Google promises and if it fails to deliver, in terms of policing spam. This is why the big brand stories tend to be especially attractive. If Google’s letting some big brand get away with something, then it’s not doing its spam policing job right — and that should be covered.

It’s just a difficult balance of serving as that journalistic check-and-balance without also singling out some company over another just because there may be an aggressive competitor pushing to make that happen. Or because, as mentioned, it’s possible that constantly writing about spam would mean other things that deserve attention would never get covered.

The Rise Of “Public Penalty Reports”

200px-Expedia_logo.svgBy and large, our policy on public spam reports has been as stated. It’s rare we write about a company spamming unless there’s been some extraordinary attention drawn to it from elsewhere. On the whole, I think that’s also been the right balance. But 2014 started off with something new: the rise of “public penalty reports.”

Over the past few years, a number of services have emerged allowing anyone to check on estimated the “visibility” of a site in Google. Similar to using something like Alexa or Quantcast to estimate a site’s traffic, visibility reports are designed to help people understand how a site is doing specifically with Google.

As a result, we got news in January that Expedia seemed to have a big drop in visibility, as you can see in this report from Searchmetrics:

This followed on a public spam report that came the previous month, so it sure looked like Expedia had been penalized. But if so, Expedia departed from the usual big brand playbook in such cases, which is doing a mea culpa, perhaps tossing the blame on a third-party SEO firm and pledging it would never intentionally do anything wrong and is working hard to clean things up.

Instead, Expedia said nothing. In fact, when its CEO was asked on a recent earnings call, his reply was that Expedia wouldn’t comment on speculation but that year-over-year, organic traffic from Google was increasing.

Now, if Expedia had been hit by a penalty, it should know that, no speculation required. Google should have told the company through its Google Webmaster Tools console. If there was such a message — and Expedia’s CEO knows about that in some way — then he not only dodged the question but potentially mislead investors about a risk. As for the year-over-year comment, that doesn’t address something so recent that it might not yet show up as a year-to-year drop. But that might change, if there is a penalty and it continues.

Bottom line: maybe Expedia was penalized; maybe it wasn’t. Only Expedia and Google really know, and neither is saying. As a news publication, do you write all this up? Given the previous public spam report, and the fact that Expedia is a really big company, that made sense. It tipped the scales to make it newsworthy, to us.

Too Many Public Penalty Reports On The Dance Floor

But now, are the scales tipping out of control?

Halifax Logo

Since Expedia, we’ve had about five different reports of other companies with visibility drops. None of these seem related to some widespread action by Google to fight spam. Rather, it seems that more and more people are tapping into search visibility reports to highlight if a particular company seems to be having a problem.

Let’s take Halifax, which is a large UK bank. Recently, there’s been an explosion of discussion about how Halifax has been hit with an apparent Google penalty, based on visibility reports. Here are two different write-ups, plus a chart from Searchmetrics:

But was Halifax really hit with a penalty? Like Expedia, it’s not a case as with Rap Genius where the home page went missing. Search for Halifax by name on Google in either the UK or the US, and you still easily find it. And while there’s a seeming visibility drop, relatively speaking, it’s not that huge.

It could be that Google just took action to no longer count some links in a Halifax widget that’s out there. Or Halifax worked to remove those links. Or, or, or….

Because again, we don’t really know. We could dig, but what’s the lesson that effort is going to produce in terms of news value? That big brands might get in trouble over link practices, especially if they’re not careful about widgets?

Yeah, we know that already.

Covering The Penalties Changes Little

I absolutely do NOT want to enable people into thinking that if you’re a notable brand, you can just do anything on Google and get away with a wrist slap. I really don’t want to be enabling spammers to do crappy tactics to gain links, believing it’s anything goes.

But here’s the thing. All these examples of brands getting in trouble over the years are clearly not altering behavior.

Someone like Google’s head of search spam, Matt Cutts, would dispute this with me. In fact, he has disputed such things with me, that actions taken against brands like JCP or Interflora have served as a deterrent.

Perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree. But consider these quotes:

It hurts Google’s relevancy for people not to get the Rap Genius home page when they do a search for the company…. After a short period of time, the Rap Genius home page will undoubtedly find its ban lifted.

And this:

No doubt smaller companies and individual webmasters will be hearted by the fact that even big companies like Rap Genius can get banned at Google. The reality is, however, that they’ll be back in soon. Most big companies that get banned are put back in quickly because searchers expect to find them for navigational queries.

I bolded the words “Rap Genius” in the quotes above because those are the only words I needed to change to make something I wrote about WordPress getting a penalty in 2002 (the first example) and something I wrote about BMW being banned in 2006 relevant to something that happened with Rap Genius years later. Over ten years later, with the first example.

How many brands have to get penalized and publicly shamed before they abide by all of Google’s rules? There is no answer. This is going to continue happening, as anyone who just looks at the historic record can tell. Brands will get penalized by doing dumb things by mistake. They’ll get penalized by overtly going against the rules.

The only thing I know is that each time it happens, there’s less-and-less news value in reporting on it. It makes a great New York Times or Wall Street Journal story to poke into the seeming dark underbelly of search in general, and Google in particular, every few years.

It’s not so compelling on a weekly basis. It’s just business as usual. It would be like writing about every bad email some company sends, or every customer service mistake, or every bad press release….

Some Advice For Brand Holders, Competitors & Google

Before concluding with what we’re going to do, some words of advice to various stakeholders in all this.

Brand holders: Know what you’re doing with SEO and make a careful decision if you want to go against Google’s guidelines. Sure, you’ll probably get back in for your own name quickly. But you might still find an impact on “long tail” searches where you’re not so essential to relevancy. That can hurt your bottom line. Also, putting the blame on a bad third-party agency you’ve hired has long since expired as an acceptable excuse. Search marketing is a leading marketing activity. It deserves the same care as you’d apply to some brand campaign you’d run on TV, and to hiring a competent agency to help.

If you are caught doing something, I’d also recommend fessing up rather than trying to dodge. If you’re a publicly listed company, I suspect you especially should be forthcoming, because if you’ve dodged and that penalty turns out to be material to an earnings drop, you’ll probably wish you had done what Overstock did and make that clear in your filings.

Competitors: I get that it sucks Google doesn’t seem to be enforcing its rules. I’d still start off going through the proper channels. If you’ve done that, and you feel a reasonable amount of time has passed without Google taking action to correct egregious spam, write your own blog post. We notice those. Others do, too. And in some cases, they indeed form enough to make it newsworthy to report on.

google-legal-law-featuredGoogle: You need to publicly report if you’ve hit a site with a penalty. You say you do this already privately to the publisher, but that’s no longer enough. In a climate where anyone can accuse another site of having trouble, there needs to be a way for people to check with the court of Google to see if it’s really so

This is also in keeping with your talk about transparency. It makes little sense that you will document each and every removal you make because of a copyright complaint, in the name of transparency, but not explain when you take your own manual action against a particular publisher.

Why shouldn’t searchers and consumers know if a particular publisher has a bad record with you? Why shouldn’t regulators and others, who might be concerned you’re abusing your dominant power, be able to review actions easily? Such actions, left in the dark, cause some to assume the worst. Bring them into the light, and you might actually be helping yourself.

Also, enough with arguments that doing such disclosure will just enable the spammers. Is there really anything they don’t already know, when you hit them — especially if you’re already telling directly? Open up. Find a way so that people can definitively know if you’ve acted against a site or not.

Going Forward

As for us, our policy in dealing with public spam reports will remain largely as before. We’ll tend to not cover these, unless we feel there’s some really compelling reason to do so, something extraordinary.

A similar policy will be in place for public penalty reports. We have to feel there’s an extraordinarily strong reason to cover one. After years of big brands being hit with penalties, a report that yet another big brand has been penalized just isn’t reason enough, not without something compelling in addition to the penalty itself.

Original Post from Bartosz Góralewicz:

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