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Google Manual Penalties Against Brand Names: A Timeline

Welcome to Linkarati’s Timeline of Large Brand Manual Penalties!

Google, by necessity, is opaque about the way search really works. They certainly don’t share the intricacies of their algorithm, and their advice is often caveated and nonspecific. “Create great content, focus on creating great user experiences” is not uncommon advice from Google employees. It’s not bad advice, but not extremely helpful either.

Google’s lack of transparency is understandable – they’re a business, and they must protect their business from abuse. But this lack of transparency can hurt those with websites who need to know more information, who are trying to better understand search.

We’ve created a fun resource that we hope will both help shed more light on Google’s actions and motivations and entertain as well: a timeline of all of Google’s penalties against well-known websites.

There’s a  belief in the online marketing realm that Google has a tendency to bow to moneyed interests, and caves to big brands, helping them either avoid penalties or recover more expeditiously. Although this sentiment is understandable, and in some cases appears to be true to an extent, the fact of the matter is that Google can deliver a crushing blow to widely recognized brand name sites as well.

We’ve compiled a list of more than 20 examples of times when Google actually had to issue manual penalties to recognized brands, publicly. This is every example of Google punishing big brands available on the web. The penalties often came as a consequence of a link scheme, as the core of Google search is powered by links, but sometimes there were other causes. Learn more below!

2002 Penalties

SearchKing (November 2002)

SearchKing (November 2002)

Cause: Participated in a paid link network
Effect: Reduced rankings/visibility
Length: Four years

Google has been the most dominant search engine since its inception back in 1998. Obviously, it’s had competitors over time, from Bing to Yahoo. SearchKing was hardly one of the better search engines around, but it has a place in history: it sued Google over a manual penalty.

Back in 2002, SearchKing was part of a large network that sponsored the monetary exchange of links. Google caught onto this, and dropped SearchKing’s PageRank from 8 to 4, severely decreasing their visibility in search, thus losing traffic from Google. SearchKing sued Google because they felt Google was complicit in their traffic decrease and was attempting to reduce competition.

The judge in the case ruled that Google was free from government interference, and could do whatever it wanted with its rankings and PageRank.

It took four years for SearchKing to recover its PageRank. By that point, the site had been largely forgotten.

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2005 Penalties

Google AdWords (March 2005)

Google AdWords (March 2005)

Cause: Cloaking
Effect: Removed their own pages
Length: Undetermined, but brief

You read that right. Once upon a time, the webspam team took on the herculean task of punishing the most powerful website in the world: itself.

I’m sorry, did I say once upon a time? Because they’ve actually penalized themselves several times over. You will find more examples below.

The first instance came in 2005, AdWords was penalized for cloaking (see BMW below for a detailed explanation).

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WordPress (March 2005)

wordpress1

Cause: Content/Link farm
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Two days

Some penalties are short-lived. Take WordPress, one of the most famous content management systems on the web, for example. Note: this blog uses WordPress.

Back in 2005, WordPress fell victim to their own success. A third party site exploited WordPress’s high authority and posted more than 100,000 articles on the WordPress domain, all of which were hiding irrelevant backlinks.

The articles were provided by a startup called Hot Nacho. The two partnered up as an advertising experiment on the part of WordPress.

The founder of WordPress was on vacation when story of the penalty broke. He didn’t have too much trouble during the cleanup phase however: the penalty only lasted two days.

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Webposition Gold (May 2005)

webposition1

Cause: Automated queries
Effect: Deindexed
Length: Two months

Webposition Gold, an SEO software, didn’t just get a drop in rankings: they got flat-out deindexed by Google.

Webposition Gold was a tool that sent automated queries in an attempt to test popular search terms. Google had a lot of disdain for the process of sending such automated queries; they claimed that it consumed too many of their resources. A few years prior to the 2005 penalty, Google made a habit of penalizing sites that used rank trackers the likes of Webposition Gold.

Google actually rewrote their webmaster guidelines because of Webposition Gold back in 2006. The program still exists to this day, but it had to make several adjustments to get back into Google’s good graces.

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2006 Penalties

BMW (February 2006)

BMW (February 2006)

Cause: Cloaking
Effect: Deindexed
Length: A few days

Cloaking, the practice of tricking search engine crawlers into seeing an alternative page, is one of the most famous black hat SEO schemes. Even though Google has taken huge strides in an effort to punish it, the fact of the matter is it still goes on today.

If there is one poster child for this widespread nefarious tactic, it is the automobile company BMW.

When a site cloaks, that site builds a highly-optimized page for a search query that automatically redirects to a different, irrelevant site. The highly-optimized pages are known as “doorway pages.”

This is an example of what BMW did:

bmw2-e1404750588180


This example was written about by the one and only Matt Cutts on his blog back in 2006 at the time of the controversy.

The page on the left was what a Google crawler saw; the page on the right was what a user would see. Clear deception on BMW’s part, and it burned them in the end. They weren’t just penalized, they were wholly deindexed (but only for a short amount of time).

Sometimes when issuing manual penalties, the webspam team will simply reduce a site’s PageRank a few notches. This will cause a drop in rankings, but the site should still be able to rank. In BMW’s case, Google simply refused to rank them. This happened to our next example as well.

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2007 Penalities

Washington Post, Forbes etc. (October 2007)

Washington Post, Forbes etc. (October 2007)

Cause: Paid links
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Undetermined, but likely brief

Note: This is technically an example of an algorithmic penalty, but we’re including it anyway because it is likely that the tweaks were made to the algorithm specifically to target the sites in this example.

Buying and selling links that pass PageRank has always been a no-no in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Links are one of the most, if not the most important ranking signal in Google’s algorithm. As a result, Google doesn’t want webmasters paying for links, as it would compromise the integrity of their results.

But just because Google has the strict rule, that doesn’t mean they’ve ever had the easiest time enforcing that restriction however.

For years, many sites were doing this with reckless abandon. Google’s track record for penalizing the behavior was spotty at best, and the reward outweighed the risk.

In October 2007, the reaper came. Google announced a PageRank update, and a bevy of sites took a dive in PageRank. What was the commonality of these sites? Buying and selling links.

One of these sites was washingtonpost.com, the website for… well, you guessed it. Forbes.com was another site, as was suntimes.com. A lot of newspaper/magazine websites were hit as a consequence of this update. Here’s an entire list of them.

  • Chicago Sun-Times
  • San Francisco Gate
  • StatCounter
  • MasterNewMedia
  • Autoblog
  • Engadget
  • ProBlogger
  • Copyblogger
  • Joystiq
  • TUAW
  • Search Engine Guide
  • Search Engine Journal
  • John Chow
  • Quick Online Tips
  • Weblogtools
  • Andy Beard
  • Search Engine Roundtable
  • The Blog Herald

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2008 Penalties

Newsday (July 2008)

Newsday (July 2008)

Cause: Cloaking
Effect: Reduced rankings/visibility
Length: Undetermined, but extremely short


Newsday is a famous newspaper based in New York. It primarily covers New York news, but they extend into the national spectrum as well. Like the aforementioned newspaper sites, Newsday has been penalized by Google. They were NOT on the long list of sites that got hit for paid links in 2007 though. The Newsday penalty didn’t come until 2008.

Newsday was, however, penalized for pretty much the same reason as the other news sites. Newsday was caught selling irrelevant links on the footer of their site. Links in the footer included “Mesothelioma lawyer, lung cancer personal injury law firm, buy Mets Tickets, buy Yankees tickets, Wicked tickets, Hamptons travel.” That’s a lot of spam.

This is proof that no matter how well-recognized your brand or company is, if you are selling links on your site, especially spammy/irrelevant links, Google will penalize you. Read More:     NewsDay.com Penalized for Selling Crap Links     Google Penalizes Newsday.com For Selling Links

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2009 Penalties

Google Japan (February 2009)

Google Japan (February 2009)

Cause: Paying for links
Effect: Reduced rankings/visibility
Length: 11 months


It turns out Google is not the most dominant search engine everywhere in the world. In Japan, Yahoo reigns supreme, or at least it did in 2009. In order to get higher rankings on Yahoo, Google Japan started paying bloggers to write about the glories of Google.

Of course, one of the glories of Google is that they penalize webmasters that attempt to manipulate search engines by paying for links. Whoops.

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2011 Penalties

JCPenney (February 2011)

JCPenney (February 2011)

Cause: Paying for links
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Three months

Matt Cutts is good at his job, and so are all of the people on his webspam team. They’re not going to catch everything though. How could they possibly? The internet is really, really big. So on occasion, Matt Cutts and crew need an assist to spot SEO misdoings.

In this instance, the New York Times stepped up to the plate and exposed JCPenney for buying links that led them to rank highly for a large amount of questionable search terms.. In traditional manner for the newspaper of record, they went really in-depth.

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Overstock (February 2011)

overstock1

Cause: Paying for links
Effect: Reduced rankings/visibility
Length: Two months

All SEOs/link builders want .edu links. Even if they don’t provide more link equity simply by being an .edu, they will typically be a site of high authority and trust.

The online retailer Overstock knew that they could boost their rankings if they were able to get such links… even if they had to take a shortcut.

Overstock was caught offering 10% discounts to students and faculty of university sites in exchange for the university site to embed a link with the anchor text “bunk beds” or “gift baskets.”

In the eyes of the Google manual team, that counted as a paid link. Even if Overstock wasn’t handing out checks, they were providing special advantages only to sites who hosted an Overstock link. That’s definitely a bribe, and Overstock had to play cleanup as a result.

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Beat That Quote (March 2011)

btq1

Cause: Paying for links
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Two weeks

This is another instance of Google breaking its own rules… kind of.

Beat That Quote, a price comparison site, was paying for links before Google bought them in March 2011. It didn’t take long for Google to smell a rat, however; Beat That Quote was penalized and taken off the first page for even a branded search on the same day Google purchased them.

That penalty only lasted for two weeks. But it didn’t take long for Beat That Quote to land in the penalty box again. In fact, they were penalized the same day the first penalty was lifted! It seems as though someone forgot to clean up the spam from the first time around.

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2012 Penalties

Google Chrome (January 2012)

Google Chrome (January 2012)

Cause: Paying for links
Effect: Granular penalty
Length: Two months

Google simply can’t stop breaking their own rules it seems.

Google’s web browser, Chrome, was removed from the first page for even a branded search once: it was knocked down to around page seven.

This was a consequence of Chrome paying for links. Well, this was the consequence of an outside company they hired paying for links. Even still, you would think Google would have a firmer grasp on their own SEO.

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2013 Penalties

Interflora (February 2013)

Interflora (February 2013)

Cause: Hiding links in advertisements
Effect: Deindexed
Length: One month

Flower retailers are more seasonal than most businesses, with a few big holidays making or breaking their year. The two most glaring examples are Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. So I’m sure when Interflora saw they had been removed from the SERPs a few days before Mother’s Day, they had something of a corporate heart attack.

Of course, the penalty wasn’t unmerited. Interflora was attempting to game the system. Interflora paid for about 150 advertorials on regional news sites, all of which had embedded links. There’s nothing wrong with buying ads on another site obviously, but if you’re hiding links in those ads, that’s definitely a problem.

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BBC (March 2013)

Cause: Other sites syndicated their RSS feed
Effect: Granular penalty
Length: Undetermined, but brief

Newspapers aren’t the only news delivery system to be slapped by Google. BBC, the largest broadcast news organization in the world, has also had problems with the search giant.

In this instance, however, BBC really was not to blame. They had an RSS feed set up on their site, just as many news sources are known to do. Because the BBC is as popular as it is, smaller news sites picked up their RSS and published it on their respective sites.

Google construed this as an attempt on the part of BBC to manipulate the search engine. I can understand their hunch: it would look suspicious to me as well if a site got more than 30,000 links in a single day thanks to one piece of content.

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Mozilla (April 2013)

Cause: User-generated spam
Effect: Granular penalty
Length: Undetermined, but brief

Although Mozilla is a competitor to Chrome, Google’s browser, there’s clear evidence Google didn’t punish Mozilla simply because they have competing products. Google’s much too smart to stoop to such pettiness and open itself to legal action.

In April 2013, Mozilla was punished by Google for hosting user-generated spam, links produced by users in blog comments and forums . Mozilla’s web production manager went into a webmaster forum, asking for help to locate the spam. Google’s webmaster warning wasn’t specific in this instance.

After digging, it was found that the unnatural links came in the form of blog comment links. The links were generated by Mozilla users, not Mozilla themselves.

The interesting thing about this penalty is the fact that it was referred to as a “granular penalty.” When Google penalizes a site, they don’t necessarily always punish the entire site. Sometimes, they will only penalize a few pages, the pages where the links pointed.  In the case of Mozilla, only one page out of more than 22 million was hit.

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Sprint (April 2013)

Cause: User-generated spam
Effect: Granular penalty
Length: Undetermined, but brief

The story of Sprint’s penalty is pretty similar to the story of Mozilla’s penalty. Like Mozilla, Sprint was penalized because of user-generated content (blog comments, forum links, etc.). Like Mozilla, an employee from Sprint sought advice, this time in Google’s help forums. Also like Mozilla, Sprint’s penalty was another example of a granular penalty.

The difference between these two is that Matt Cutts actually took the time to respond to the Sprint employee.

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Rap Genius (December 2013)

Cause: Tweeting for links
Effect: Reduced rankings/visibility
Length: About a week

On Christmas morning 2013, the founders of rapgenius.com found coal in their Google stocking. Thanks to an expose written by John Marbach, Rap Genius was swiftly penalized thanks to tiefating, the practice of exchanging tweets for links.

The owners of Rap Genius promised to tweet any site as long as the webmaster of that site agreed to hide links with the anchor text “Justin Bieber lyrics.” It’s easy to understand why so many webmasters took the opportunity: Rap Genius has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter. It was a clear attempt to manipulate Google’s algorithm, and the Rap Genius’ weren’t so discreet in their efforts.

facebookgenius

This is from their Facebook page just a few days before they suffered a traffic dip as a consequence of the penalty.

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2014 Penalties

Expedia (January 2014)

Expedia (January 2014)

Cause: Cloaking, Oversaturation of anchor text, etc.
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Undetermined, but likely still ongoing

Expedia, the famed travel site, didn’t get much of a welcome mat going into 2014. Starting in January, Expedia experienced a 25% traffic decrease.

Despite Google’s silence on the matter, it is pretty clear now that Expedia was hit by a manual penalty. Their rankings took a decline for several prominent keywords.

Not coincidentally, the keywords they lost rankings for were keywords they were oversaturating their anchor text links with. It turns out that Expedia was engaged in numerous link schemes. They were populating guest posts with unnatural, keyword rich anchors. Expedia links were found in several link boxes. On top of that, it was discovered that they were planting site wide links in footers, and hiding those links under black coloring; this also falls under the category of cloaking. This has been a no no for a long time.

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Irwin Mitchell (January 2014)

irwin

Cause: Link spam, Paying for links
Effect: Deindexed
Length: About a month

Irwin Mitchell, a British law firm, probably has the least amount of name recognition out of anyone on this timeline, but they are prestigious enough that people noticed when Google decided to penalize them. It wasn’t just a penalty: they were completely removed from the index.

After a few independent investigations, it appeared that Irwin Mitchell had a bevy of unnatural links in their link profile. A lot of keyword rich anchors placed awkwardly in irrelevant guest blogs? Check. Link stuffed blog comments? Check.

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Halifax (February 2014)

halifax

Cause: Link stuffing
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Three months

Halifax is one of the most widely respected financial institutions the globe over. They’ve been around for 150+years. Despite their well-earned reputation as one of the world’s premier banks, their reputation didn’t save them from a manual penalty courtesy of Google.

In February 2014, Halifax saw significant ranking drops for a large number of their target keywords.

There has been no formal announcement made by either Google or Halifax about the reason behind the penalty. SEOs are a curious breed, and many went investigating.

It appears that Halifax was engaging in some low-quality tactics. For instance, someone saw a HTML banner ad with multiple keyword-rich links, all of which pointed to different pages on the Halifax site. That’s a fairly old school strategy that got other sites on Google’s bad side years prior.

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Last Minute (February 2014)

lastminute

Cause: Negative SEO attack
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Two days

Sometimes a site gets punished even when it may not be warranted. Just ask the webmasters behind lastminute.com, a travel site based out of London.

They received a manual penalty back in February. Initially, no one could really figure out why. There was a ton of confusion. But then it was discovered that they had an overwhelming amount of unnatural links.

REALLY unnatural links. This is a travel site, but SEOs were finding links with anchors like “Cialis” and “Viagra.” In case you didn’t know, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most spammy niches in SEO. It was pretty clear that Last Minute was the victim of a negative SEO attack. A negative SEO attack is when a competitor builds spammy links for you on low-quality and irrelevant sites.

As good as Google’s webspam team is, sometimes they can’t tell the difference between a negative SEO campaign or a black hat campaign. Last Minute suffered greatly for it. They lost 46% of search traffic. They rebounded, and fairly quickly. But this episode exposed a flaw in Google’s system.

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My Blog Guest (March 2014)

myblogguest

Cause: Was part of a link network
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Ongoing

This is one of the most controversial manual penalties in recent memory.

Back in January, Matt Cutts published a post on his blog about what he felt to be a trend of declining quality in guest blogging. Cutts was sick of all the spam guest blogs that were littering the internet. To be fair, there were a lot of low-quality guest blogs.

My Blog Guest published no such guest blogs. Instead, it is a service that connects guest bloggers so that they may be able to find blogging opportunities.

While there are exchanges of spam in the forums, the fact of the matter is that My Blog Guest does whatever it can to ensure quality content.

Regardless, My Blog Guest was a perfect poster child for bad guest blogging, even though many would argue they did nothing wrong.

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PostJoint (April 2014)

postjoint

Cause: Was part of a link network
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Ongoing

PostJoint is another guest blogging service that was penalized during Google’s campaign to wipe out low-quality guest blogging. Not only was PostJoint penalized, but Google also punished publishers who used the service (although no one really knows how many they caught).

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eBay (May 2014)

ebay

Cause: Doorway pages
EffectReduced rankings/visibility
Length: Ongoing

Oftentimes, there’s confusion when it comes to a penalty, as was the case with mega-online retailer eBay.

Many of their pages were moved down significantly in the rankings for certain search queries around the same time that Google updated their Panda algorithm. It was initially thought that eBay was victim to Panda.

However, if it had been an algorithmic penalty, the entire site would have been flagged, not just a few pages.

Although it has not been confirmed by eBay or Google, the likely case is that eBay was penalized for the same thing BMW did: building misleading doorway pages.

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