Beware the Google Death Penalty

Google recently sentenced the German websites for BMW and Ricoh to removal from their indexes, aka the “Google Death Penalty.” Both sites made it back into the Google index in about three days. But what were their crimes? Why did they happen? And how can we avoid having our own sites face the death penalty?

Early in February 2006, Google watchers and the SEO community were taken somewhat by surprise by a blog entry from Matt Cutts. For those who might not know, this Google engineer has developed quite a following by writing about search engine optimization in addition to the usual blog topics. In an earlier entry, Cutts had stated that Google would begin paying more attention to search engine spam originating from countries other than the U.S., and in languages other than English. On February 5, he reported in his blog that the search engine giant had turned word into deed.

Google removed the German website for carmaker BMW from its index, as well as the German website for camera maker Ricoh. While the delisting lasted for only three days, it sent mild shivers through the SEO community. Even news outlets that don’t normally show much interest in covering the topic chimed in with their surprise. As was widely pointed out, BMW and Ricoh are the highest profile companies to date to suffer the “Google death penalty.” Exactly what happened?

Cutts made it graphically clear in his blog. He displayed a picture of what a search engine spider visiting the home page of the German BMW website saw, and what a user’s browser saw. They were starkly different. The spider would see a page full of text and not much else, while the web surfer would see a more standard-looking web page with pictures of automobiles and not too much text.

The key point is that the page the spider saw contained the words “gebrauchtwagen” and “neuwagen” many tens of times. Those are the German words for “used car” and “new car.” The home page that web surfers see uses each of those words maybe twice. This little trick was accomplished with the use of a JavaScript redirect. And the implication of the maneuver, as at least one wag noted, was that BMW must have thought it owned the information superhighway just like BMW drivers think they own the regular highway. This attempt to score high in the search engine rankings was surely aimed at sending those looking for new or used BMWs to the BMW German site, rather than to, for example, an independent car dealership.

What BMW’s German site did was a clear violation of Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. The provision Cutts cited in particular was “Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users.” You can think of this guideline as an extension of Google’s well-known “Don’t be evil” corporate culture.

What punishment did Google inflict on the German BMW website? First of all, it removed the site from its index. This meant that users searching for terms such as “BMW” or “BMW Germany” would not be linked to the German BMW site directly. Instead, the results would show BMW’s global site. For BMW, that may not seem like a harsh punishment – but it’s easy to see how a smaller company that does not have the variety of websites maintained by a multinational firm could be hurt by such a move.

In addition to being removed from Google’s index, the German BMW site’s PageRank was reset to zero. PageRank is the algorithm Google uses to assign every page on the Internet a popularity ranking of sorts. If your page has been removed from the index already, the PageRank reset is almost like adding insult to injury. For pages that have not been removed from the index, it means they show up at the end of search results and therefore can hardly be found.

So what did Google require BMW to do to atone for its crime? First it had to get rid of all those JavaScript redirects. Then it had to file a reinclusion request with the search engine. Google provides a web form to help automate the process; Matt Cutts explains what the company is looking for in a September 2005 blog entry.

What did BMW need to include? According to Cutts, when it comes to reinclusion requests, “Fundamentally, Google wants to know two things: 1) that any spam on the site is gone or fixed, and 2) that it’s not going to happen again. I’d recommend giving a short explanation of what happened from your perspective: what actions may have led to any penalties and any corrective action that you’ve taken to prevent any spam in the future. If you employed an SEO company, it indicates good faith if you tell us specifics about the SEO firm and what they did–it assists us in evaluating reinclusion requests.” In BMW’s specific case, Cutts suggested that BMW include details on who created the doorway pages, and “some assurances that such pages won’t reappear on the sites before the domains can be reincluded.”

It’s surprising that this should happen to such a high-profile website, to be sure. But then, it’s also surprising that such a website should be engaging in black hat SEO tactics in the first place. Think about it. Why is a prestigious car manufacturer’s website engaging in the same practices that are more often associated with the websites of gambling emporiums and porn purveyors?

As previously mentioned, Google apparently hadn’t paid as close attention to webspam associated with sites from other countries or in languages other than English. If we consider it on that level, maybe BMW figured it could get away with it for its German site. Other observers have pointed out that the temporary ban was more symbolic in nature than anything, because BMW has a global site and sites geared to other countries, so it could bear the disappearance of one of its national sites. Even if Google’s ban was merely symbolic, it served the purpose of putting other companies less able to handle a Google Death Penalty on warning.

Another reason this happened is Google’s growing popularity, and the growing popularity of searching as an online activity in general. According to a February 2006 report from Nielsen/NetRatings, the total number of searches conducted in the U.S. across 60 search engines grew year-over-year by 55 percent, to nearly 5.1 billion searches in December 2005. Google’s share of that market grew more than five percent, while both Yahoo’s and MSN’s shares declined.

It is particularly interesting that the number of searches conducted online increased so much, yet the number of people connecting to the Internet in the U.S. increased by only three percent. As if we didn’t already know, that makes search a very popular activity – and therefore it’s correspondingly more important to score high in the SERPs. People sometimes take desperate measures that are not well thought out when there is so much on the line.

There are other reasons why this could have happened. BMW Germany may have hired a company that engages in black hat SEO without checking them out carefully (I’ll discuss some of Google’s recommendations when choosing an SEO in the next section). There’s another possibility, though it seems less likely in this case: whoever built those JavaScript redirects might have sincerely not known that their actions could lead to the site being delisted. Cutts’ post about filing a reinclusion request garnered more than 200 replies, many from web masters who sounded sincerely confused as to why their websites were delisted. Apparently, despite the guidelines, it is not always obvious what was done to bring on Google’s ire – and Google has not always been particularly forthcoming with the information.

Google provides a variety of information for web masters. It has an entire section devoted to SEO, which you can peruse here. It notes that many SEOs provide useful services, but “a few unethical SEOs have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to unfairly manipulate search engine results.” So what do you need to watch out for?

First of all, be wary of any SEO that sends you email out of the blue. That hardly needs to be said to anyone familiar with spam, but it’s just as true of SEO as other promotions. It’s worth noting that even Google itself gets these emails that claim “I visited your website and noticed that you are not listed in most of the major search engines and directories…”

If a company won’t explain clearly what they intend to do to your website, that’s another warning flag. While it’s true that some aspects of search engine optimization are very technical, it is the SEO’s job to explain it so that you understand. Your website is your business – and since you are responsible in Google’s eyes for the actions of any SEO you hire, you’d better know what he or she is doing. This is especially important when those actions could get you delisted.

Research the industry, just as you would with any contractor or supplier. If the SEO doesn’t show up in Google, this is a very bad sign; they might have been banned. Talk to other SEOS, and find out whether they’d recommend the firm you’re considering. Get references. If you feel pressured, hold off until you find a firm you feel you can trust.

No one can guarantee a number one placement in the SERPs, and you should rightly be suspicious of any SEO who does. But you should ask for a different guarantee: a full and unconditional money-back one. Make sure it’s in writing, and that your contract includes pricing information. Google also recommends that the contract include a stipulation that the SEO will stay within the guidelines recommended by each search engine for site inclusion.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I suggest you check out the link I included above. In any case, it’s very clear that Google is cracking down. It behooves us all to know what is on our site – and whether we could face a Google Death Penalty for any of it. 

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