Five Times Google Has Penalized Itself for Violating its Own Webmaster Guidelines
When it comes to search engines, few would dispute the preeminence of Google Search. It is the most widely used search engine in the world, and handles more than three billion searches each day. While comScore currently places Google’s search engine market share at 67%, a study conducted by Conductor of more than 100 million organic search visits found that 85% of organic search traffic comes from Google.
Google Search is the most powerful search engine in the world, and like a nasty villain in a Looney Tunes cartoon, Google is notorious for mercilessly penalizing brands and businesses that violate its webmaster guidelines. Google’s penalties don’t just negatively impact the organic visibility of brands and businesses, as it often results in additional losses.
On the other hand, there are many online marketers who complain that Google’s webmaster guidelines have become too complicated, and can be difficult to understand and follow. When you factor in the algorithm changes that Google rolls out on a consistent basis, it’s easy to understand why even the most eager online marketer has trouble staying updated on the latest changes.
Google is now locked in a never-ending wild goose chase, as it attempts to catch and punish the brands and businesses that have violated its webmaster guidelines. Viewed in this light, Google can be likened to the Looney Tunes character, Wile E. Coyote, while the brands and businesses that Google has gone after can be likened to the Road Runner.
In the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons, Wile E. Coyote is an eccentric coyote who consistently fails to catch his prey, the Road Runner. Coyote does not rely on his predatory skills to catch the Road Runner, and instead uses absurdly complicated contraptions (often purchased from the fictional Acme Corporation) and hatches complex plans to catch his prey. Invariably, his plans backfire, often in very amusing ways.
Though Coyote makes liberal use of bizarre Acme products (like Acme lightning bolts, Acme anvils, and Acme explosive tennis balls), these products end up turning against him by electrocuting him, squashing him, exploding in his face, or reducing him to cinders.
Similarly, as a testament to how confusing Google’s rules have become, Google has occasionally violated the webmaster guidelines it has created. In many cases, these violations have resulted in penalties—though whether these penalties have negatively impacted Google and its products is contestable. There have also been instances when Google has knowingly committed violations, and has chosen not to serve itself any penalties.
Listed below, in chronological order, are five well-publicized instances when the dynamite exploded in Google’s face, and it has had to penalize itself:
1. Google Inadvertently Buys Links and Floods the Internet with Spammy Posts in Order to Promote its Chrome Browser
In the 1951 cartoon Beep, Beep, the Coyote attaches a spring-activated boxing glove to a large rock and hides behind it. The boxing glove has clearly been planted to strike the Road Runner as he whizzes by. However, the tension in the spring causes both the rock and Coyote to launch backwards instead of the boxing glove propelling forward. The boxing glove then retracts backwards and punches Wile E. Coyote right in the kisser.
In a strange case of life imitating art, Google was figuratively punched in the face by the trap it had set up for others. Google’s webmaster guidelines clearly condone two heinous black hat SEO practices: buying links in an attempt to manipulate PageRank and flooding the Internet with low-quality content.
However, it was reported in January 2012 that Google had been buying links and flooding the Internet with low-quality sponsored posts as part of an online marketing campaign to promote its Chrome browser. These links were acquired as part of a video campaign involving two different promotion companies—Essence Digital and Unruly.
In the first week of January 2012, the Internet was inundated with posts that were allegedly sponsored by Google, a handful of which contained direct links (without the nofollow attribute) to the Google Chrome download page. The videos in the sponsored posts were not hosted on YouTube, and when clicked, led to the Google Chrome download page. The content on these sponsored posts was likened to “garbage” by one industry analyst, and was generally misleading and of poor quality.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that these spammy posts violated Google’s quality guidelines. When the news broke out, Google was quick to shift the blame to Essence Digital, which ran the campaign on behalf of Google. Apparently, Google had never approved a sponsored-post campaign, and had only agreed to buy online video ads. In another confusing twist, it turned out that Essence Digital didn’t actually implement the video ad campaign, as Unruly had been contracted to implement the campaign.
On January 4, 2012, Google’s Matt Cutts issued a statement on Google+, stating that the webspam team had investigated approximately two dozen sponsored posts. The posts typically showed a Google Chrome video but didn’t actually link to Google Chrome. “However, we did find one sponsored post that linked to www.google.com/chrome in a way that flowed PageRank. Even though the intent of the campaign was to get people to watch videos—not link to Google—and even though we only found a single sponsored post that actually linked to Google’s Chrome page and passed PageRank, that’s still a violation of our quality guidelines,” stated Cutts.
Apologies were issued all around, but Google wasn’t prepared to be lenient with its own browser. The Google Chrome home page was subsequently penalized by the Google web spam team, its PageRank value was decreased, and the site was knocked from the top rankings for organic searches for two months. The paid-link penalty was eventually lifted in March 2012.
While many industry analysts have applauded Google’s commitment to maintaining its own standards, others have pointed out that the penalty wasn’t severe enough (at least not as severe as the penalties Google has imposed on companies like JC Penney and Overstock).
2. Google Purchases BeatThatQuote.com and Penalizes the Site Less than 24 Hours Later
In the 1959 cartoon Wild About Hurry, Wile E. Coyote purchases a giant rubber band from the Acme Corporation. He then places the giant rubber band on a giant slingshot and attempts to launch himself at the Road Runner when he whizzes by. However, the rubber band only propels Coyote a few feet forward before it violently smacks him into the concrete.
Similarly, Google attempted to launch itself into the lucrative price comparison market, only to have its head violently smacked into the concrete. Google purchased the UK price comparison site BeatThatQuote.com in March 2011 for £37.7 million. Launched in February 2005 by John Paleomylites, BeatThatQuote.com helped site visitors search for, compare, and apply for lower rates and cheaper prices for a wide variety of products, such as insurance, financial, and legal services; as well as utilities and shopping. According to Nielsen Online, BeatThatQuote.com was the fastest growing UK website in 2007, and generated more pageviews than popular social networks like Facebook.
However, in a dramatic turn of events, Google then penalized its latest acquisition less than 24 hours later on March 8, 2011, for violating its webmaster guidelines. SEOs quickly pointed out that BeatThatQuote.com was guilty of committing numerous violations, like using doorway pages and gateway sites, purchasing links that passed PageRank, and utilizing paid blog reviews.
While the ban wasn’t absolute (the site was still being indexed by Google), it was effectively buried in the SERPs. The penalty was lifted just two weeks after going into effect, and BeatThatQuote.com soon returned to the top results. Industry analysts criticized the relatively light punishment that was dealt out to BeatThatQuote.com, and pointed out that Google had dealt out longer penalties to other violators, such as Overstock (which was penalized for two months) and JC Penney (which was penalized for three months).
Some industry analysts have speculated that BeatThatQuote.com was served a lighter penalty because it was owned by Google. Either way, the site eventually lost steam and was disabled in 2013.
3. Google AdWords’ Help Pages Get Slammed for Cloaking
Aside from being resilient and stubborn, Wile E. Coyote is also obsessed with deceit. In 1952’s Going! Going! Gosh!, Coyote attempts to catch the Road Runner by painting a realistic picture of a bridge and placing it at a dead-end. The Road Runner somehow manages to whizz by and is able to run through the picture as if there really was a bridge. (Never question the logic of cartoon physics!)
Puzzled, Coyote examines the painting more closely, only to be run over by an incoming truck that emerges from the bridge in the painting.
Unlike Coyote, Google frowns upon deceit, and its webmaster guidelines clearly advise websites to avoid cloaking. Cloaking is the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engine web crawlers. Google has penalized websites in the past that were found guilty of cloaking, most prominently, the German site for BMW in February 2006.
Ironically, it was discovered in July 2010 that the Google AdWords help pages had been cloaking. Once the discovery was made, Google brought its hammer down: The pages were removed from Google’s index (though the penalty period was never released). Keyword searches, such as “google adwords help” and “adwords help,” on Google Search did not pull up the AdWords help center; neither did searching for the URL yield any results on Google Search.
SEOs who investigated the issue stated that the snippet for the Google AdWords help page in the SERPs seemed rather odd. Upon closer inspection, the cache didn’t seem to match the page that visitors saw, and accessing the page with the Googlebot user agent yielded substantially different content, especially in sections with headings marked as “hidden”.
Soon after the penalty was made public, SEOs noted that the help pages for Gmail and Google Webmaster Central were also cloaking—with the cruelest irony being that some of the help pages in Google Webmaster Central contained Google’s guidelines against cloaking. In contrast, Google chose not to penalize or de-index the help pages for Gmail and Google Webmaster Central.
According to a Google representative, no penalty was issued for these pages because the issue had already been fixed by the time the investigation for the non-AdWords support pages had been concluded. While many industry analysts went on to condemn these penalty omissions as being unfair, others have argued that removing Google’s most important support pages from its own index would compromise user experience, which is probably why the penalty was never applied.
4. Google Performs Hara-kiri on Google Japan for Buying Links to Help Promote Widgets
In 1961’s Zip ‘n’ Snort, Coyote hatches an elaborate plan to maim the Road Runner with the use of a grenade and a model airplane. The grenade is mounted on top of the model airplane, and Coyote attempts to launch the model airplane by setting the propeller in motion. However, only the propeller takes off, leaving behind the model airplane and the grenade.
Panicked because the grenade’s safety pin has been removed, Coyote launches the model airplane into the air. However, it is too late and the grenade ends up exploding on Coyote. Google has also launched grenades into its regional subsidiaries: In February 2009, Google penalized Google Japan when it admitted to paying bloggers to write positive reviews about one of its widgets.
When the news broke, Google’s webspam team reduced Google.co.jp’s PageRank score. Matt Cutts tweeted that “Google.co.jp PageRank is now ~5 instead of ~9. I expect that to remain for a while.” Cutts later confirmed that it was a paid link penalty.
What led Google Japan to go against its own webmaster guidelines? For much of the early 2000s, Google found the Japanese market difficult to dominate, and Yahoo had the largest share of Japan’s search engine market for much of the early 2000s. In order to increase its number of users, Google Japan got slightly aggressive—rolling out offline promotional campaigns, online ads, and several services that were exclusive to the Japanese market.
In 2009, Google Japan redesigned its top page and included a “Hot Keywords” section, which displayed the top 5 search terms being googled in Japan. Users could add a gadget containing the top 10 keywords to iGoogle, and could also integrate the list into their own blogs as widgets. Google Japan then hired Tokyo-based Cyberbuzz to create a pay-per-post campaign for its keywords feature and its widget version.
Bloggers wrote glowing reviews praising the new Google feature, and all reviews ended with the disclosure, “I am taking part in the Cyberbuzz campaign.” This pay-per-post campaign clearly went against Google’s webmaster guidelines, which condemns “exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”
It seemed strange to many industry analysts that the same company that had just taken action against PayPerPost bloggers in the United States would then go on to use the same tactics in its Japanese promotional campaign. Even though Google Japan eventually issued an apology and the promotional campaign was canceled, the penalty had very little impact on Google Japan’s online visibility, as people searching for Google Japan could still find it.
After 11 months, its PageRank score rose to PR8, which indicated that the penalty had been lifted. Some observers have stated that the reduction in PageRank score had little effect on Google Japan’s actual rankings. Just like how a charred Wile E. Coyote somehow emerges from the latest mishap relatively intact, Google Japan was able to go about its business, seemingly without a scratch.
5. Google AdWords’ Help Pages Get Slammed for Cloaking (the Original Offense)
Yes, Google penalized its Google AdWords help pages in July 2010—which happened to be the second time. The first offense happened in March 2005, when Google penalized its AdWords help pages for the same cloaking offense. What made March 2005’s events so special was that it was the first time Google had ever penalized itself.
A parallel can be drawn between 2005’s events and the 1958 cartoon Whoa, Be-Gone!. In this cartoon, Coyote attaches TNT to the bottom of a bridge and waits on the ground with a controller. Though the Road Runner whizzes towards the bridge, he stops short of the bridge, as Wile E. Coyote detonates the TNT. The bridge explodes and the concrete falls directly onto Coyote.
As for the 2005 cloaking offense, someone at Google had hidden content on the Google AdWords help pages in order to help those using Google’s internal search tool. However, these changes were spotted by Google’s main search engine. After this guideline violation was identified (the problem was apparently due to a misconfiguration of the Google Search Appliance), Google de-indexed the page, though the penalty period remains unknown.
Similar to the incident that took place in July 2010, the lapse was attributed to certain employees working on Google products not knowing much about Google’s webmaster guidelines or its policies on its search engine.
Google Needs to Hand Out Fairer Penalties
Though Google takes pride in enforcing its own stringent rules and guidelines to the extent that it even penalizes itself when it deviates from its own standards, it is clear from the five aforementioned events that Google needs to hand out consistently fair penalties if it wants to be taken more seriously by the public.
Google has been accused of issuing milder penalties if violators are big enough or powerful enough to have a significant impact on its brand. While BMW’s German website was de-indexed in February 2006 for cloaking and using doorway pages, once the issue was resolved, the penalty was removed after only three days. Google was clearly worried about affecting the quality of its search results by completely removing such a prominent brand from its SERPs, and reinstated the site as soon as the incident was cleared up.
Google has been less lenient in the past with websites that don’t have the same scope or influence as major brands. Google is more likely to issue longer penalties or permanently de-index websites that violate its guidelines if the violator is a small player. Others have accused the company of issuing less severe penalties for its own brand and its subsidiaries—or in the case of cloaking found in Gmail and Google Webmaster Central support pages—avoiding penalties altogether.
Similar to how Wile E. Coyote continuously sabotages himself in pursuit of the Road Runner, Google has found itself ensnared by the traps it has set up for others. Considering how complicated and confusing its own rules and guidelines have become, perhaps Google should allow website owners, both big and small, to plead their case before demotions and penalties are handed out, especially if the violations appear to have been unintentional.
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