Interflora was wiped from Google’s search results last week after the internet giant penalised them for alleged manipulation of advertorial links.
The UK’s longest-serving flower relay service is accused of breaching Google’s strict regulations. It would appear as though Interflora embarked on an aggressive campaign on the run-up to Valentine’s Day, placing over 150 advertorials on local and regional news sites in January and early February.
Paid advertorials are required by Google to use nofollow tags on links. The nofollow attribute is an instruction to search engines not to ‘follow’ links, and in this context is used to tell Google not to transfer Page Rank (effectively a trustworthiness ranking) on the basis of those links. Nofollow tags were clearly absent from links in the offending pieces, so the sudden proliferation of suspect links would have attracted the ire of the world’s favourite search engine.
Adding credence to this theory is the sudden loss of Page Rank encountered by regional UK newspaper sites. It’s not just Interflora that have suffered the wrath of Google – a significant number of sites associated with Interflora’s advertorial offensive have had their public Page Rank scores slashed to zero. In addition to the local sites (like bidefordpeople.co.uk and hinckleytimes.net) are the Independent and the Scotsman, who have each had their Page Rank number reduced by four. Titles under the Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror stables seem to have been the main culprits here, although no official confirmation has been given. (Conveniently, just a few days after news broke about Interflora’s penalty Google a “reminder” about the dangers of paid links, specifically Advertorials.)
Subsequent Twitter activity would suggest that bloggers have been caught up in the crisis at Interflora too. Several tweets have indicated that bloggers were asked to remove links to the Interflora website, prompting speculation that these bloggers had been incentivised in some way to post the articles in the first place.
The result is that Interflora no longer appears on a search for, well, anything useful. Big search terms like “flower delivery” suggest arch-nemesis Marks and Spencer at the top of the organic results (while only displaying Interflora in the sponsored section). Spammy link building and underhand tactics are clearly not the future for SEO.
I don’t want to end up like Interflora
You certainly don’t. This will have a massive impact on Interflora’s business, especially as we approach Mother’s Day. While we don’t know the percentage of Interflora’s order volume that comes from organic search, this does mean that they will have to depend much more on other more costly channels like paid search and display ads, email marketing and referral programs for the foreseeable future.
The best way to stay out of trouble is to produce consistently high-quality and engaging content on your website. Update it regularly with the kind of material people will want to read, and avoid any linkback trickery or paid posting shenanigans. While nobody’s really certain why Interflora received such a harsh punishment, most commentators have agreed that they went too hard too fast with the advertorials over a very short space of time.
Having said that, commentators have also been saying that Interflora would probably have received some warning before such a drastic action was taken. One Twitter user said that the firm had implored them to remove (presumably paid-for) links as early as last summer, so it’s likely that they knew their game was up quite early on. Either way, unusual ranking patterns and bad link notices should have alerted Interflora’s teams to the fact that they’d been caught.
What might happen to me if I don’t follow Google’s rules?
The most dramatic consequence of breaking Google’s regulations is that you get outright banned from Google’s search results. This is unusual and is reserved for particularly unscrupulous behaviour. You’re more likely to encounter a Page Rank penalty (as happened to Interflora) or a search engine result placement (where you get manually banished to several pages down the search results).
Interflora has the added bitterness of being usurped by Marks and Spencer, having previously taken them to court when the high street store started bidding on Interflora as a Google AdWord. They’ll have to get used to seeing their rivals at the top of the search results though, as this action by Google is likely to take months to recover from.
How can I benefit?
Arguably the biggest player in the marketplace has just been removed from Google. Interflora still has massive offline brand strength, but its absence from the search results opens up huge opportunities for smaller businesses to take a bigger slice of the pie this Mother’s Day.
Smaller businesses that can play to geo-specific strengths – like local shops Ashton in Preston and Hayleys in St Agnes which are both creeping towards the first page for “flower delivery” – are likely to encounter more traffic and a higher conversion rate from organic search.
With a dearth of strong market leadership and a disrupted search market, now would be a good opportunity to invest in Google’s AdWords programme for the short term and content-based SEO to claw back some non-local ground from the felled behemoth in the long term. It’s hard to tell when Interflora will have fully recovered.
If you’re a small florisn’t servicing Interflora, you’re likely to be in luck. Just as the horsemeat scandal has driven the public towards local butchers, this news (combined with growing customer dissatisfaction with Interflora) will entice consumers towards local businesses. Just make sure you are ready and able to be found online when they come looking. Get the word out locally, focusing on quality and a bespoke service.
It’s also a good time to check that your own search engine optimisation programme is squeaky clean.
Does this happen often?
Google is making an example of Interflora. They’re serious about clearing up search, which for so long has been soiled by shady SEO techniques, so they’re going for shock and awe by targeting a massive company. This sort of thing isn’t unheard of though – GoCompare were shunted down to the seventh page of results in 2008, in a move which gave competitor Confused.com a whopping 77% traffic boost. And in 2006, BMW’s Page Rank dropped to zero after it used a doorway page stuffed with the word gebrauchtwagen, meaning “used car”. Unnoticed by most of the world, smaller brands are penalised every day for violating various Google guidelines – whether intentionally or not. The results can be devastating.
For some, this will have a profound effect on the way search engine optimising is done, and the way websites do business. Gone are the days when spam was an effective way to control search rankings. Google is becoming more ruthless in its pursuit of bad optimisation – increasingly sophisticated methods of eliminating paid-for linking will ultimately benefit small business owners, and will create a better internet for all. However, if the focus of your SEO campaigns has historically been around quality unique content, following best practices for on-site optimisation and building up good local SEO then it should be business as usual for you.